#ElevateToronto Main Stage argues diversity will make Canada an innovation leader


After selling out to over 5,000 people, Elevate Toronto officially kicked off its celebration of Canadian tech at its Main Stage yesteday.

To set the tone for the event, Elevate Toronto defined its mission through three main principles: diversity is our strength, disrupt together, and it’s our time. Inviting speakers that they felt would embody these mission statements, Elevate hoped to showcase the future of Canada, and how Canadian tech fits into that future.

As a proud media partner, BetaKit rounded up some key insights from the jam-packed day.

Diversity is our strength

The day kicked off with Indigenous artist and speaker Eddy Robinson reminding the audience that they stood on Indigenous land, and acknowledging Canada’s history of oppression against Indigenous people.

When Elevate CEO and founder Razor Suleman took the stage, he told his own story of his family fleeing Uganda during Idi Amin’s dictatorship, and doubled down on his sentiment that Canada is “the true land of opportunity.”

Advocates for diversity and inclusion took the stage for the rest of the session, including Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives for the city of Toronto. She was frank in her opinion about anyone in the tech community that is hesitant about adopting diversity and inclusion as a mandate in their companies.

“The tech sector likes to say it is about pushing boundaries — so why resist evolution and expansion of thought when it’s being demanded of you?” Agrell asked.

Jodi Kovitz, founder of #MoveTheDial and a co-organizer of the event, doubled down on the sentiment that tech companies must be inclusive if they hope to be successful. “Tech is pervasive, and everything will be technology in the new economy,” said Kovitz. “Leaders in technology must reflect the population they serve. Solutions we create must reflect the diversity of the people creating them. It’s more important than [just] a moral imperative.”

Amanda Crew, most well-known as one of the stars of HBO’s Silicon Valley, sat down for a fireside chat on what she’s learned about being a women in tech as someone who plays one. While she admits she didn’t know much about the issue before taking on the role, she suggested that having to learn more about the Silicon Valley space has opened her eyes to what many women go through in the tech industry.

“[There are] daily things that make women feel dismissed and small; even the small things like when a woman walks in, the first thing you do is compliment her outfit and acknowledge her appearance before you acknowledge her,” Crew said. “I’ve contributed to this too, and it’s about education and awareness so you can change these things.”

Disrupt together

Disrupt together also saw high-profile speakers sharing their thoughts on the future of emerging technologies.

Raquel Urtasun, currently the head of Uber’s driverless technology lab in Toronto, explained the complexity of building driverless car technology.

While Urtasun is considered a star in the driverless tech space, she ended off her presentation by admitting that her life as a woman in tech has not been easy. But she had words of encouragement for anyone in the audience who felt discouraged by being a minority in their field. “No matter what they say, no one has the right to tell you you can’t do something.”

Julie Hanna, former US president Barack Obama’s presidential ambassador for global entrepreneurship, also hoped to inspire the audience with a talk on being an entrepreneur that commits to doing social good over simply making money. She shared an example of this through Kiva, a microlending nonprofit that allows lenders to contribute as little as $25 to help people grow their businesses, go to school, or access clean energy. To date, $1 billion has been processed through Kiva.

One of the highlights of the event was the Elevate-R pitch from three social enterprises vying for a chance to get $20,000 and a year of marketing consulting from SapientRazorfish. The three startups included Awake Labs, which develops a wearable to help caregivers understand anxiety and understand behaviour; AccessNow, which developed an app that allows users to find out which local restaurants and hotels are wheelchair accessible; and Rumie, which develops tablets loaded with digital education solutions for underserved communities.

After the crowd voted, Rumie — which was also among the winners of Google’s $5 million impact challenge — ended up taking the top prize.

It’s our time

The final act of the event meant to explore what the future of Toronto and Canadian innovation looks like — including both high hopes and stern warnings.

The City of Toronto took the opportunity to show that they wanted to be part of building an innovative future, officially announcing the launch of its Civic Innovation Office on stage with freshly-appointed director Paula Kwan.

On the flip side, Globalive founder Tony Lacavera warned that we don’t do enough to ensure that Canadian innovation actually benefits Canada. He gives the recent example of Amazon announcing an RFP from cities to open a 50,000-person strong headquarters; while cities across Canada are scrambling to be considered, he says that having a US giant in Canada would hurt local startups looking for strong talent that can’t compete.

“Forty-four percent of Canadians accept funding from abroad. And we’re celebrating that Kleiner Perkins is making investments in Toronto, but I don’t see that because the economic value is bleeding out of our country,” Lacavera said. “Which is why I don’t think it’s great that the government is set up so we don’t support interprovincial trade so much as north-south trade.”

Vinod Khosla, head of Khosla Ventures and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, ended off the day by imploring entrepreneurs to think beyond just building companies — and actually change the world. “Most people in the other world don’t like failure and reduce risk…[but] it behoves us as entrepreneurs to do what society needs, which is cause more large scale change.”

Khosla, who has a reputation for bluntness, took a moment to compliment Toronto while reminding everyone in the room that he wouldn’t if he didn’t mean it: “Here in Toronto this morning, we met a whole lot of companies,” said Khosla. “It’s great to find a culture here, and it’s a high quality set of companies than I’ve seen anywhere. So congrats to Toronto.”

Jessica Galang

Jessica Galang

Freelance tech writer. Former BetaKit News Editor.

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