Does Canadian Innovation Exchange have a diversity problem?

CIX

The annual Canadian Innovation Exchange (CIX), a high-profile event created to showcase Canadian innovation and bring startups, innovative companies and VCs together to share ideas and grow networks, wrapped up last week in Toronto.

The event, run by Achilles Media, was a success on many levels, with 600 delegates and a packed schedule. This year’s conference featured a showcase of the CIX Top 20 most innovative companies. Gallop Labs, named Canada’s most innovative company, also picked up the audience choice award. Scott Miller of Vision Critical took home 2014 Innovator of the Year award. Many excellent speakers shared thoughts on building teams, recruiting talent, raising funds, and developing stronger networks.

For the third year in a row, the Toronto tech community was prompted to ask, ‘where are the women?’

However, for the third year in a row, the Toronto tech community was forced to ask, ‘where are the women?’ With 50 men and just four women visible on the program, the gender disparity prompted an active StartupNorth group discussion, supplying CIX’s board of advisors with suggestions to improve diversity, and provided a potential female speakers. CIX Executive Director Nagar Rahmani stepped in, promising CIX would be part of the solution going forward.

BetaKit asked CIX attendees if they had any thoughts to share on the subject of diversity and inclusivity, and here’s what they had to say.

“There’s definitely a shortage of women at this event, and that’s unfortunate. If you look at the crowd, it’s men in suits, which is not so reflective of a typical startup. It’s unfortunate that this, to a degree, reflects the ecosystem. We need more women participating. All these companies are selling to the general marketplace, and that’s over 50% women. Events like this bring together important people in the community, and of course the more great people get involved the better.”
– Rubsun Ho, technology lawyer and co-founder of Cognition LLP

“It’s good to see more women entering the VC space, building businesses and starting businesses. It would be great to have more accesses to smart women, too. It’s important to the eco-system. I try to mentor as much as I can, whether it’s students, entrepreneurial friends, daughters of friends, because it’s important that everybody contributes.”
– Nancy Peterson, founder & CEO of HomeStars Inc

“The startup community here is strong, vibrant, with great funders of innovative companies and a fair amount of traction. The diversity of speakers at CIX is definitely something that’s lacking. I haven’t attended every single presentation, but we didn’t see many women presenting. Diversity is huge part of what makes Toronto and Canada so incredible. Stronger and more diverse systems produce more fantastic products. We’re a sponsor of CIX, and we would like to see community represented fairly. That’s something we will definitely take into consideration looking at subsequent events taking place.”
– Alan Lysne, Managing Director of Ryerson Futures accelerator

“I would love to see some changes on the advisory board for next year who could do a great job of recommending some fresh faces as speakers. I would love to see a more diverse set of speakers sharing their experiences related to their work and not just acting as hostesses or moderators.”
– April Dunford, COO of Tulip Retail

Can CIX do better?

Speaking to BetaKit, Rahmani contested that the StartupNorth discussion was related to the overall market concerns over enabling more female participation in the tech economy, and claimed that CIX has been proactive about including as many women speakers and participants as possible.

“We will continue to proactively attempt to play a role, as modest as it may be given that CIX is a small player in the grand scheme of things, to help to balance the scales and encourage gender equality across the tech industry,” Rahmani said. “We are always open to input from the market in terms of qualified female participants.”

Having chatted with many of the conference speakers and attendees at the event this year, and even simply looking around the room, it certainly seems that despite Rahmani’s assurances of proactivity, there’s an opportunity for improvement. Showcasing Canadian innovation and facilitating the exchange of ideas takes collaboration, a great deal of consideration, planning and outreach. At the very least, Achilles Media and the CIX board of advisors should be very aware that the Toronto startup community is willing to work together on next year’s event and raise the bar.

Elena Yunusov

Elena Yunusov

Elena Yunusov works at the intersection of digital communications and experience design. She is known in Toronto’s startup community as a HoHoTO & Toronto Maker Faire co-organizer. She likes coffee, robots, and wearable tech.