Siri Agrell is Managing Director at OneEleven, a vibrant community of high-performing technology scaleups.
I wanted to be challenged, to contribute, to push myself and always be a little out of my depth.
1. When you reflect upon your career path, is there a defining moment that influenced where you are today?
I remember sitting on a dock at a friend’s cottage in 2012. At the time, I was the urban affairs reporter at the Globe and Mail. A few days earlier I had been walking to get lunch and answered a call from a number I didn’t know. It was a woman asking if I’d like to come and work for a provincial Minister of Municipal Affairs, Kathleen Wynne. I had met with her the next day and on the way up north on Friday night, she had called and offered me a job, starting a week later. They needed to know by Sunday. I got to the cottage and found there was no wifi or cell service – the decision would be made without outside input. I remember looking out at the water and thinking about what I wanted and what I was afraid of. I wanted to be challenged, to contribute, to push myself and always be a little out of my depth. I wanted career progression, to learn. And all I was really scared of was the unknown. Would I be good at it? Would it be rewarding? Would it be too hard? Deciding to change careers, to me, is like standing on the edge of a dock. You need to believe in your abilities, understand the conditions – what’s behind you and what’s in front - and then, if it’s right, dive in. No dipping your toes. I remember knowing that I was going to jump, and that it was going to be okay. Since then I’ve had the most incredible moments of my career. I’ve learned so much, had incredible opportunities and the chance to really contribute. It’s led me to things I never would have contemplated. All because I stood on that dock and decided to dive in head first.
… making sure our home-grown tech was prioritized, celebrated and supported too.
2. Canada’s tech ecosystem is vibrant and rapidly expanding. Looking back, which factors in your view have driven this expansion? What do you think can be done to accelerate this further?
The weekend that Donald Trump announced the travel ban in the US, I was working for Toronto Mayor John Tory, where I had responsibilities for the tech sector, innovation and modernization. I started getting messages from US based tech companies saying they had hundreds of employees on H1-B visas, asking if they could potentially bring them to Toronto. That same weekend, more than 2000 leaders from the Canadian tech sector wrote an open letter stating that they “stand together in opposition to the marginalization of people based on their birthplace, race, or religion.” That was definitely a TSN turning point for the growth of the Canadian tech ecosystem, but it wouldn’t have mattered if the fundamentals weren’t already strong: deep and broad technical knowledge and expertise driven by our education system and diverse population; investment and collaborative support from all levels of government and private sector players; and a community of founders focused on building scaling companies in Canada, and keeping everyone honest about not over-indexing on multi-national entities but making sure our home-grown tech was prioritized, celebrated and supported too.
I once got a card from a friend who worked at Andreessen Horowitz that was signed “To the doers.”
3. Canadian Dream Summit aspires to a Canada where everyone is able to pursue and achieve their greatest ambitions. Three principles guide us: #VisionToReality, #CollaborateLocal, #DreamGlobal. Which one of these resonates the most with your work?
They’re all important but I’d say #VisionToReality. My main take away from my career so far is that some people talk and some people do. Implementation is hard. Building things is hard. Turning an idea into a product, a company, an industry – that’s insanely hard. At OneEleven I’d say we’re dedicated to helping tech companies bring their vision to reality, to help them scale into something lasting, sustainable and impactful. I once got a card from a friend who worked at Andreessen Horowitz that was signed “To the doers.” I kept it up on my office wall when I had walls, but I carry that message with me every day.
Implementation is hard. Building things is hard. Turning an idea into a product, a company, an industry – that’s insanely hard.
4. If you had three wishes for Canada’s tech ecosystem in 2019, what would they be and who would they impact?
That corporations and governments would get their shit together on procurement. Tech companies are just new solution providers, new vendors with potentially better ways of doing things. Buy from them. If we procured from the tech sector as much as we namechecked innovation, our ecosystem would be unstoppable.
That investors continue to seriously engage with the inherent bias that might prevent female founders from accessing capital, clients and opportunity.
More vowels in company names.
We have the chance to continue building a tech sector that thinks a bit differently.
5. What do you see as a significant area of untapped opportunity for Canadian tech?
A group of California VCs once told the Mayor that “Toronto has the opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the Valley”. They were referring to issues of housing affordability and mobility that came with the intense scale of San Francisco’s tech sector. But I think that statement stands for our tech sector writ large. We have the chance to continue building a tech sector that thinks a bit differently. That prioritizes teams as well as founders, that thinks about impact as well as IPOs, that leverages diversity strategically and meaningfully.
Siri Agrell is a featured guest in the Expert Zone at Canadian Dream Summit on February 19th in Toronto. To reserve a ticket, click here.