As entrepreneurial epiphanies go, meeting Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman and Biz Stone must rank highly. Victoria Lennox was headed for a life in politics or policy when a job leading a student club at the University of Oxford put her in rooms with these tech icons and others. “That completely changed the trajectory of my career and made me know I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says.
Lennox still ended up in public service, of a sort. She’s the co-founder and CEO of Startup Canada, a non-profit lobbying and support organization for the country’s entrepreneurs, which she launched in 2012. The front line of the group’s entrepreneur-facing work is carried out by local startup “communities,” which organize programming and events like demo days, networking nights and boot camps. There are currently 25 such affiliates nationwide; Lennox says the Ottawa-headquartered organization aims to have 100 by the end of 2017. Startup Canada also reaches its audience through an active social media presence, hosting weekly Twitter chats and YouTube live streams, as well as an annual awards program.
The most prominent of the organization’s lobbying efforts is the annual Startup Canada Day on the Hill. This year’s agenda included panels on immigration and innovation policy, and keynotes from the likes of Porter Airlines’ Robert Deluce and Wattpad’s Allen Lau; on the guest list were Finance Minister Bill Morneau and a number of business-facing bureaucrats. Lennox says it’s not hard to convince policy-makers to show up, even if it is to be told what they’re getting wrong. “Entrepreneurship is an apolitical topic,” she claims. “As a nation, we’re aligned[in thinking that] we need to be supporting our entrepreneurs better than we are.”
Pushed by a fading resource sector and pulled by the promise of a new tech boom, Canadian policy-makers and business leaders have, in the past few years, begun to see the trifecta of startups, entrepreneurship and innovation as some kind of economic panacea. In response, there’s been an outbreak of incubators, accelerators, mentorship programs and the like. But Lennox says she’s not worried about distinguishing Startup Canada from the crowd. “Each of the organizations fills a different gap in the ecosystem,” she says, noting that the various programs work together to ensure entrepreneurs are matched with the right services for their particular challenge or stage of development.
And while a would-be founder in Toronto might have many options to choose from, it’s a different story outside the major cities. That’s where Startup Canada’s communities come in. “Rural and remote areas are underserved in terms of entrepreneurship support,” says Lennox. Instead of watching them move elsewhere in search of opportunity, she’d like to help them start something in situ. “We need to engage every Canadian to be a true innovation nation.”