Meet Shafin Diamond Tejani — Co-Founder of Victory Square

Shafin Diamond Tejani started his life in Canada as a child of immigrant parents from Uganda when his family escaped a military coup in East Africa. Now, he’s giving back to his community through organizations that support vulnerable children and youth across North America.

Image courtesy of Paul Joseph (BC Business)

When Shafin’s family were forced to leave their home in Uganda after the abruption of a military coup that took place in East Africa in the late 1970’s, they sought refuge 12,600 kilometres away from their home in Uganda and immigrated to Canada.

“Our family was very fortunate when the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau granted refugee statuses to our family and my community,” Shafin explains. “Canada opened its doors and gave us the opportunity to grow up with stable government, in a safe home, with access to a good education and universal healthcare, and all these great things helped us not only survive but thrive”.

Under the strong entrepreneurial influences of his father and uncle, who both started their respective businesses in Canada, Shafin followed suit and developed a series of ventures that also provided support for those in need.

After launching his first company, iFluRtz, at the ripe age of 19 in his university dorm room, Shafin has since launched over 40 startups in 21 different countries, employing over 350 people and generating over $100 million in annual revenues through his venture, Victory Square Labs (VSL) which he started in 2007. (Fun fact: Before launching his first venture, Shafin started off as a DJ in high school, and organized events for teens in both Vancouver and London, Ontario as a self-taught event planner).

With the success of his various ventures over the past 20 years, Shafin has insisted on ensuring that all his businesses take part in giving back to the community — a moral duty he felt driven to accommodate through the influence of his Ismaili community. Through VSL, Shafin and his team have donated 7,500 volunteer hours, helped raise over $75 million for school programs and community organizations, and awarded over $250,000 in scholarships.

“As a member of the Ismaili community, giving time and helping others is integral to our way of life, and from a young age I’ve been surrounded by examples of giving back. I believe that to be one of my greatest social inheritances.”

Now, with his new partnership with Ray Walia (CEO of Launch Academy and Managing Partner of Victory Square), Victory Square was developed to fund early-stage startups and entrepreneurs who have gone through Victory Square Labs, Launch Academy, as well as through global startup partners focused on sports, entertainment, and health.

We sat down with Shafin to find out more about the inspirations behind his entrepreneurial endeavours, and why philanthropy plays a significant role in all of his ventures.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

When we immigrated to Canada, my dad and uncle weren’t able to transfer their education credits — my dad, who was a pharmacist in Uganda, had to re-do his pharmaceutical certification, but eventually managed to open up his own pharmacy. My uncle started an electronics store in the early 80’s, and as a kid, I would work with my dad and uncle.

Through these experiences, I saw their ability to create wealth, and how their success were determined by their own output. Based on the work ethic that was there, I grew up knowing I wanted to be an entrepreneur because I wanted that same type of lifestyle.

You started your first company in your dorm room when you were just 19 — can you tell us more about it?

The idea from my first company, iFluRtz, which was an online match-making company, came from my high school years. I was heavily involved in my student council at the time, and one of the activities we ran was a Valentine’s match-making survey. These surveys included a series of personality tests, which would then match you with the most and least compatible matches using a software we had developed. We sent these surveys to virtually every student council across North America and managed to get just under 2 million students all across the US and Canada to participate.

This software ended up being the framework for iFluRtz, and it allowed us to have access to and communicate with 13–18-year-olds all across North America. The great thing about this was that they were the most sought-after demographic by various brands at the time, as it was during the wake of the first dot-com boom. Although I eventually exited that business, it laid out the foundations for everything else I had developed later on.

For every business you’ve started, you’ve incorporated a charity component into them. Why is philanthropy so important to you?

Growing up, one of the main things that my parents stressed to us was the importance of education. Aside from the basic necessities of providing a roof over our heads, nutritious food, love, and support, I grew up on the principle that education was the best tool to break the cycle of poverty. With that, I realized that children don’t get to choose the environment they are born into; if you’re able to provide them with just the basics, you’re giving them a chance to overcome the possible negative effects of that environment.

Through the various ventures I’ve been involved with, we prioritize on offering time, knowledge and financial resources for not-for-profit organizations that focus specifically on vulnerable children and youth.

A specific example of one of the organizations we work with in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), is KidSafe. KidSafe operates in the DTES, supporting over 400 referred, at-risk children annually, and providing nurturing safe havens for these vulnerable children.

School is the centre of the universe for many children. It’s where they learn, play, eat, make friends, discover role models, develop life-long social skills, and find help if a crisis arises.

We’ve talked to some of the teachers we work with, and they mentioned that while they can have a positive impact on the children during school hours, as soon as the child leaves the classroom, all the great work that the teacher did that day is practically wiped out. When the kids come back to school the next morning, they are essentially the same as they were when they first started, so the teachers have no control of the child’s development outside of the classroom. That’s why after school programs like KidSafe are great because there’s some transition, and there’s programming to help the parents as well.

Another example is Athletics for Kids (A4K), which helps ensure that all children across BC, regardless of their socio-economic status, have the opportunity to participate in amateur sports.

Sports programs can help counteract psychosocial problems and environmental and health issues as well as stress and loneliness. They contribute to physical fitness, mental well-being, and social integration by providing a safe forum in which a child can develop physically, emotionally and mentally.

We’re actually launching a campaign in February to raise money for Syrian refugee children arriving in Canada. Specifically, to provide grants for Syrian children to participate in amateur sports in the communities that they settle in.

Violence, persecution, and flight are common experiences to all refugees. Children are among the most vulnerable victims of displacement, but often the most neglected. For refugee children, sports can play a particularly important and healing role, helping to address health as well as social and developmental needs.

Because it’s been part of our mission and values, for every product that comes out of our pipeline, we look at how we can assist in creating awareness, offering knowledge to, or raising funds for charities that fit our thesis.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by the entrepreneurs we work with — it took me a long time to realize that I’m not young anymore, and now that I’m married, with a young family, I can’t go “all in” like I used to. So having the opportunity to meet all these different entrepreneurs who have grown up with the Internet with so many great concepts, I love how I can live vicariously through their everyday experiences by helping them develop their ideas.

What should people expect from Victory Square in 2016?

Through Victory Square Labs, where we focus on the very early-stage companies, we’ve spent the past 12 months building 12–13 of our portfolio companies. Now they’re ready to leave the nest, the coming months will be focused on the success of those companies.

With respect to onboarding new companies for Victory Square, we’ll be focusing on expanding our venture arm heavily in South America. We’ve established great relationships with entrepreneurs and ecosystem leaders in Colombia, and Brazil specifically and we’ve got some projects that we’re looking at in India as well, so 2016’s going to be a great year for growth and expansion.

Shafin Diamond Tejani was recently named Angel of the Year in the 2015 Canadian Startup Awards! Thank you for your support on recognizing Shafin for his many accomplishments.