The life cycle of an entrepreneur begins in the education system — not the university lecture hall, but the primary school classroom. And there is perhaps no place where egalitarianism is more prominent than in early education. While I fully support providing all children with the appropriate amount of nurturing, guidance and praise they need to flourish, I also believe that we have a duty to those who show higher potential to recognize their talents, guide their growth and make available all the resources we have as mentors and education providers. As a result, the ripple effect of this will undoubtedly instill some level of healthy competition among burgeoning innovative Canadians.
This isn’t to say that the Canadian education system isn’t good. We have one of the best in the world, and according to the exams administered by the OECD to 15-year-olds in 72 countries, Canadian kids are among the smartest, ranking second in the world in reading, seventh in science and tenth in math. Like our early education system, our postsecondary institutes are consistently ranked among the highest in the world. Times Higher Education world rankings recently placed the University of Toronto as twenty-second in the world and McGill University as forty-second.
So why aren’t more smart Canadian kids with great educations growing up to become entrepreneurs who build globally disruptive companies that propel our country forward?
Reza Satchu, Managing Partner of Alignvest Management Corp. and a serial entrepreneur, says it’s because we don’t have enough role models or networking opportunities, but more importantly, we’re too easy on students, too quick to reward.
“There’s no point in babying them,” Mr. Satchu said when I spoke to him about this topic for my book, How We Can Win. In his class, The Economics of Entrepreneurship, he sets the tone by playing drill sergeant, zeroing in on each student’s weakness and helping them face those challenges head on. “In the real world, entrepreneurs aren’t coddled. They have to address their weaknesses and correct them.” When he’s harsh, in other words, it’s for their own good.
I agree with him, and I would add that as a country, likely due to the tendency we have to coddle our students, we have lost our appetite for dreaming big. We’re too preoccupied with playing nice, playing within the rules and prioritizing politeness, which has bred a level of egalitarianism that’s detrimental to the way we do business. We’ve lost the benefit of competition and the desire for excellence that has been and continues to be a key ingredient to Canada competing on the world stage, particularly in the technology sector.
As a mentor to many young entrepreneurs and startups in NEXT Canada programs and elsewhere, I know that attempting to plant a ultracompetitive nature in entrepreneurs as they begin their businesses or look to scale is simply too late. We’ve created an aspiration gap — a disconnect between the capabilities of our talent and their drive for excellence — and we are now at a juncture where we seem more concerned with congratulating everyone for participating than we are with providing highly talented people with the resources they need to compete on the national and global stages.
In order for Canada to raise our current placing in the world of business and technology, we need to give up our preoccupation with egalitarianism and shift our focus to excellence, and it needs to happen earlier in the entrepreneurial life cycle.
In an industry where innovation is the key to success, failure is inevitable. Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, and not every business is destined to flourish. Canadian startups are too often satisfied with replicating success and finding Band-Aid solutions, when they should be looking to lead industries and create new ones.
Canadian kids, for example, require an abundance of scaffolding because they are discouraged, both explicitly and implicitly, from taking risks. “There’s a whole culture built around fear of failure in Canada, and it prevents people from even trying to do something ambitious because they’re so worried it won’t work out,” Mr. Satchu went on to say, adding, “It starts in elementary school and is in full flower by high school.”
Ajay Agrawal, a professor at the University of Toronto who co-founded Next 36 (now NEXT Canada) in 2010, echoes Mr. Satchu. In the Canadian education system, he told me, the emphasis “is on making students feel happy and safe, and the tradeoff is that you don’t push them or encourage them to push themselves and build confidence.”
The bright side to all of this is that technology and business leaders have recognized this gap we’ve created and are working to close it. There are programs springing up across the country that are devoted to helping our entrepreneurs develop a competitive edge and a desire to push boundaries earlier. The Next 36 program from NEXT Canada, for instance is devised to identify 36 entrepreneurial students and grads, connect them with successful mentors and academics, equip them with resources — and then demand excellence
We only need to look to the first cohort of NEXT Canada’s inaugural NextAIprogram to find examples of young minds who are pushing for excellence. Intuitive Inc. a startup from NEXT Canada’s NextAI program, is using computer vision (a field of study surrounding how computers understand and recognize digital images and videos) and machine learning (the field of computer science giving computers the ability to learn without being programmed to do so) to build the country’s first smart garbage bin, which has the potential to dramatically reduce the tons of miscategorized waste that fills our country’s facilities, as well as provide valuable data on the consumption patterns of Canadians. Intuitive Inc. was also named Top Venture at the inaugural NextAI Venture Day.
Karen.ai, another member of the NextAI program, has used artificial intelligence to create Karen, a Cognitive Recruitment Assistant. Karen uses machine learning to automatically review resumes, scanning hundreds per second looking for the most qualified individual based on the criteria of the position. Karen ranks the applicants not simply on job experience but personality and cultural fit.
My hope is that Next 36, NextAI and others programs like it, will begin to shift the mindset of our young entrepreneurs, start to close the aspiration gap, and change the way the rest of the world thinks of Canada — yes, we can be polite, but we can be sharp, innovative risk-takers, too.
Originally published in the Globe & Mail.
NEXTalks features thoughts on entrepreneurship, innovation and giving from the NEXT Canada network. The goal of the NEXTalks series is to spark dialogue around important issues related to innovation and technology.