At a typical Q&A with a tech founder/CEO, you’ll hear a lot about business failures, determination, finding a niche, and assembling the right team. It’s not often that you go to one of these events and are truly moved by what the speaker says about their journey to get to where they are today.
At Tuesday night’s Queer Tech MTL event, Pholysa Mantryvong, CEO and founder of Enkidoo Technologies — and a positively effervescent speaker — shared his coming out story with a rapt audience, that was simultaneously stunned and inspired by his candour and resilience.
Queer Tech MTL aims to promote diversity within the Montreal tech ecosystem, in part by presenting leaders who have persevered through what might otherwise be seen as insurmountable obstacles. Mantryvong was the perfect choice for their inaugural panel.
A self-proclaimed entrepreneur, Mantryvong became fascinated with AI when he encountered artificial vision during his work as an industrial engineer. He wondered how this kind of artificial intelligence can be applied to the business world, and after working as a management consultant and business analyst, he founded Enkidoo Technologies, with the goal of disrupting the ERP business with a new AI-powered service that would be both more affordable and more effective than the competition.
“If you cannot sell a cause, how can you sell your own product and company?” – Pholysa Mantryvong, CEO and founder of Enkidoo Technologies
In response to being asked how being gay has affected his career trajectory, he told the audience that “In every career I’ve embraced, I’ve never had an issue with it.” He learned young that the best way to blend in was to stand out. Getting involved with student activities in elementary school, he became so well-known to his classmates and teachers, that he was protected from bullying. “As a mechanism of self-defence, I became very involved and organized a lot of stuff. I was so well-known at my primary school that nobody would have dared to touch me.”
He carried this confidence through his adolescence, and although he’d known he was gay before he even started school, he didn’t actually come out to his family until he was eighteen. But when he did, his entire world exploded. Rather than the acceptance he was expecting from his parents, he was told that he would either have to straighten up and split up with his boyfriend, or leave. So he left.
He tried to continue with his studies, and literally slept in friends’ closets — “I came out of the closet and I go back to the closet, but physically,” he revealed to much laughter. Ultimately, he couldn’t keep up with his studies because he was starving and unable to maintain the pace of school and making his way. He dropped out and ended up living on the street. This period ended with an attempt on his own life. When he woke up in the hospital and he wasn’t dead, everything had somehow changed.
He found help and managed to pull his life back together, both reconciling with his parents and completing his studies. As well as going on to work in the aerospace industry, he also became heavily involved in various charity and nonprofit organizations, to which he attributes much of his confidence and success in business. “Start with one organization,” he said. “Try to build your network. Be involved. There are so many organizations looking for people, looking for leaders.”
When asked what advice he would give aspiring entrepreneurs, he continued in the same vein:
“I always knew I was an entrepreneur. I hate being an employee. But I thought, before I make the jump, I should be involved in one cause… and every time I started with something new it was just amazing: I got noticed. There are so many organizations looking for people; looking for leaders.”
Today, he works closely with people he met through charity work — including one of his business partners — and he also found that his understanding of business itself grew through promoting foundations and charity organizations.
“If you cannot sell a cause,” he said. “How can you sell your own product and company?”
He has also had a great deal of support, both emotional and financial, from his life partner, without whom he could not have founded his company.
Mantryvong’s parting advice was to always be true to oneself. He reminded the crowd that you cannot do this alone, and emphasized how important it is to learn to collaborate and work with other people, and to develop strong relationships.
“Now I’m the gay CEO and my business partner, my investors, my bankers and everyone else is straight. It was a shift of a paradigm. Do I say “Hey I’m gay! How do you like me as a boss?” No. But I don’t want to hide the fact that I’m gay. So I build strong relationships with my team and everyone I work with.”
This was the final MTL Queer Tech event of 2016. 2017 will bring more events like this one, with speakers from within the LGBTQ+ community sharing their stories and advice. Queer Tech Montreal is also looking for members to help organize and get involved with their events, and has grown to over 300 members since launching in October 2016.
Related: Venture Out launching first conference in Canada dedicated to LGBTQ+ inclusion in startups