Cansbridge Student Conference: Q & A with Special Guest Sheldon Levy

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF Canada) is organizing an all-new, youth-driven event with partner Cansbridge Fellowship in Vancouver on October 12-13, 2018. Held at Simon Fraser University’s Segal Building, the Building Bridges conference will be the first of its kind, offering a cross-cultural management case study competition to 75 select Canadian post-secondary students. The students will be provided with mentorship and will present their case solutions to 160 delegates and four judges, including business leaders, entrepreneurs, government officials, and thought leaders from across Canada.

The focus will be on the topic of scale as it relates to Canadian opportunities in the Asia Pacific, and students will get a chance to work on current problems faced by companies in Asia. The winning teams will have their proposals sent directly to the companies in question. Click here to apply to attend and for more information on the Cansbridge Conference event.

APF Canada had an opportunity to catch up with Building Bridges special guest Sheldon Levy prior to the event to ask him about own his recipe for entrepreneurial success, Vancouver's rating as a startup ecosystem, and the importance of innovation to Canada's future prosperity.

What are some key competencies young Canadians need to embrace to become successful entrepreneurs?

 From my experience, there are five key competencies that young innovators need to acquire to ensure their success:

  1. Listening. Entrepreneurs always start out with an idea of how their innovation fits into the marketplace, but it never quite fits the way they think it will. To truly understand what the market needs, you’ve got to ask lots of questions – and really listen to the answers you get. Build a better understanding of what you’re selling and who your buyers are.
  2. Leadership. Steve Jobs once said, “People don’t know what they want until we show it to them. Our job is to read the blank page.” For entrepreneurs, leadership means taking people to a fantastic place they didn’t even know they wanted to go.
  3. Communication. Entrepreneurs are visionaries: they see ways others don’t to make a better world. Learn to connect with people. Don’t just tell them your vision; help them see what you see.
  4. Team-building. Entrepreneurs can’t succeed as lone wolves. Surround yourself with a multi-disciplinary team of smart people who complement your strengths, buttress your weaknesses, and know things you don’t.
  5. Passion. Even the most successful entrepreneurs started out small and experienced many highs and lows. Your passion for what you’re doing will carry you through the hard times. People will not only notice it, they’ll respect and admire you for it.

Why is connecting innovation and entrepreneurship with Asia so important for young people in Canada today?

Innovation is a collaborative endeavour. Entrepreneurs need to bounce ideas off each other, learn from one another, and seek out fruitful partnerships. In the digital era you can work just as closely with companies halfway around the globe as with the company next door. And connecting Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs with their counterparts in Asia helps them both establish a global footprint.

Currently the U.S. and Europe are the top destinations for Canadian entrepreneurs to scale up their ventures; why should young Canadian firms also consider the Asia Pacific in their growth strategies?

The market for digital innovation is global. Canada represents only a tiny fraction of that market. Entrepreneurs who are thinking about conquering North American markets are thinking too small. With more than three billion people, the Asian market is where firms can truly scale in size. It’s Canadian entrepreneurs’ achievements on the global stage that will fuel prosperity at home.

In recent years, we have seen a lot of universities in Canada open up their own incubator and innovation centres to support young entrepreneurs; what is the next step for Canadian universities in supporting their entrepreneurial students?

The next step for Canadian universities is to fully integrate their incubators and accelerators into their academic offerings. Students should be receiving credits toward their degrees for their innovation work. Institutions should embrace private-sector leaders as student mentors and work to align their academic programs more closely with current market needs.

What are some of the key ingredients to building a successful start-up ecosystem, and where does Vancouver currently stand among the competition?

Vancouver is a dynamic city with a tremendous community of young innovators. It’s got all the raw ingredients you need to build a successful start-up ecosystem. Here’s the recipe for putting them together:

  1.  Build a space – or a handful of spaces, all within walking distance – whose mission is to help entrepreneurs succeed. Provide entrepreneurs with office space, mentorship, legal counsel, and access to a talent pool. Make sure the space is all about them, and always puts them first. That’s how you gather a critical mass of innovators into close proximity with one another.
  2. Fill that space with energy and excitement. If you fill it with the best and brightest local entrepreneurs, the energy and excitement usually come with them. It’s a package deal.
  3. Put up a big sign that says VISITORS WELCOME. The spaces need to be comfortable and easily accessible to the private sector and the investor community. Offer lots of tours and demonstrations. If visitors like what they see, bring them back. Help them get to know the innovators. Build relationships.
  4. Tell your success stories to the world. You’ve already got more of them than you realize.
  5. Serve good food and never run out of coffee.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Sheldon Levy

Sheldon was appointed CEO of NEXT Canada on November 1, 2017 and is a long-time champion of innovation and an experienced builder of startup ecosystems. Sheldon is one of the founders of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, where he now serves as Chair of the Advisory Board. He also serves on the Leadership Council of Scale Up Ventures, Inc., which invests in promising young firms to grow and expand their markets globally.

Prior to his current role, Sheldon served from 2015 to 2017 as Deputy Minister of the Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. From 2005 to 2015, he served as President and Vice-Chancellor of Ryerson University, where he initiated Ryerson’s many initiatives to foster student innovation, including the Digital Media Zone (DMZ), an early-stage incubator for student entrepreneurs that has since become an international success. Sheldon is also a founder and advisor to Ryerson Futures Inc., an accelerator that has exported the DMZ concept to such locations as Calgary and Mumbai.

Sheldon’s prior positions have included President, Sheridan College; Vice-President Finance and Strategy, University of Ontario Institute of Technology; Vice-President Governmental and Institutional Relations, University of Toronto; and Vice-President Institutional Affairs, York University.