Canada seizes chance to skim talent from disaffected U.S. tech companies

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“There is a big opportunity here,” says Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, a 1,000-person company in Vancouver that designed a platform for managing social media. “We have seen a number of people reach out because of concerns over diversity.”

The leaders of several major U.S. corporations have denounced President Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. And the companies are putting their money where their mouths are.

President Trump’s imminent executive order that would place restrictions on the H-1B visa program is Silicon Valley’s loss, but could be Canada’s gain.
Sunil Sharma is convinced so.

Next week, his company, Extreme Venture Partners, plans to announce a new fund that will help up to five startup founders and their families move to Waterloo and Toronto, and invest $100,000 if they are accepted to the venture capital firm’s accelerator.

“Tech startups are a worldwide phenomenon and not limited to Silicon Valley,” says Sharma, who said the companies would be headquartered in Canada but maintain operations in their country of origin. “This was an issue before the current restrictive travel ban and imminent H-1B plan.”

H-1B is a work-visa program that tech companies have long relied on to bring top foreign engineering talent to their U.S.-based locations.

On the other side of Canada, a group of co-founders has formed a company, called True North, to help American companies quickly create subsidiaries in Canada and shift workers to a new business complex in Vancouver. They’re offering $6,000 in round trip expenses to make their case.

Another organization, Go North Canada, urges natives to return home and extols the virtues of Canada as a tech destination.

The USA’s northern neighbour — home to tech companies such as Imax, Hootsuite and Shopify — is making its strongest pitch yet for tech talent at a time when American companies recoil at Trump’s first actions in office. Executives, companies and venture capitalists are dangling money, gleaming new facilities, broadband access for all, and promises of economic stability and free health care — the latest moves by a region that for years has harboured dreams of skimming talent.

What a difference a presidential election makes. For years, Canada could not compete with Silicon Valley on salary or facilities. If one wanted to make it in tech, they trekked to California, where the vast majority of career opportunities awaited.

But with Trump’s initial punitive actions, and more to come, expatriates of Canada and other nationalities are turning their eyes northward. They’re considering comparable pay, universal health care and diversity in the workforce — as well as the ability to share facilities with other startups, according to tech CEOs and venture capitalists in Canada.

“There is a big opportunity here,” says Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite, a 1,000-person company in Vancouver that designed a platform for managing social media. “We have seen a number of people reach out because of concerns over diversity.”

It’s already started for companies like Parsable, maker of a mobile collaboration tool, and venture capital firm Atomic Labs — both of which have set up operations in San Francisco, Canada and elsewhere. Atomic recently opened an office in downtown Kitchener.

Canadian tech companies are being flooded with dozens of resumes from engineers, operations, marketing and others in the U.S.

Influitive, a business-to-business marketing firm in Toronto, says it’s receiving 30 resumes a day. It recently landed a director of finance and operations who opted for Toronto instead of San Francisco.

“Absolutely, it’s our chance to pick up tech talent in a highly competitive environment,” says Darryl Ballantyne, co-founder and CEO of LyricFind, a lyrics licensing service in Toronto. “It is often difficult for us to match salaries in U.S. because of the cost of living there.”

More than 1,000 Canadian tech companies — including LyricFind, whose co-founder is of Moroccan descent — sent an open letter to Trump opposing his travel ban.

Executives from Shopify, an e-commerce company based in Ottawa that has a large office in Waterloo, this week signed an open letter to the Canadian government to offer immediate entry visas.

“Canada is a country where the best talent from around the world can move here and do their life’s work,” Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein said. “My dad was an immigrant when Canada let in 40,000 Hungarians into the country during the Hungarian revolution in 1955. Our family is here because of Canada’s inclusive policies and warmth.”

The prospects are dazzling for the $1.3 trillion Canadian economy: A chance to recruit more tech talent from abroad as well as recruit disaffected American and Canadian workers. (More than 300,000 Canadian natives work in tech in California alone.)

Canadian companies and government leaders are banking that the proximity of Canada, competitive wages and universal health care are powerful persuasion.

“You will see more Canadians stay in Canada and more Americans and other nationalities move to Canada,” predicts Parsable CEO Yanda Erlich, a former Google and Microsoft employee. “This has been a conversation in the office. We could move employees who are foreign born from U.S. offices to Vancouver. It gives us flexibility and them some comfort.”

And yet, Canada has been here before — trying to woo American tech companies, with minimal success. A lack of big-name companies and resources, not to mention pricey cities such as Vancouver, have been nagging deterrents. U.S. federal income tax brackets range from 10 per cent to 35 per cent for individuals. In Canada, it’s 15 per cent to 29 per cent.

“Housing should be significantly cheaper in most of the country, with the noticeable exception being Vancouver, which will make your eyes water even if you own a house in the Bay Area,” says McDonald, former CEO of GoInstant, an online business software firm in Nova Scotia that was sold to for more than $70 million in 2012.

Trump has promised to slash the corporate tax rate for corporations to 15 per cent from 35 per cent and this week signed an executive order that significantly reduced regulations. He’s also dangled repatriation, which would allow companies to return treasure troves of cash overseas to the U.S. without crippling taxes.

From this playbook, Sharma, the venture capitalist, wants to bring 10 startups to eastern Canada, nurture them, help them pump money into the local economy and, perhaps, see them acquired.

“We feel strongly about world-class tech operations out of Iran, South America, India and Eastern Europe that create a significant number of jobs and bringing them to Canada,” says Sharma, whose venture firm has invested in Toronto-based startups acquired by Apple (Locationary); Google (BumpTop); (Rypple); and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Meta).

USA Today


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