AVA Technologies founder Valerie Song says you attract diverse talent by making it a priority

When US President Donald Trump signed his first executive order to ban travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries, hundreds of members of the Canadian tech community signed an open letter to affirm their support for diversity and inclusion in tech.

Since then, several leaders of tech companies across Canada have continued to speak out reaffirm their companies’ commitments to diversity and inclusion, especially in terms of hiring more women and people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Among these leaders is Valerie Song, the CEO and co-founder of AVA Technologies. The Vancouver-based startup — part of The Next Big Thing’s 2016 cohort of young entrepreneurs — has developed the AVA Smart Garden, an electronic device that helps people grow nutrition-dense fruits and vegetables from their own homes.

Song says one of her company’s biggest mandates is to employ an equal number of men and women who come from diverse backgrounds, both culturally and in terms of experience. Currently, AVA Technologies’ team has a team of exactly five women and five men, and two male engineering consultants. AVA’s team comes from ethnic backgrounds including India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Italy, and South America.

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“To be able to pull AVA off, it requires a lot of talent in all aspects of STEM, and a lot of diversity in topic as well as backgrounds,” said Song. “Ever since taking leadership and management in school — and seeing women in business in tech and how lacking they are [in demographics] — it’s really become a passion of mine to change that for the future and encourage other women to get into leadership positions.”

Song says that having a mandate to employ an equal number of men and women hasn’t made it harder to recruit talent, but she has acknowledged the difficulty of attracting women with an electrical or mechanical engineering background.

“When you set a culture around being open and diverse, certain people get drawn [to us], and those are the kinds of people we’re drawn to as a company.”

“I think it has been easier and it has added a lot more value. I’m seeing more and more of young talent striving to put themselves out there and apply for positions,” said Song, who is looking to hire more female engineering consultants and mentors in coming months. “Where I see a lot of lack of women is actually more in the engineering space. In sciences, there are amazing master’s students that come out as top of their class that are women, but engineering talent is quite hard to find, and it’s one of my goals to find more.”

In addition to sustaining a 50/50 team, AVA Technologies is also planning to grow its team by working with the Steps Forward program, a British Columbia initiative that aims to provide post-secondary students with developmental disabilities with employment opportunities.

“Something we don’t really discuss is when someone cannot walk or maybe they have a speaking disability, or maybe they’re blind; a lot of these [people] are underemployed. So we’re trying to work with an organization to hire people in this space,” said Song.

“The [more] ethnicities you cover, the more culturally adept you become and you can solve more diverse challenges through different lenses.”

In recent months, Canada’s tech community has been placing a greater emphasis on addressing issues of diversity in the tech industry through events such as Moving the Dial. Additionally, when Trump’s EO was announced, several people working for North American tech companies were impacted directly, opening a window for tech leaders to call on the community and governments to support immigration and encourage diversity in the workplace.

Song says that it’s crucial for tech companies, both large and small, to publicly express their support for diversity, and “accept people of all different cultures and acknowledge the value they bring.”

“I think it’s important for bigger companies to acknowledge that and set an example, but also for the government to be able to support their claims and say ‘We do support diversity in the workplace. We support women in the workplace, that’s why we’ve set aside funding or specialized work visas to bring entrepreneurs from all around the world to work at your company,’” she said.

Going forward, AVA Technologies is hoping to continue to foster a workplace culture that embraces equity and diversity. “The [more] ethnicities you cover, the more culturally adept you become and you can solve more diverse challenges through different lenses,” said Song. “I think it’s a huge benefit. When you set a culture around being open, being diverse, and being willing to try new things, certain people get drawn [to us] and those are the kinds of people we’re drawn to as a company.”

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi

Amira Zubairi is a staff writer at BetaKit. As a fourth-year journalism student who has written primarily about entrepreneurship, Amira has developed a growing interest in Canadian startup, business, and tech news. In her free time, Amira enjoys reading, baking and watching legal shows.