Last week, Brenda Bailey was named the new minister of jobs, economic development, and innovation for the Government of British Columbia (BC).
Bailey has taken over BC’s innovation agenda from Ravi Kahlon, a fellow member of the province’s New Democratic Party, who has been reassigned to lead BC’s newly created Ministry of Housing.
This week, Bailey sat down for an interview with BetaKit to discuss her experience in the tech sector prior to politics, how she aims to leverage that work in her new role, and her plans for fuelling the growth of BC’s tech and innovation sector over the coming years.
You worked in the video game sector prior to your political career. Tell me more about your background working in the tech and innovation space.
I was a co-founder, in 2004, of a video game studio called Deep Fried Entertainment. That studio was with five gentlemen who were members of the first Black Box Need for Speed team back in the day, and had been bought by Electronic Arts. After their time had ticked away there, they wanted to start another company and so, I was very, very fortunate to be part of that endeavour. And it was incredible learning for me. I hadn’t created software before, and did the business development and operations side of that business, and it was fascinating.
It also drove me to understand the video game industry in a pretty in-depth way as the business lead for that group, and one of the things I recognized was how poorly served women and girls were in that space. I’ve been playing video games since I was 11 years old, so that wasn’t a shock to me, but just seeing that it was by design was really [a surprise].
You’d see these properties that were given smaller teams and smaller budgets if they were built for girls and they would make poor-quality games that weren’t very interesting. And then, we’d say that girls don’t like video games, and I thought, again and again and again [about] the old ‘pink it and shrink it,’ and it made me crazy.
In 2011, I co-founded a video game studio [Silicon Sisters Interactive] with an outstanding co-founder, Kirsten Forbes, who had previously been at Radical Entertainment as their [executive producer]. She was just an extraordinary, skillful person, and we had an incredible time with that studio.
I think we went a bit early. It was before the MeToo movement, and it was hard to get capitalization. Everybody told us that nobody cared about girls’ content. So we didn’t get as far as we had hoped to get, but we’re really proud of the quality of games and engagement we got with the games that we made. We had about a million players, and all over the world. I think about the style of games that we made, and I just wish there were many, many more of them. That’s how I originally got into tech.
I did become very involved in advocating for what we need from government to help tech be successful, which is [when] I started bumping up against government of different types and different persuasions. And the truth of the matter is when I got to know the people in this government, I was really, really impressed and I wanted to be part of the team.
How do you plan to leverage your past experience working in tech to help the government serve the tech and innovation sector?
As a software entrepreneur, you become aware of what you need to be successful—and those things haven’t changed from the time I was doing that work—which really are people and capital.
We’ve seen an increasing challenge, I think, with the investment community. We often see that scaling is a challenge, and that’s something that’s really important to us to work with industry to help solve. You’ve been writing about InBC this morning, and that is definitely part of our solution. It’s really, really important that we have some patient capital available, and we’re also working to bring in investments from multiple different jurisdictions.
Under this portfolio, one of the topics that I will be responsible for is trade diversification. And I’ll share with you that when I was working both at Deep Fried and Silicon Sisters, I did a lot of foreign trips to look for business partners abroad, and I had opportunities in China and Japan, and elsewhere. It’s so, so important. We’ll be continuing to support the tech sector, but everyone in the economy is looking to have those export opportunities as we expand our connections into different markets.
But I would say probably the most important thing in our tech sector and certainly in the economy generally, is people, and this government is very serious about continuing our competitive advantage of people. That really is why our sector hits above its weight, and so [there are] many things that government is doing, much of which falls under my portfolio or is something we work in collaboration with.
We have a Future Skills Ready program that we’re rolling out that really is designed to address the skills shortage gap that we have and that people are experiencing all across North America and beyond.[We are also] deeply focused on continuing to support our postsecondary group. British Columbia has a really exceptional postsecondary ecosystem, and we’ve been making historical investments, and will continue to ensure that folks are finding the opportunities they need to go into the industries they want to go into.
What do you intend to focus on in this position, and how are you thinking about serving the tech and innovation sector while balancing the priorities of the BC government more broadly?
Broadly, the focus of our entire government is just to take on the big challenges that we face and get results for people. That is the sort of bottom-line, basic approach, and our new premier is moving very quickly to address the biggest challenges of today.
Back in the day when we used to talk about the impediments to growth for our technology sector, we used to say things like investments, and business climate, and taxation strategy. Now, when I meet with leaders in the sector, I hear it’s housing and it’s childcare. These things that we used to think of as social are now definitely part of the economic equation—probably always have been, but now we recognize [them] as such with where we are in the pandemic currently. I think that’s really interesting.[We’re] very interested in ensuring that we’re creating opportunities for foreign investment into our tech sector and into many other sub-sectors in our economy that are looking for foreign investment as well, so that will remain a priority for us going forward.
And, again, just tech talent. We’ve already built out 2,900 new tech seats in the five years since we’ve been in government, and we’ve got 2,000 more seats coming, so that’s a big priority. I’ll be working on that in conjunction with the postsecondary folks. And [there is] lots of work happening right now on things like micro-credentialing. [It’s] not always necessary to have a four-year degree to get the training you need and to get moving into a really well-paying and interesting and creative job.
Are there any key things that Minister Kahlon was working on that you want to continue, and are there any new initiatives or focuses that you want to bring to the equation?
We really took a look at how we could use the program to incentivize hiring women, people of colour, folks who are neurodiverse, perhaps people who are new to British Columbia and are finding some barriers as they’re applying for these jobs. We revamped the program. We had $15 million from treasury, but we found some partnerships and were able to nearly double that amount and make it so that we could give $10,000 to companies that were willing to hire somebody that might look a little different than a traditional workforce, and that’s going really well. Placing 3,000 folks in their first tech job who might not have had those doors open otherwise feels really good. It’s important work.
We’re seeing that numbers out of the [United States] are indicating that 2020-2021 is being reported as a decline of women in the tech sector by about 2.6 percent. And BC is not seeing that. Some reports are indicating, TAP Network, for example, is indicating about a two percent increase. Not suggesting that’s all [Innovator Skills Initiative], there’s many things that lead to that, but certainly childcare is one of those things. This government is very, very devoted to ensuring that everyone can enter the workforce and what does that look like? How do we take down barriers for women? How do we take down barriers for First Nations folks?
To share some information on that, job numbers are indicating that we have about 70,000 more women in the workforce than we did pre-pandemic. So when I look at the labour force numbers, I’m interested in that line, how many women are in the workforce? Are we doing well supporting them reentering? And [there are] also about 11,000 indigenous folks in the workforce since 2019. So policies like this can work and they’re important.
Is there anything else you’re hoping to accomplish in this role?
British Columbia weathered the storm of multiple things at once—a pandemic, a horrific opioid crisis, and really difficult challenges from climate change in terms of flooding and fires. It’s been a very, very tough number of years, and the economy has still been growing, and we really came out of the pandemic as the strongest economy in Canada.[We’re] certainly aware [there are] headwinds on the way, but also know that we’ve got a good base from which to start. It’s very important that we continue to grow on the strength that we have, and that, again, is all about people.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Feature image courtesy Brenda Bailey.