Meet 50 emerging leaders reinventing how Canada does business

Steven Spielberg

We could all use a little inspiration as we grope our way through year three of the pandemic. That’s especially true when we consider the long list of challenges we’ll still be facing when COVID-19 is finally behind us, including climate change, racial injustice and income inequality. So it’s perfect timing for our second annual Changemakers package, a celebration of emerging leaders who are finding pragmatic solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.

Our search began with a call for nominations, both from the business community and from across The Globe and Mail. Finalists were evaluated based on their ideas, accomplishments and impact. Out of hundreds of submissions, we narrowed it down to 50 entrepreneurs, academics and executives whose dedication, perseverance and enthusiasm might just give us the lift we need to make it through the pandemic—and encourage us all to make some changes of our own.

Phil De Luna
Director, Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge program, National Research Council of Canada
Daniel Skwarna/The Globe and Mail

PHIL DE LUNA | Director, Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge program, National Research Council of Canada

Solar cells and wind turbines are powerhouses for generating clean electricity, but 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from sectors that aren’t easy to electrify—think steel and cement making, chemical production, agriculture and heavy transport. If Canada hopes to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we need to develop other ways to decarbonize these industries—and fast.

That Herculean task is Phil De Luna’s mandate at the National Research Council of Canada. In 2019, the now-30-year-old became the organization’s youngest-ever director, leading a seven-year, $57-million research program to create transformative technologies that will help Canada decarbonize and mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.

“I’m a research capitalist,” says De Luna of his role at the NRC, where his program oversees more than 40 researchers in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. “Whereas a venture capitalist looks for companies to invest in, I look for the best research to invest in and co-develop, and my return on investment is achieving carbon targets.”

He’s certainly got the scientific street cred for the job. As a PhD student at the University of Toronto in 2016, De Luna did groundbreaking work in the emerging technology of carbon capture and conversion. While it normally takes thousands of years for fossil fuels to form underground, he was removing carbon dioxide from the air and turning it into electrofuels within minutes.

“Phil took the lead in developing a strategy to understand what was really going on at a deep physical-chemical-nanoscale level,” says U of T professor and research adviser Ted Sargent, who admires the way De Luna handled the rigorous peer-review process. “He took the feedback seriously but not personally, and he used it as an opportunity to do better science.”

It paid off. De Luna has published 42 academic papers in journals including Nature and Science, and has had more than 9,000 citations in the past five years, putting him among the top 0.1% most-cited researchers in the world. Now some of the NRC researchers he oversees are partnering with universities and startups to build on his findings and scale up the process of converting CO2 into fuels or other chemicals. A fridge-sized machine, for example, has the same carbon-conversion power as 10,000 trees.

Other research projects under his purview focus on producing clean hydrogen, a low-carbon alternative to natural gas. And because the climate-change clock is ticking, the NRC and its partners built an entire facility of “self-driving” labs—automated laboratories where artificial intelligence and robotics accelerate the discovery process for new clean energy materials, such as batteries, thermoelectrics and hydrogen catalysts. “Within 20 minutes, the robots plan which material to make, mix the ingredients, synthesize the material, test its properties, record the data and predict the next material to make,” says De Luna, adding that it would take human scientists at least 10 times longer. “So instead of needing 20 years and $20 million to find and scale the next clean-tech material, the goal is to take only two years and $2 million.”

And if that’s not enough of a contribution, De Luna—who grew up in Windsor, Ont., after his family emigrated from the Philippines when he was five—also ran in the last federal election as the Green Party candidate in Toronto-St. Paul’s. “We need to bring more science to politics,” he says. “And I wanted to inspire other young people to run.”

Margaret Kenequanash is CEO of Wataynikaneyap Power. The Globe and Mail / David JacksonDavid Jackson/The Globe and Mail

MARGARET KENEQUANASH | CEO, Wataynikaneyap Power

Margaret Kenequanash has been a fierce advocate for First Nations communities for more than 30 years. The first female chief of the North Caribou Lake First Nation in northern Ontario (about 320 kilometres by plane due north of Sioux Lookout) has held positions across many industries, from health to finance to education to community development. Her latest and most ambitious endeavour is Wataynikaneyap Power, an 1,800-kilometre transmission line that will deliver reliable electricity to remote northern communities that desperately need it.

These nations currently depend on diesel-powered generators, which creates a host of problems both for the communities that use them and for the planet. The largest generators in use are just one megawatt, and most communities are already operating at maximum power capacity. So when they inevitably surpass the load restriction, the generator fails and the whole community’s power goes out. “In the summer, this affects our food and water. In the winter, our elders and children are in danger,” says Kenequanash. Plus, diesel is dirty: Burning it produces 40% more CO2 than natural gas, and the impact of a spill during the trip north (often on ice highways) could be catastrophic to local waterways and land. It’s prohibitively expensive, too. Connecting remote communities to the electrical supply would save roughly $1 billion over 40 years.

Enter Wataynikaneyap Power, which translates to “line that brings light” in Anishiniiniimowin. It’s a partnership between 24 First Nations communities and St. John’s–based electric and gas holding company Fortis Inc. (the former have a 51% stake, the latter 49%, along with several private partners). Its mission is to help First Nations communities eliminate diesel power by connecting them to the provincial transmission grid, bringing stable electricity to 20,000 people. It will also help cut millions of tonnes of GHG emissions.

Connecting these communities has been a priority for decades, but the project didn’t really get going until Kenequanash came on board as CEO five years ago. “I’m always struck by Margaret’s tenacity and focus on getting the project completed according to the principles set out by the 24 First Nations partners,” says David Hutchens, Fortis’s CEO. “Her sense of vision and leadership is always present.”

Under Kenequanash’s watch, some 1,600 transmission towers have been installed since 2019, and 70% of the right-of-way has been cleared for 3,000-odd more. COVID-19 admittedly affected progress, as have the effects of climate change and rampant wildfires. But she isn’t losing sight of what’s at stake for her people—and it’s not just a lightbulb. “Think about if you lived in a sandbox and there’s power in the sandbox but nowhere else,” she says. “Work and business can only happen in that area. That’s very restrictive. In terms of community development, it stops most of it.”

Kenequanash has the sometimes complicated job of liaising between the corporate energy world and First Nations communities (including her own), which she describes as “a little like putting a square into a circle.” But procrastination is no longer an option. “Indigenous people can’t sit and wait for reliable energy’s arrival,” she says. “We need to be involved in the major infrastructures that are happening in our homeland. We need to have a say in our communities and our future generations.”

At least in this corner of the world, Kenequanash is the one advocating on behalf of Indigenous communities. “My job,” she says, “is to deliver those messages to make careful and responsible partnerships that bring about real change. I’m trying to get each to understand the other so we can both move forward.” This year promises to be particularly rewarding, she adds, when the substation in Pickle Lake goes active. Among the many nations that will finally be connected is her own.

Patricia Gauthier, General Manager of Moderna Canada operations, poses for a portrait in Etobicoke, ON on January 14th, 2022Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

PATRICIA GAUTHIER | General Manager, Moderna Canada

On Nov. 30, 2020, U.S.-based pharmaceutical and biotech company Moderna completed Phase 3 clinical trials of its mRNA-1273 vaccine, announcing it was 94.1% effective against COVID-19. That same day, Patricia Gauthier became Moderna’s first—and, for two months, sole—Canadian hire.

“Day one when I joined, we were looking at Health Canada approval in the next three to four weeks. Doses shipped from Europe needed to be in the country before Christmas, and I was the only Canadian employee,” says the 45-year-old originally from Trois-Rivières, Que., who left her role as head of the vaccines business unit at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Canada to take on the formidable challenge. “It was quite inspiring and humbling.”

Since then, Gauthier has not only successfully secured a continual supply of the world’s most in-demand (not to mention life-saving) product for Canadians, but she also built her now 12-person team from scratch and forged critical relationships with the government and other stakeholders. “There’s not a huge history of deep trust between pharma and government,” she says. “Transparency helps build trust very quickly, so I chose to be radically transparent with the media and government.”

A case in point: In April 2021, Gauthier informed the federal minister of public services and procurement there might not be enough supply of European-manufactured vaccines to meet Moderna Canada’s second-quarter commitments, and convinced Health Canada to expedite regulatory approval of its U.S-labelled product. “That allowed us to over-deliver, so in June we could move ahead with second doses,” she says.

A lawyer by training, Gauthier worked at McCarthy Tétrault for five years before going back to school in 2007 to earn her MBA at HEC Montréal. She subsequently joined GSK, where she held a number of roles, including chief of staff and head of government affairs and market access. “Patricia and I had some complex negotiations with the Government of Canada on tight timelines,” recalls Josée Gravelle, GSK’s head of legal commercial excellence, global pharmaceutical. “I know how hard she pushes to make sure Canadians are at the heart of those discussions. She really tries to strike a balance between doing what’s best for patients and what’s best for stakeholders.”

Starting in the fourth quarter of 2021, Gauthier came through again with millions of booster shots for Canadians, and Moderna announced it would begin clinical trials in early 2022 on a vaccine specifically designed to combat the Omicron variant. But she’s also looking ahead to the next pandemic that could threaten world populations: Last summer, Moderna announced it had reached an agreement in principle with the federal government to build an mRNA vaccine production plant in Canada within a couple of years, thanks in large part to her negotiation efforts. “We don’t know what the next disease will be,” says Gauthier, “but we want to build a model where we can offer solutions to various potential pandemic viruses in the future so Canada will be ready.”

Jorian Charlton/The Globe and Mail

SHANNAE INGLETON SMITH | Co-founder & Head of Influencer Talent, Kensington Grey Agency Inc.

Shannae Ingleton Smith was on maternity leave from her job as a national account manager at Rogers Communications in 2016 when she started thinking about the faces her newborn daughter, Kensington, would go through life seeing portrayed in the media. Would any of them look like her? “For me growing up, seeing a person of colour featured on TV shows or in ads or on the cover of a magazine—it happened, but they were few and far between,” she says.

Five years later, Ingleton Smith has built one of the world’s top boutique management agencies (named after her daughter, of course) that focuses on Black social media influencers—putting them front-and-centre in marketing campaigns for major names including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Nike and the Gap. “We invoiced for over 1,200 campaigns in 2021 for brands in Canada and the U.S.,” says the 41-year-old, who founded Toronto-based Kensington Grey with her husband, Sean, in 2019, and now employs 10 full-time staff.

Given that most of the 26 influencers signed to the agency have at least 100,000 followers on social media channels such as Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitter, those campaigns go a long way toward boosting representation for diverse audiences. Moreover, Ingleton Smith is doing what she can to foster long-term transformative change by asking potential brand partners tough questions about what steps they’re taking to dismantle systemic racism. “Depending on the answers, we had to let some go,” she says. “We need to make sure we’re not being used as a prop to make a company appear diverse when they’re not. This is a world where authenticity matters.”

Indeed, that authenticity makes Ingleton Smith a successful influencer in her own right, says Alexandra Nikolajev, senior lead, creator content and partnerships at Pinterest, who had her create content for the image-sharing platform at the beginning of the pandemic focusing on activities parents could do with their kids during lockdown. “Shannae really puts herself into her work and inspires others with her energy, which resonates with the audience,” says Nikolajev. “It’s something innate in who she is, and it’s that authenticity that makes an impact.”

She’s also a shrewd negotiator, ensuring the agency’s Black talent is appropriately compensated in a nascent industry where pay structures are still being developed. “At first, brands didn’t see this as a genuine career. But you’re a copywriter, photographer, stylist and product manager,” says Ingleton Smith, who prefers the term creator to influencer. “Black women, in particular, were undercharging, so there was some education required on both sides.”

With Ingleton Smith’s guidance, a handful of Kensington Grey’s influencers grossed more than $1 million last year, and several others earned half a million. “Some were able to buy their first homes,” she says. “These are life-changing, earth-shattering, trajectory-changing differences in the lives of the people we work with.”

Benjamin Alarie
Co-founder, Blue J Legal
Angela Lewis/The Globe and Mail

BENJAMIN ALARIE | Co-founder, Blue J Legal

If you’ve never sat through a law class, here’s the answer to most of the questions that get asked: “It depends.” Needless to say, it can be a frustrating and not overly helpful response. “Well, of course it depends!” says University of Toronto Law professor Benjamin Alarie. “On what? To what extent? It can be a lazy response dressed up as a sophisticated one.”

In the lawyers’ defence, however, law can be a slow-moving, precedent-based industry where verdicts are indeed based on small differentiating details. Alarie is convinced it doesn’t have to be that way, and when he was promoted to associate dean with tenure in 2011, he found himself in a unique spot to make real and immediate change. First, he revamped the grading process. Next, admissions. Finally, curriculum, which hadn’t seen a major change since the 1970s and might not get another one for a very long time. “It became clear we were designing curriculum not just for 2012,” he says, “but for 2050 and beyond.”

What the law might look like a century from now is anyone’s guess, but if you had to gamble on something, you’d be wise to bet on technology. “With the understanding that computing power will continue to grow exponentially, I was awestruck by the potential of machine learning and AI algorithms for law,” he says. When Alarie’s post as dean ended, and with some time off to enjoy, he partnered with two like-minded U of T colleagues—Anthony Niblett and Albert Yoon—to build an algorithm that predicts a judge’s likely ruling in advance.

Now reconsider that canned “It depends” response. What if all factors could be considered, the answers plugged into the software, and a prediction made of a judge’s likely ruling? “If I could tell you, as a lawyer, there’s a 96% chance we’re going to win this case, then the other lawyer knows 4% is not worth fighting for,” says Alarie. Moreover, the software steers you to similar cases, ranked in order of statistical similarity. “Our algorithms help lawyers make decisions about when and how to proceed, and over time, there will be fewer slam-dunk cases clogging up the courts.”

Blue J Legal launched in 2015, focusing its predictive software on tax law—Alarie’s personal expertise. Two years later, and having expanded to include employment law, it launched commercially. As an American version currently rolls into the U.S., all the big accounting firms across Canada are now using Blue J, as is the federal government. But where Blue J could sell a premium product only to those who can afford it, it’s instead committed to making the software accessible to those who need it most. “We provide the platform to legal aid and pro bono organizations to give access to low-income clientele, too,” says Alarie.

The accuracy of his software is already over 90%, and as new cases are added to the system, that number could increase. “Blue J could make everyone’s job in this field easier,” he says. “Except judges—judging will probably become a lot more challenging.”

Aali R. Alizadeh | Co-founder and CTO, Giatec Scientific Inc.

Civil engineer Alizadeh was on a fast-track to academia when he “got really sad to see crumbling infrastructures” all around. He reasoned the problem was concrete, which has been used the same way (basically, more is more) for hundreds of years and the production of which is responsible for 7% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide each year. “There’s a huge opportunity to make concrete more environmentally friendly just by reducing the amount of cement used,” he says. For that, Alizadeh used AI and IoT to monitor concrete’s lifecycle, accounting for everything from traffic to weather, to optimize use and reduce waste. His “SmartMix” AI, as he calls it, can help the industry mix a leaner concrete that could cut GHG emissions by up to 20%.

Dionne Laslo-Baker | Founder and CEO, DeeBee’s Organics

Though Baker trained in maternal fetal toxicology, it wasn’t until she had her own kids to feed that she started thinking about nutrition, more specifically, popsicles—which tend to be either cheap sugar-water or expensive fruit bars that hog freezer space. DeeBee’s has found a sweet spot in between, with organic, fruit-based freezies that don’t need to be frozen until you bring them home. Her formula—free from artificial flavours, sweeteners and preservatives—is top secret, but Laslo-Baker says customers can be sure no fruit is wasted and that her process is sustainable, with the factory being almost completely solar powered.

Elizabeth Coulombe | Co-founder, Tero

Composting is crucial to help reduce waste that ends up in landfill, but it’s not particularly convenient. “Most people don’t have the space or time, or don’t want the mess or odour or flies,” says Coulombe. Tero is a countertop appliance that solves those issues. Feed it veggie scraps, leftovers, even dairy and animal-based products (though no bones), press a button, and Tero’s heat and filter technology turns your scraps into nutrient-rich fertilizer in just a few hours.

Rene Blanco | Co-founder and CEO, Labora

While an international MBA student at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Blanco set out to simplify the process by which foreign workers have long been paid. Instead of a worker cashing a cheque from a farmer and sending the money home via money transfer, where the worker’s beneficiary retrieves it and finally deposits it in a foreign bank, Labora does it all in two clicks: one for the farmer to send it to Labora, the other for Labora to deposit it into the beneficiary’s account. “One lump sum speeds the process, eliminates bank fees and gets preferential exchange rates,” says Blanco. While slashing admin work for employers, Labora even helps employees with T4s, tax returns and more.

Chitra Anand | Partner and Managing Director, Clariti Strategic Advisors

“Intrapreneurship” is the increasingly sought-after skill of entrepreneurship within an organization. Anand is the country’s leading thinker on the subject, and she teaches organizations exactly how to harness, foster and retain that unique talent. “Companies are in dire need of these creative, innovative people, but they don’t build the culture to keep them,” says Anand, a self-professed “career intrapreneur” who now gives back to the business world via eye-opening talks to corporations, businesses and governments.

Jonah Rubin | Senior Advisor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, BMO

BMO manager Rubin came out six years ago, when he met his now-fiancé. “Prior to that, I didn’t think I was gay or think about it at all, really. I had no real concept of inclusion until it affected me.” That brave admission is true of too many, few of whom have decided to make the positive changes Rubin has. He first joined BMO Pride and was promoted to DEI advisor, where he developed the “Road to Allyship” program for people who think like he used to. The program has since created a pilot pronoun project that teaches branch staff to address customers with inclusivity and sensitivity.

“Jonah is committed to breaking down barriers, testing the norm and challenging it in a meaningful way to create an inclusive society where everyone can bring their authentic self to work. His guidance and personal commitment to action plays a significant role in shaping the decisions we make and in the evolution of diversity, equity and inclusion at BMO.” —Karen Collins, Chief Talent Officer, BMO Financial Group

Paulina Cameron | CEO, The Forum

Driven by its mission to “leave no woman behind,” The Forum is a nationwide charitable network that helps connect and mentor female entrepreneurs—5,500 of them since March 2020. “Women entrepreneurs are the change the world needs,” explains the career entrepreneur and bestselling author of Canada 150 Women: Conversations with Leaders, Champions and Luminaries. “Women start businesses with things like living wages and environmental responsibility already embedded,” says Cameron, who became CEO three years ago. “When we support them, we support a better world.”

Catherine Connelly | Professor of Organizational Behaviour, DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University

Passionately devoted to “workers that re-search tends to overlook,” Connelly’s paper on the business case for hiring people with disabilities has been downloaded almost 100,000 times. The HR prof has recently advocated for workers with disabilities and the surprising benefits—professional and financial—of hiring this oft-overlooked group of “loyal workers with above-average performance and low turnover.” Connelly’s indisputable evidence is convincing bosses to ditch old preconceptions and hire people of all kinds.

Erin Holley | Senior Member of Technical Staff, Introspect Technology

The hardest part of Holley’s job might be explaining it at parties. The company makes sensors, cameras, displays, and other test and measurement tools for high-speed digital applications in a variety of industries, including aerospace, automotive, telecom and medical automation. Her particular invention is the SV5C-12 memory interface, which tests and debugs memory modules by replacing expensive automated equipment with increasingly smaller and faster tech. The SV5C-12 is bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a laptop, she adds, and conveniently fits in her bag.

Rhea Simms | Senior Manager of Global Programs, Planeterra

The future of tourism will be local, sustainable and socially responsible. Simms is making that happen by liaising with 305 communities in 72 countries to help them ensure tourism in their area “puts money back in the hands of the locals.” The self-described small-town girl from Newfoundland is making a big-time difference in the world by bringing training, support and networking opportunities to local tourism enterprises, and encouraging travellers and travel companies to prioritize community tourism. Even better: Planeterra’s services and support are available for exactly zero dollars.

Gwenna Kadima | Talent and Organization Consultant, Accenture

Kadima co-founded Accenture’s Black Outreach Learning and Development (a.k.a. BOLD) initiative, created its student mentorship program, and even piloted an AI-powered inclusion- and diversity-certification platform for the company’s 5,450 Canadian employees—all to promote Black talent at Accenture and beyond. “We want to ensure Black Lives Matter isn’t just a moment; it’s a sustainable long-term movement where Accenture’s resources can lead to better experiences for Black employees here and the Black community everywhere,” says Kadima.

Eric Beckwitt | Co-founder and CEO, Freightera

Beckwitt had one of those ideas so simple and obvious you might assume it already existed: “It’s like Expedia but for freight,” he says of Freightera, now the 28th fasting-growing tech company in Canada. “In five to 15 seconds, our system searches 20 billion ‘lanes’—think of them as flights that are going a certain direction—and lets companies hitch a ride.” Every carpooled load reduces GHG emissions by up to 62% compared to the industry average.

Sarah Landstreet | Founder and CEO, Georgette Packaging

Landstreet’s resumé is full of twists and turns: mechanical engineer, cupcake shop owner, Ivey Business School student and, finally, sustainable packager. “I like solving unsexy problems,” she says, and shipping cupcakes revealed “a very opaque, old-school industry” desperate for modernization. “Consumers are demanding better branded packaging that looks great and isn’t destroying the planet.” For them, Landstreet created, where users can track exactly where that coffee cup came from and where it’s going. Georgette also designs sustainable packaging with the lowest possible impact on the planet and uses carbon offsets to cover the rest.

Sharon Nyangweso | Founder and CEO, QuakeLab

“QuakeLab is a full-stack inclusion agency that spans much further than HR,” says Nyangweso, who sees her business in terms of before the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and after. “People used to come to us for crisis management or damage control, but after George Floyd, everything changed. Now employers come to us asking to avoid these diversity problems to begin with.” Nyangweso’s work looks beyond “aesthetic diversity” and toward “the policies, practices and foundational pieces of organizations.” A QuakeLab report, which spells out sometimes uncomfortable truths, offers a complete analysis of management processes and exactly how they affect marginalized groups.

Allison Venditti | Founder, Moms at Work

When Ontario pushed aside pay transparency legislation, Venditti decided to launch one of the country’s first compensation-transparent job boards. “We know women, especially women of colour, are paid less—and I’m tired of being told it’s because of the way they negotiate,” says the former HR pro and 40-year-old mom of three, whose national advocacy and professional group for working mothers has 10,000 members. Fifty employers have already signed on to the job board. Last year, Venditti lobbied the federal government to temporarily lower the number of hours needed to qualify for EI—allowing more parents to receive benefits during the pandemic.

Scott Stirrett | Founder and CEO, Venture for Canada

At the helm of one of the country’s fastest-growing non-profits, Stirrett is on a mission to foster entrepreneurial skills in communities that need them most: young, BIPOC, LGBT+ and disabled Canadians. “Last year, VFC connected 3,000 people with the practical experience they need at startups and small businesses across Canada,” says Stirrett, who spent two years at Goldman Sachs before devoting himself to philanthropy full time—at the tender age of 22. “I didn’t realize how audacious this was; youth makes people not fear failure,” says Stirrett, now a well-seasoned 30.

Alexander Sinora | Co-founder, Black Wealth Club

Every year, the Black Wealth Club chooses 50 emerging Black leaders across Canada and bombards them with the resources and support they deserve: workshops, speakers, networking, mentoring. BWC is “my way of giving back to my community,” says 26-year-old Sinora, a consultant at McKinsey who also sits on the Black Canadian Youth Approach’s advisory board. “We talk a lot about inclusion,” says the Montreal native, “but we should be talking more about access.”

“Alex is really working to make a change, not just talking about it. I co-founded the BWC with Alex, and I have opened my network to the cohort of 50 young Black leaders through events with industry leaders. Alex and I believe that innovation and progress happen when networks collide, and the BWC is a great catalyst for such collisions.” —Paul Desmarais III, CEO, Sagard

Aja Horsley | CEO, Drizzle Honey

Sometimes a great idea is just an old one rebranded. A few years ago, the Calgary-based environmental scientist and backyard beekeeper saw bees finally getting the attention they deserved. But though honey was sweet, it wasn’t exactly sexy. “None of the honey companies out there were very cool, to put it bluntly,” she says, “so we set out to make honey a bit flashier.” Drizzle’s sleek line of raw honey comes infused with ingredients like chili or cacao, and its swanky social media feed urges young consumers to “get your Drizzle on.”

Stephanie Choo | Partner and Head of Investments, Portage Ventures

Choo joined Sagard’s venture capital business five years ago to lead a new generation of fintech—”early-stage entrepreneurs trying to shape the future of financial services,” she says. Choo is writing multimillion-dollar cheques to the coolest, fastest-growing fintech ideas she can find. In Canada, that includes Wealthsimple, KOHO and Conquest. “I’m looking for small companies with big potential in some kind of not-yet-disrupted space.”

Charles David Mathieu-Poulin | Senior Advisor, Circular Economy, TC Transcontinental

In theory, the container you recycle finds new life as, say, a plastic chair or a spork. In practice, manufacturers can’t handle all our used plastics because they can be difficult (and costly) to turn back into resins. To address this problem, TC Transcontinental uses a circular economy strategy: It starts by making sure all its packaging will be designed to be compostable or easily recyclable; then it helps recycling centres optimize their operations. Finally, it turns post-consumer plastics back into packaging. “By doing the right thing, we are also meeting a market demand for more sustainable packaging options,” says Mathieu-Poulin, 34, an environmental engineer who’s been the driving force behind the company’s strategic approach to sustainability.

Shadi McIsaac | Co-founder and CEO, Ownr

Only two out of every five would-be entrepreneurs take the leap to launch a business; of those who do, only half will survive. McIsaac is working hard to up those odds. “My end game is five out of five,” says the creator of this legal tech platform that helps entrepreneurs launch and grow. For a reasonable lump sum and a small annual fee, Ownr (owned by RBC Ventures) will handle the sometimes-intimidating paperwork—registration, incorporation, company management and annual filings—so entrepreneurs can focus on the big picture. “We’re simultaneously reducing the barrier of entry and increasing the confidence of entrepreneurs,” says McIsaac. Since launching in 2017, Ownr has helped more than 65,000 Canadian entrepreneurs launch their businesses, and its revenue grew by 217% in 2021.

“Under Shadi’s leadership, Ownr is increasing the opportunity for all Canadians to take the leap into small business creation. The platform has quickly gained traction as one of the most innovative solutions RBC Ventures has deployed in the market, and it is creating meaningful, long-term value for the bank and the broader economy.” —Dave McKay, CEO, Royal Bank of Canada

Keziah Myers | Executive Director, ADVANCE

Diversity in Canadian music is something of a smokescreen. “On the stage you’ll see Drake and Kim Davis, sure, but at the networking gala, they’ll be the two Black music professionals in a crowd of 600,” says Myers. Moments like those and many more became the catalyst for the 2020 founding of ADVANCE, Canada’s Black Music Business Collective, which seeks to challenge old stereotypes “of Black person as creative, singer and entertainer—but never the executive decision-maker.” The growing collective will advocate for Black professionals and create programming to advance their careers.

Martin Basiri | Co-founder and CEO, ApplyBoard

Basiri came from Iran to Canada in 2010 to study engineering. “It was very, very hard to choose a city, a university, a degree when you’ve never been to the country and don’t speak the language,” recalls Basiri. It was this complicated process of choosing that inspired ApplyBoard. The software uses AI and machine-learning tech alongside a team of 1,500 counsellors in 25 countries to help students navigate everything from tuition to visa assistance. Thanks to ApplyBoard, students have won more than $50 million in scholarships and financial aid over the past two years alone.

Alex Kjorven | CPO, Ourboro

For homebuyers discouraged by the ever-climbing cost of real estate, Ourboro’s model might be the answer. “Most prospective buyers can manage a down payment of 5%, but not 20%,” says Kjorven. Ourboro’s win-win idea: “You find and choose a home, put in a portion of the down payment, and we put in the rest.” Live in and maintain your home, pay a mortgage like you would anyhow, and the magic happens when you’re ready to move (which 90% of people will do within a decade). “Then you get your principal payments back, and what’s left over—plus appreciation—is split with Ourboro in the ratio you started with.” Her biggest hurdle is the old notion that “you either own 100% of your home or you own nothing. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Claire McLoughlin | Co-founder, Friendly Composting

When food waste goes into landfill, it produces methane, which traps 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. With that in mind, McLoughlin, 27, and her roommate Katie Forsyth, 29, launched a composting service in Kamloops, B.C., that now collects 3,000 kilograms of food waste each week and delivers it to a nearby farm to compost into nutrient-rich soil. “A ton of people want to do their part to mitigate climate risks,” says McLoughlin, “but municipalities are slow making these changes.”

Denis Nagasaki | Managing Director, Strategy & Client Success, Silicon Valley Bank Canada

California-based SVB, which opened a Toronto branch in 2019, provides loans to tech startups so they can grow and hit their targets before the next round of funding. “We’re supporting Canadian entrepreneurs who are leveraging technologies that will make lives better,” says Nagasaki, 32, one of the bank’s three original Canadian employees, who has helped grow the operation to 40 staff. Big-name clients include Shopify and KOHO, plus innovators in biotech, agriculture and climate science.

Donna Litt | Co-founder and COO, Uvaro

The pandemic has hit retail and service workers hard. Uvaro’s online program retrains these workers to pivot to a sector with huge demand for labour and lots of opportunity for growth: tech sales. “Entry-level positions in Canada average around $50,000, while the upper end is about $250,000,” says Litt, 34, who started the company with her brother, Joseph Fung. Since January 2020, more than 300 people in Canada and the U.S. have graduated from Uvaro’s program, with an 80% job placement rate and salary increases of up to 120%.

“Donna has been a champion in seeking representation in sales roles for people from all walks of life in technology companies. More recently, she spearheaded a $50,000 scholarship fund for BIPOC women who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Her leadership, tenacity and drive to level the playing field is a force unstoppable.” —Janet Bannister, Managing Partner, Real Ventures

Carolyn DuBois | Executive Director, Water Program, The Gordon Foundation

Data on Canada’s freshwater health—including whether a source is drinkable and its fish safe to eat—has traditionally been hard to come by. That’s because the researchers, community groups and government agencies that collect such information haven’t had an easy way of sharing their data. “It often sits on private servers,” says DuBois, 37, who developed an open-source DataStream platform so stakeholders can share and build off each other’s knowledge. Water monitoring groups in the Mackenzie Basin, Atlantic Canada, Lake Winnipeg Basin and Great Lakes area have now uploaded more than 12 million data points accessible to anyone, including scientists and policymakers.

John Thomas | Executive Advisor & former President, SFU Aerospace

At just 23, this fourth-year computer engineering student at Simon Fraser University in B.C. has an impressive CV. He works a part-time job at Apple (natch) as a technical expert, has designed a smart credit platform for HSBC, is creating artificial gravity equipment to help mitigate the negative health effects of zero gravity on astronauts in space, and launched a startup that’s building new tools for deep sea and space exploration.

Then there’s his work with SFU Aerospace, where a group of about 150 students work on robotics, drones and satellites. In 2022, they’ll launch a tiny satellite into space that anyone can use to take a picture of their location on Earth. The group has also engaged hundreds of elementary and high school students in workshops that teach them coding and robotics, and thousands more through appearances at Vancouver’s Space Centre and Science World. “I only ever got to experience any of this stuff in first-year university, so that’s kind of cool,” says Thomas.

Anie Rouleau | Founder and CEO, Baléco Inc.

Weekly migraines from a fragrance sensitivity lead Rouleau to create the Unscented Co. line of eco-friendly home and body care products in 2016. But beyond helping consumers who can’t tolerate strong-smelling soaps and cleansers, the Montreal-based venture is changing industry standards through its use of refillable and plastic-free packaging. In 2020 alone, it prevented the use of more than 854,000 plastic bottles, and inspired its main competitor, Attitude, to launch its own small bottle-refill stations.

Miriam Tuerk | Co-founder and CEO, Clear Blue Technologies

“In the same way half the world’s phones are now wireless, we believe half the world’s power should be wireless,” says Tuerk, whose company is building technology to deliver smart, clean, renewable, efficient and cost-effective power to the billions of people in the world who still lack access to reliable power. From its headquarters in Toronto, Clear Blue projects currently use sun and wind for telephone systems, streetlights and agriculture in 37 countries, from Norway to Nigeria to New Zealand.

Amin Bashi | Co-founder and Chief Product Officer, Bloom

Retirement planning is usually about finances, not finding post-career purpose. “You might have a hobby, but it doesn’t define you,” says Bashi, 30, who partnered with Jeremy Dabor, 29, to help “Bloomers” in Canada and the U.S. discover what they care about. For as little as $149, participants get 12 hours of online group sessions with a certified retirement coach so they can pinpoint their strengths and passions, build community, and create a personal retirement life plan.

Rachael Newton | Founder, nixit

Originally from the U.K. by way of Canada, Newton was living in the Caribbean when menstrual product waste became impossible to deny. “On an island, when you actually see piles of waste, and you know that those waste piles include tampons that take 500 years to degrade, I couldn’t just toss my waste in a bin and move on.” Instead, she came back to Canada and launched nixit, a menstrual cup that’s one of just a handful authorized for sale by Health Canada. “We’re changing the conversation around periods just by educating people on the choices that are available,” says Newton.

Heather McDonald | CEO, LOFT Community Services

Seniors with mental health and addiction issues can end up in hospital for years—long-term care homes often won’t accept them, and their needs are too great for them to be released into the community. The not-for-profit LOFT provides permanent supportive housing for 1,000 such seniors at 14 sites in the Toronto area—at 65% to 90% less than hospitalization would cost. More importantly, it’s a welcoming space that gives residents independence. “My parents died in a car accident when I was 17, and without my sisters I would have been adrift,” says McDonald, a former social worker. “That’s why I’m so interested in helping others and to find them a place where they belong.”

Ted Fleming | Founder and CEO, Partake Brewing

Whether for health, dietary or other reasons, more Canadians are looking for non-alcoholic alternatives to their favourite beverages—at least some of the time. “There’s a movement, driven by Millennials and Gen Z, who want to have a good time and socialize but also be in control,” says Fleming, a Calgary-based non-alcoholic craft beer producer whose business has grown more than 2,000% in three years. By offering consumers a high-quality adult drink without alcohol, Partake is helping to combat the social stigma experienced by non-imbibers.

Sam Mod | CEO and Co-Founder, FreshWorks Studio

In 2013, software engineering grad Sam Mod emigrated from India to pursue his MBA at the University of Victoria. Now the 33-year-old employs hundreds in his app development firm, with annual revenues of more than $20 million. Recent notable public sector projects include the B.C. Vaccine Card, a proof-of-vaccination platform; and Foundry, a B.C. Health app that provides youth and their caregivers with free counselling and mental health support. “Mental health issues have escalated during the pandemic,” says Mod, “so it’s really made a huge difference.”

Max Chan | Vice-President, Treasury & Enterprise Risk, Enbridge Inc.

How do you put your money where your mouth is on environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals? For Enbridge, the answer is sustainability-linked bonds, which connect those goals to capital markets. “Talk is cheap, so we’ve taken it a step further,” says Chan, who leads Enbridge’s treasury team and brought the innovative financial instruments to market. “The bankers tell me it was the first SEC-registered SLB, and one of very few ever issued in the energy sector globally.” If the energy giant misses its environmental goals, the bond coupons step up 40 basis points—essentially paying a penalty to investors.

Philip Cutler | Co-founder and CEO, Paper

As a former sixth-grade teacher in Montreal, Cutler saw what inequality looks like in the classroom. “I would assess all the students the same but realized they didn’t all have the same access to support at home,” says the 33-year-old entrepreneur. So, he set out to level the playing field by offering high-quality tutoring services to all students at no cost. The result is Paper, which now has 340 employees and 2,000 qualified tutors serving 1.5 million students across the U.S. Public school districts pick up the tab and provide devices to each student, while partners such as Verizon offer internet hot spots for home use so students can access live online help in English, French, Spanish and Mandarin.

Sumreen Rattan | Co-founder and COO, Moment Energy

This Vancouver-based startup is scoring an environmental hat trick by turning end-of-life electric vehicle batteries into energy storage units. The innovative solution reduces waste, allows Indigenous and other off-grid communities to switch from polluting diesel generators to clean energy, and gives on-grid businesses a way to store electricity at night for use during peak-demand hours. “Our storage units last for seven to 10 years, providing a second economy for EV batteries,” says Rattan, 26, one of four SFU systems engineering grads who founded the company.

Jessica Yamoah | Founder and CEO, INNOVATE Inc.

Underrepresented communities are at the heart of everything Yamoah does, from building awareness about the value of inclusion to helping diverse entrepreneurs access government grants. Now the Ghanaian-Canadian is launching a three-year VIP program to help foster the career development of Black women. “There are a lot of programs for youth,” she says, “but when your next step is senior management, the support isn’t there.”

Rob Stein | President, Skyline Clean Energy Asset Management

Skyline manages a portfolio of 70 clean energy assets that have produced enough power in the past three years to replace nearly 32,000 barrels of oil. Because those assets are backed by long-term government agreements, Skyline’s socially responsible investment fund has had an 8.1% average annual return since inception. “We’ve given retail investors the opportunity to invest in clean energy, and they benefit from a risk perspective,” says Stein.

Heather Odendaal | Founder and CEO, WNORTH

The best way to get more women into the C-suite is to make sure there are plenty of candidates in the pipeline, says Odendaal, who created her B.C.-based organization in 2015 to close the gender power gap in Canada. More than 1,000 female senior managers, directors, VPs and entrepreneurs participate in WNORTH’s annual conference, workshops, events and courses, with substantial results. “Of the 300 people who took our Leadership Mastermind program,” says Odendaal, “58% got promoted within a year.”

Hannah Sennik | Co-founder and CEO, Rekammend

Rekammend’s word-retrieval app gives patients who’ve suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury their voices back. Neurological impairments can affect the ability to speak, write and type, and existing word-finding tools are painfully slow—averaging just 10 words per minute. Sennik’s platform uses predictive text, AI and GPS technologies to boost that rate sixfold. “So, if you’re at the grocery store or the bank, it will suggest phrases that you might use or have used there before,” says the 24-year-old systems design engineer.

Leena Yousefi | Founder and CEO, YLaw

With an aim to restore mental health to a profession rampant with anxiety, addiction and burn-out, family lawyer Yousefi launched a legal firm that does away with the 24-7 work culture. Her 25 employees, including 14 lawyers, in the Vancouver area work four nine-hour days (with an hour break for lunch). “I was prepared to lose 10% of profits, but we didn’t experience any decrease in billable hours, and we doubled our size and revenue,” says Yousefi, who plans to expand the firm nationally this year.

Saj Shapiro | President, Radicle Group Inc.

Calgary-based Radicle helps companies find ways to reduce their emissions—then calculates their resulting carbon credits so they can trade them on the market for cash. “A big part of our client base is oil and gas, but we also work with retail stores, coffee distributors, commercial developers and farmers,” says Shapiro. With five offices in Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, Radicle is having a global impact: So far, it has reduced seven million tonnes of carbon emissions—equivalent to 1.5 million cars driven for a year.

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