Canada is bad at thinking big. Here’s how we can change that

Why I am so happy that I went back to university to finish my degree

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Michael Katchen, CEO of Wealthsimple, poses for a photograph at his office in Toronto on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Robo-adviser Wealthsimple has launched a new investment portfolio for observant Muslims, a move the company says builds off its success targeting smaller, underserviced groups of investors. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Michael Katchen is Founder and CEO, Wealthsimple

When I was a university undergraduate studying business about a decade ago, I nearly took a path that’s become a kind of cliché among tech entrepreneurs: dropping out.

I was happy with my studies at Western University’s Ivey Business School. But I had won a business competition, and I found myself armed with a cash prize and a business plan, and it seemed to follow that I should consider quitting to become an entrepreneur. Fortune favours the bold, right?

Who knows whether my business concept, Bread and Butter Books – an idea to link grocery store products with student shoppers − would have worked. But I had a conversation with a mentor, someone I really trusted, and he urged me to finish my degree. He thought my education and contacts would make me a better entrepreneur once I graduated.

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I am eternally grateful that I decided to follow his advice, because I can clearly trace the path from university to my current role as CEO and co-founder of Wealthsimple, Canada’s leading online investing service.

As our economy becomes increasingly global, competitive, and innovation-based, it follows that knowledge, expertise and 21st century skills will be what Canadians – and Canada – need to achieve the kind of career success and economic prosperity we want. And it was the knowledge and skills I gained at university that have been such important ingredients in the success that I −like many fellow emerging business people − have been able to enjoy.

So, yes, a strong educational core is important to future economic growth in Ontario and Canada. But I believe there’s another ingredient that we’re in an even better position to exploit and is just as valuable: entrepreneurism.

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We possess an enormous pool of great talent, especially in the technology fields that will likely dominate the future − such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. But how can we harness that talent into dynamic startups and, almost as important, how can we scale those startups into successful global brands? These, to me, are the three key ingredients for success:

Thinking across disciplines

Even though Wealthsimple is a tech-based company (as was the San Francisco startup, 1000memories, where I previously worked), I actually didn’t know much about technology when I was studying business. I wish I had. But I’m glad to see a trend towards interdisciplinary learning – business students learning from computer scientists, medical students learning about business, and so on.

Combine research disciplines with commercialization, add in important soft skills such as team-based problem-solving and creativity, and we’re creating a new generation of talented people who are better positioned to start (or contribute to) successful companies and generate wealth for individuals and the economy. We need more interdisciplinary thinking, and universities are perfectly placed to deliver on this.

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Starting up – and scaling up

There is a growing infrastructure of support and capital in Canada that’s helping entrepreneurs forge their good ideas into commercially-viable firms. Incubators and accelerators exist on the majority of university campuses, and Ryerson University’s Digital Media Zone and the Creative Destruction Lab, a Rotman School of Management initiative, are great examples.

But to turn this explosion of entrepreneurial energy into a long-lasting economic driver for Canada, we’ve got to scale more of these startups into large businesses. Encouraging more global winners that create thousands of jobs should be a priority for the private sector, governments and postsecondary institutions. It’s one thing to employ 50 people, but growing to the next level is tough.

Breaking through that ceiling is a challenge we are addressing at Wealthsimple. It requires ambition, the right strategy and talent, and obviously capital, which we were fortunate to have from our partners at Power Financial. As a result, we have expanded into the U.S. and U.K. and have grown to more than 160 employees and counting.

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How can we help other young Canadian companies make the leap? For one thing, we have to avoid spreading our funding and support too thin. And then we need to nurture high-potential startups with the right expertise, partners and funding opportunities. The approach being taken by The Lazaridis Scale-Up Program at Wilfrid Laurier University, which promotes the expansion of 10 promising tech companies every year, is a welcome one.

This brings me to the final ingredient for success …

Thinking big

We aren’t great at this in Canada. We are often content to grow businesses to a certain size and stick within the Canadian market. But that’s not how you create big global champions – and increasingly, companies will need to be big global champions to survive. Given our enviable talent base, supportive governments and a growing investor community that is looking for businesses to scale up, we have never been so well-positioned to do this.

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I often speak to students and emerging entrepreneurs, and one piece of advice I give them is to have naïve ambition – you have to be a little naïve to believe that your business, which may now be only a spreadsheet (as Wealthsimple once was) could be a big international player one day. But that little bit of naiveté – combined with a great product, supportive partners, and everything else a business needs to succeed – is a key ingredient for big thinking.

While not every graduate has the business acumen or passion to become an entrepreneur, and will take their acquired knowledge in many other useful directions, I believe that entrepreneurism is absolutely key to growing the new economy in Ontario and Canada. But let’s not be content with playing safe. Now is our time to show the world what we can do.

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