By Leah Davidson W’16
I graduated from Wharton undergrad in May 2016 with concentrations in Management and Global Innovation. For the past eight months, I have worked as Chief Operating Officer of AccessNow, a web and mobile platform that crowdsources accessibility information for people with impaired mobility on an interactive map.
And I’ve done it in Canada.
With support from the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) at Ryerson University; The Next 36, a founder development program for entrepreneurial Canadian leaders; the Center for Social Innovation; and the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund, we have reached 10,000 accessibility reviews in over 200 countries. Based in Toronto, The Next 36 combines CEO-level mentorship, a comprehensive educational program with professors from Rotman, Sloan, Georgetown, and Harvard Business School, seed funding, and in-kind technical and legal resources to build globally scalable companies.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from my time on the other side of the border:
- Stay connected to local ecosystems
Coming from a Wharton background where most of the tech conversations revolve around Silicon Valley, it was very interesting to learn about the entrepreneurial landscape in my home country. Canada is trying to build a startup ecosystem in Toronto, with excellent incubator and accelerator spaces, networking events, grant programs, and connections with local universities. There is less competition in Canada than in the Valley, with most venture capital firms focused on Series A and government tax incentives for hiring, so there are definite advantages to getting started in a close-knit environment—and then potentially moving to the US at a later stage.
- Keep sky-high aspirations
Although Canada has some very promising startups, we have yet to produce the next Facebook or Google. Canada continues to see an output gap with the US in terms of labor productivity and GDP per capita. As explained by a PwC study in January 2016, in Canada, most entrepreneurs are looking to exit quickly through acquisitions within the first few years instead of building billion dollar businesses on track for an IPO. This is partly a mindset problem. Most entrepreneurs think on a national, instead of international, scale. Programs like The Next 36 are looking to change that by introducing high-potential Canadian students and recent graduates to entrepreneurship as a potential career field and helping them raise expectations for their companies.
- Know when to seek advice
The Next 36 connected us to leading Canadian entrepreneurs, investors, and startups, including Shopify executives and the founders of Wind Mobile and Kijiji. When running a business for the first time, you run into so many challenges: How are you going to make revenue? How can you raise enough funding to survive? How will you find and hire the right people? Sometimes it is smart to admit what you do not know and set up phone calls or coffee chats with people who have been in your shoes and figured out how to navigate sticky business situations. At the same time, the more advice you seek, the more opinions you receive. You will gradually become used to filtering information, uncovering biases, making decisions, and bearing the consequences—good or bad—of your actions.
Launching a company is never easy, but learning how to persevere through obstacles and support team members through the ups and downs of startup life has been one of the most transformational experiences of my life. Whether in Canada or the US, I am extremely grateful for my Wharton education and Wharton’s continued alumni support.
Bio: Leah Davidson hails from Sherbrooke, Quebec and is passionate about leveraging technology to address social problems. At Penn, Leah was a Benjamin Franklin/Joseph Wharton Scholar, Wharton Research Scholar, Turner Social Impact Society Fellow, and recipient of the inaugural Penn Global Student Citizenship Award. She was actively involved with the Mack Institute for Innovation Management, Wharton Social Impact Initiative, Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies, and Wharton Public Policy Initiative.