The Big Read

Origin Story: Canadians in Silicon Valley

Illustrations by Josh Holinaty
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Lars Leckie knew C100 had arrived when he was walking down the street in downtown Toronto a few years ago, crossing an intersection while wearing his C100 jacket. A young entrepreneur stopped him mid-stride, and introduced himself. “‘It’s so great to meet someone from the C100!’” Leckie recounts the man telling him. “And I’m like, ‘I’m just in downtown Toronto, I’m not at an office where you expect to see startups,’” says Leckie. “It was pretty cool.”

Bay Area venture capitalists like Leckie, managing director at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, rarely get that kind of open-mouthed rock-star treatment in Silicon Valley, although they are a key part of its mystique—the golden-robed men and women who, like ancient Roman emperors in the Colosseum, control pollice verso the fate of companies and the circulation of economy-altering sums of money.

But together, the charter members of C100 have inspired their own mystique, a coveted stamp of approval. C100 is a small, member-driven non-profit that connects Canadian tech entrepreneurs with the Valley’s top Canadians in the industry. Hundreds of companies apply for 48 Hours in the Valley, its signature program, each year. Only 20 are selected. The pitch session trainings and mentorship that CEOs receive—not to mention introductions to funders—have contributed to the growth of companies like Clearbanc, Frank And Oak, Kik, Wealthsimple, Tulip and Well.ca. All told, more than $3 billion in venture capital was invested in Canada in 2017, and another $3.2 billion the year before that. C100 estimates that the funds companies with a C100 connection since 2010 easily stretches into the billions.

Yet the story of Canadian excellence in the Valley is fraught—and not just by conversations at home about “brain drain,” even as Canadian entrepreneurs continue to derive a net benefit from the training they get from U.S. universities and tech jobs. The other issue is the hidden history of Canadian success itself. In its reluctance to acknowledge the realities of the modern tech diaspora, Canadians—or the Canadian press, at any rate—have inadvertently overlooked the names and diminished the achievements of generations of Canadians who handed the baton to the tech workers transforming our digital economy.

The resulting lacuna may seem benign, but it has had real consequences for today’s tech talent, according to Canadians I spoke to in the Valley. It’s fostered a hesitation for Canada to celebrate its wins—and has affected Canadian entrepreneurs’ tendencies to see themselves playing a bigger role on the world stage.

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