In the years between getting his Masters of biomedical engineering from the University of Toronto and his current role as a product manager at Telus, Albert Lam helped launch a tech startup, OTI Lumionics, founded by his partner, Michael Helander. The experience helped shape his vision for Start Proud (formerly called Out On Bay Street), an organization that facilities the professional development of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and ally (LGBTQA+) students starting their careers. Once focused solely on the corporate world in Toronto, Start Proud now brings the world of tech and entrepreneurship to students across the country.
Albert Lam: “In 2013, I attended my first conference, and in 2014 started volunteering at Out On Bay Street. I became executive vice president in 2015 and president in January 2016. In my year as vice president, I was concerned that we weren’t quite having the social impact that we needed. We were very targeted to Bay Street careers– finance, consulting, banking–and it limited the number of students we could impact. So, the first step as president was to rebrand the organization as something more agnostic to industry. After a year of stakeholder discussions, we landed on Start Proud, and that has allowed us to expand our portfolio of offerings. The Start Proud brand really opens up the possibilities to new industries and new opportunities for students.
In 2017, we launched Canada’s very first LGBTQ tech summit, Venture Out. It attracted 40 startup sponsors and over 400 people who learned about what’s happening in the startup tech scene and what it means to be diverse and inclusive in the tech space. We had a successful first year in Toronto, but I think there are still iterations to be made before we expand Venture Out to other parts of the country, like Vancouver and Montreal. However, we are connected to other organizations local to those cities, such as Queer Tech Montreal and Lesbians Who Tech. We’re leveraging these partner organizations to pilot mini-events before we go all out with a huge conference.
At Start Proud, we have three main pillars: conferences [Venture Out and Out On Bay Street], awards and events. We offer $5,000 worth of scholarships each year to up-and- coming LGBT students. We also have an initiative called ‘Leaders To Be Proud Of,’ where we highlight the top executives and CEOs in Canada who are either out or are strong allies of the community and are making significant steps to make their workplaces more diverse and inclusive of the LGBT community.
We do monthly socials in Toronto. It could be a one-night panel or speaker event, talking about diversity in the workplace, being out at work, and how to be out during the recruitment process—all the questions students have when they’re exiting school and taking the first step into their professional careers.
A very important lesson I learned transforming Start Proud from a 20-person organization to 120 volunteers across Canada, is what scales are the values and culture of your organization. No matter what size your organization is, you have to set aside time to build the culture so that it can scale the way you need it to. You can have a great idea and all the business processes in the world, but no one is going to follow those processes unless you have a culture where everyone feels motivated to do the work, and more importantly, that they perpetuate the culture to everyone new who joins the organization.
Whenever students ask me about what kind of person would be successful in a startup setting, I say you’ve got to be a risk-taker. You go through very high highs and low lows.
For instance, the company could go bankrupt the next day and the employees that you’re supporting could potentially be out of a job because of your actions. That level of risk and responsibility should not be taken lightly.”—As told to Rebecca Harris
Videography and photography by Scott Simpson. Makeup and hair by Sophie Hsin for M.A.C. Cosmetics/Kevin Murphy/Plutino Group.