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MaRS doesn’t need armchair CEOs

Creative Commons use via Flickr user Meddygarnet

This is part love letter, part open letter to the Toronto startup community, part rant, and part career defining (not suicide) note, because if you don’t get it, I don’t want to work with you, anyway.


For almost three years, I worked at this amazing place called MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. I first learned about the place because a leader that I’d worked under at my first tech/startup job (before anyone called themselves a ‘startup’) was the Entrepreneur in Residence and a Director there many years prior, and I was always interested in what he was doing because he was that kind of leader. Then I saw a job posting, and I worked hard to get that job, and then I commuted for 3200 hours over those almost three years to be a part of the place. There’s only one reason you commute and commit those many hours for a place. It’s because you believe in it.

MaRS is a not for profit, public-private partnership, which means that there are private donors and public monies pulled together to support initiatives and programs within its walls.

MaRS’ mandate is fairly straightforward; help high-potential, high-tech companies launch and grow, in the fields of Life Sciences, Cleantech, and ICT, but there’s more to MaRS than that.

Part of my first job when I was at MaRS was to tell the greater MaRS story. I would often hear, “you guys are so coooool! What do you do?” and that would lead to a conversation about the following:

It’s about the BHAGs. It’s about relationships. It’s about collaboration, and it’s about the hard and complex questions, as well as supporting startups. It’s about systems issues and identifying barriers to entrepreneurship (like race, poverty, immigration status, education, access), and working to enable and break down those barriers. It’s about inspiring (Studio Y), it’s about enabling (IAF), it’s about creating opportunities (VSG), and it’s about insights (Data Catalyst).

MaRS is a complex beast with many arms and many audiences, which has worked against itself in many ways. Many programs have been created or realized under the MaRS banner because of the ability of the leaders of those initiatives to connect to a greater, supportive community of activists, researchers, champions and simply, doers. This means that the message and stories do get muddled. But…

MaRS was always about more than real estate and ICT


Just about everyone that thinks they know MaRS, has no clue about MaRS, but they surely spout off as if they do. They don’t know about the funding structure, how entities may be under the same banner, but are funded separately, or how corporate relationships help deliver certain programs et al.

So, sometimes a good ten minutes into that conversation, the person/people that I was speaking with would have a greater understanding of the place, and then ask, “how can I be a part of that?” because MaRS, above all else, is about collaboration.

Which leads me to Dr. Evans and his vision for MaRS. Guaranteed, very few who opine about MaRS know anything about Dr. Evans, so I encourage everyone to take the time to read this. For those of you who won’t click, here’s the TL;DR:

"Evans is the anti-Steve Jobs: he has spent his life promoting inclusive collaboration over the solo, competitive genius."

Inclusive collaboration.

What brings me here today

The announcement that MaRS’ CEO Ilse Treurnicht will be stepping down next year led to, once again, a conversation in a popular Facebook group for Toronto called Startup North about the value and impact of MaRS itself, and it has pissed me off, as it often does. [Let me state unequivocally for the record that I love Ilse Treurnicht. I’ve said that on social, and I’ve told her to her face too. I am unabashedly a huge fan of this insightful, humble, hard-working leader.]


A little more background

When a backbencher MPP attempted to create a scandal and generate some media activity to bring attention to their lacking campaign during the last provincial election, they decided to use MaRS as fodder. TL;DR no scandal, no coverup. Nonetheless, at the time, I was working there and I was pissed. Where were our champions? Where were those that believed in the MaRS mandate and the hard work of everyone inside the walls there?

Silent. I get it. Politics is dirty, and as big as Toronto is, it’s a small community too. No one wants to put their neck out, say what’s really happening, or divulge alliances. And sometimes, legal agreements mean they can’t.

So, I haven’t been a part of MaRS for years now, but I’m here standing up for MaRS, because it’s time that someone did.

I also recognize that right here, and right now, I am taking one for the team. I am going to be the person that actually calls out what April Dunford noted when she wrote in this thread:

"I think that there are many ways to grow a communityJevon. I believe the things Mars is doing on the demand-side are remarkable and unique so I disagree with you. I think Karen's point stands mainly because I know what I hear through the back-channel (many folks don't want to openly disagree with the elder statesmen of this group so their "data points" will sometimes be taken as fact or representative of the opinion of the entire group when they do not).")

…and because of this, I know that I’ll be putting my future career in peril. I know that I’ll be targeted, quietly blackballed and not given some opportunities because of this, but I’m done with the brotastic, paternalistic, insular bullshit that is part of the Toronto startup ‘community’, but that no one talks about, and certainly no one says out loud.

And I’m saying it out loud, because every time I have this conversation one on one with someone, it starts with the look of recognition, and then ends in a ¯_(ツ)_/¯ because, “what can we do about it?”.

Who needs MaRS

White dudes with trust funds, deep networks and legacy handshakes don’t have a problem finding money, or learning how to build a company. But new immigrant women, with children to care for during the day, who want to have a positive impact on their communities, they do have issues finding funding for their business ideas. That’s one audience who Entrepreneurship 101 served.

Health & science startups can’t disrupt, can’t create, can’t generate in their basement. Your app can. They need wet labs. They need access to research, they need access and introductions to researchers, and funders and corporations for long-term investment and commitment, not Angels and VCs that are looking for a couple of years’ turnaround. And wet labs are expensive.

ICT was always the sexiest, because it gets the most media play and that’s part of the celebutante bullshit that is, “I’m building a startup,” versus “I’m building a company/I’m changing a system/I’m changing lives.” Your app doesn’t change lives. Your app will launch, and you will exit. You’re not building the next long-term company like Shopify. Your app will not change the world. You are not fucking disruptive.

So, specifically to the Toronto startup ICT ‘community’: it’s not all about you. It’s about more than you.

It’s about inclusive collaboration.

"Give US the money, and we’ll do a better job!" Sure. We can see how well women, older entrepreneurs, and new immigrants are supported in this community already, so why don’t you just go ahead and run with that.

Bias. Privilege. Tone deaf. I could go on…

MaRS doesn’t need armchair CEOs

The last thing that MaRS needs is a representative from the myopic, insular, echo chamber of ICT startups in Toronto, as a leader. The dominant voice of startups in Toronto continually fail to grasp that MaRS is about more than ICT and real estate, and your criticisms always stick to that same, tired script.

Too many in the Toronto startup space are armchair CEOs, and worse, self-appointed CEOs that haven’t done any of the work to have earned the right to that kind of title. And yet, they glad hand, and self-congratulate and applaud themselves for building to an exit. An exit. #onehandclapping. That’s not building an eco-system. That’s paying for your cross country cruise in rented antique Porsches.

So, to answer the question of what does MaRS need in its next CEO…

MaRS does not need a rock star, or a hustler. MaRS needs a leader who knows diplomacy, grace and etiquette, in a global sense, because they meet and create opportunities with governments and their representatives to share knowledge and create bridges to share IP and generate opportunities for our startups and companies abroad. A leader who pays attention to the twitter stream of the community and identifies startups playing quietly, but seeking, and ensures that they’re reached out specifically to invite them in to a space, a meeting, a discussion. Not some dude who, although he’s met you 10 times and has sat on a panel that you’ve moderated, and still doesn’t remember your name or spells it wrong because you’re not important enough to his circle of influence. No, MaRS does not need that.

MaRS doesn’t need someone that thinks that Toronto and Canada is ‘Silicon Valley North” and bows at the almighty altar there. The ‘we can do that too’ mentality is so 90s telecom, man. “Oh, you want a T1? We can do that too!”. So. Fucking. What.

MaRS was never about the ‘we can too’. MaRS has been about striking out and identifying the eco-system differently, not a carbon copy of something else. And you know what? Building in that space, is a lot harder.

MaRS needs someone that knows that the real work is often done in the community by the community, which never gets celebrated, but which white guys often take credit for.

In other words, anyone besides who’s been offered up in this discussion so far.

Show me yours, I’ll show you mine

Warts? Sure, MaRS has them. Just like every other organization out there. There are brand groupies, sycophants who get promoted, blowhards that manage to stay employed even when they don’t provide value to their clients, and self-serving backstabbers that take your ideas and say things like “I don’t have time for collaboration”. Go ahead, I dare you to tell me that you don’t have those people in your organization right now.

There’s also huge ideas that go nowhere, good intentions that get overwhelmed and good people that leave because they get tired of the other stuff. Again, just like every other organization out there.

Here’s what’s different about MaRS though. Overwhelmingly, MaRS is full of change makers. Full of people that wake up every day with the intent to change the future for the better. People who dive deep into systems, and issues of access and equality and not only ask the question ‘why?’, but ‘how can we change this?” and they do something about it.

I learned way back in university that you can’t stand outside of any system, point fingers and try to change it. You must engage, learn, and form from the inside. And I’m not talking about the inside of MaRS per se. I’m talking about the inside of these complex communities/environments/systems. MaRS hasn’t shied away from that work. The people within MaRS work alongside governments, private institutions, and the public to create that change, and enable opportunity.

So, who does MaRS need? Some perspective from outside of this fraternity, because yes, feedback from one part of the community is absolutely a data point, but it is NOT the whole story. THAT is what the whole community deserves.