Before giving the new tech conference’s first-ever keynote, he asked the audience of around 2000 to stand if they were immigrants. More than two-thirds did. Then he told them to stand if they were first-generation Canadians. Close to 90 per cent now stood. By the time he told those who remained seated to stand if they were third-generation (that is, their great-grandparents emigrated to Canada), nearly everyone was standing.
“When (U.S. president Donald) Trump took power, one of his first policy decisions was to issue an executive order banning people from six Muslim-majority countries,” Suleman, who sold Achievers for $110 million and stepped down as CEO in 2015, said. “What he was telling the world is, ‘Immigrants, you are not welcome in America…’ To him, immigrants are a drain on the economy. To him, immigrants are criminals. And they’re not welcome.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who led efforts to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada last year – much like his father, Pierre, who welcomed 25,000 Ismaili refugees from Uganda after soldier-turned-dictator Idi Amin seized control of the east African nation in 1971 – believes otherwise, Suleman said.
“He’ll meet you at the airport. He’ll bring you Tim Hortons and a jacket, give you a big hug and take a selfie while welcoming you to our country,” Suleman, who was four months old when his Ismaili parents fled Uganda, said. “He understands his role as chief recruiter – that for Canada to continue to thrive, we need to recruit the best and brightest minds and bring them to our country.”
“He understands that when you look at the 150 unicorn companies – the billion-dollar tech firms – half of them were founded or co-founded by immigrant entrepreneurs. And if we can attract those people, they are going to be the economic engine that drives the creation of jobs and furthers our economy,” he continued.
Diversity our strength
Suleman, who cofounded Elevate Toronto with five other executives – #MoveTheDial founder and Acetech Ontario CEO Jodi Kovitz; TechToronto managing director Alex Norman; Cossette Inc. executive vice president Valerie Swatkow; OneEleven founding managing director Bilal Khan; and MaRS president of venture services Salim Teja – said that when organizing the inaugural conference, which its site calls a three-day celebration of Canadian innovation, he wanted three core values to remain paramount:
- Diversity is our strength;
- Disrupt together;
- It’s our time.
“We believe that diversity is our strength – that everyone brings their own unique gifts, everybody has their own unique points of view, and if we’re going to solve the problems that we don’t even know that we’re going to encounter in the next 150 years, we need to make sure that every voice is heard and that everybody feels included,” Suleman said. “We believe that it’s time to disrupt together – that you create way more value when you collaborate than when you compete. That when open minds come together, they create something bigger than any of us would have thought possible.”
Clarifying the first value, Suleman emphasized that while diversity is a fact, inclusiveness is a choice – and Canada needs to not only embrace its inclusive culture, but advertise it to the world as well as Donald Trump has advertised his supporters’ culture of exclusion if it wishes to compete in the global innovation economy.
“We believe that it’s our time, Canada,” Suleman said. “I want to elevate your belief in what’s possible for us. I want to elevate your belief in what’s possible for Toronto, and I want to elevate your belief in what’s possible for our country.”
Though Achievers, which develops a social network-like employee recognition software platform, was founded and remains headquartered in Toronto, to grow the company beyond its startup roots Suleman opened a sales and marketing office in Silicon Valley, where he and his wife, Kari, ultimately lived for five years before moving back in 2015.
“The mantra there was ‘disruption at all costs,'” he said. “It didn’t matter if you were taking down the media industry, or the hospitality industry, or whether your corporate culture was appropriate or not, the goal was to disrupt at all costs.”
In Toronto, he said, the culture is different. One reason Achievers was able to thrive as well as it did was the parade of corporate customers who were willing to adopt it: First Scotiabank, followed by Rogers Communications Inc., then the Canadian divisions of consulting firms KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).
“Had it not been for their support – had it not been for the partnership role that corporate Canada plays in our innovation economy – companies like Achievers would never have been able to realize their mission of changing the way the world works,” Suleman said. “We never would have been able to be in 110 countries and 20 different languages, serving millions of employees.”
Elevate Toronto, he noted, would not have become a reality either without the support of its corporate and government partners – from MaRS and TechToronto to the city of Toronto itself. Ninety-six organizations were involved in all.
It’s our time
Silicon Valley’s tech employees, Suleman said, once again drawing from his experience, don’t work any harder than Canadians, nor are they smarter. They have no competitive advantage other than belief – that what they’re working on is game-changing, and will impact the world in a meaningful way.
“The thing I learned about belief is that it can be taught,” he said. “Our beliefs become our thoughts, and our thoughts become our behaviours, and our behaviours become our actions, and our actions become our reality.”
Already, Suleman said, since returning to Canada two years ago he has seen additions to the tech ecosystems that were not in place when he left, such as a willingness to apply, and improve upon, Canada’s long history of artificial intelligence (AI) research, which Suleman called “the next wave of technology.”
The country has also posted impressive gains, he said, noting that Toronto has become the third-largest innovation ecosystem in North America, creating more jobs than New York City and San Francisco combined last year.
“The stars have aligned, and it’s our time to shine,” he said, to loud applause. “If we could elevate the Maple Leafs to win a Stanley Cup, then my job would be done.”