City of Toronto’s Paula Kwan: Toronto has a window of opportunity
Paula Kwan could have gone anywhere in the world after her successful tenure at I Love Rewards (now Achievers), but she chose to stay in Toronto. Now, she’s onto something big as the new Director of Civic Innovation at the City of Toronto. Read on to see her global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
I got into tech because I was curious and was attracted to the values of the first tech company I joined – I Love Rewards, now Achievers.
In my late twenties, I saw a job posting for I Love Rewards. I knew nothing about the company but I liked the name and that was enough to do some research on the company and its founder, Elevate Toronto founder Razor Suleman.
The more I dug into the company, the story, and the product they were bringing to market, I realized their mission, vision, and values really aligned to what I felt was core to my values as well.
I was an early employee – around number 30 – and stayed for five years. I helped build out customer success and saw the company grew to 150 people by the time I left.
I had a few opportunities to leave, and looked at NYC, SF, and Tokyo, but something inside me knew I had to stay in Toronto. I looked around at what was going on and thought something big was going to happen that I wanted to be a part of.
Once I knew I was staying in tech and in Toronto, I started reaching out to VCs and founders for conversations to see what I would do next. I landed at Xtreme Labs, acquired by Pivotal Labs.
Shortly after I left there, I joined the City of Toronto.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
To make someone fall in love with Toronto, you need a food component, a tech component, and a walking-around component.
Depending on who I am with, I like taking people to Chinatown or Little India. The food is so authentic here and you have so many flavours of the world.
I rave about the tech hubs we have in Toronto like MaRS, so I’d want to show those off. Friends I tour around MaRS are always impressed by how focused we are in tech – and these are friends coming in from tech hubs like Israel or the United States.
I recently met up with some friends from London, England, and we went to House of VR to play VR games, and they were shocked. We don’t have much like this in North America, and it’s here in Toronto.
Finally, we’d walk around. Our city is friendly and safe, for the most part, so it’s easy to take transit, walk, or pickup a bike to see the city.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
I truly believe what’s happening in Toronto is all a moment in time – a window of opportunity that we all need to take complete advantage of to take us and boost us to the global scene as quickly as possible.
The support for innovation from the leaders we have in place is unparalleled. Looking south, the US political climate is driving innovations back to Toronto. Just recently I spoke with Canadian friends in SF who are looking to come home. Perhaps more telling, I have some friends from Toronto who were originally thinking of moving to SF but have now chosen to stay here.
We also see large American cheques coming into Canada to fuel Canadian growth – one huge example is Goldman Sachs investing in Hubba, their first ever international investment and the first investment of its kind in Canada.
There’s so much going on, and we need to capture that window of opportunity.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea for tech and innovation is one of the oldest ideas that we struggle with implementing – we need more diversity in innovation and tech.
We need to make sure the product and companies we build are for a diverse set of people. It’s crucial not only from a right-thing-to-do perspective but also a sales perspective.
It is difficult to build fully accessible products and companies, but that’s what we must do. More of us need to be at the table, from development to top leadership.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
I’d want the world to know to not underestimate us. That we have some of the best tech community/company building infrastructure in the world.
Come here and see for yourself if you haven’t or you are doubting it. We are welcoming here and we’re open to embracing different people and perspectives.