The top highlights (and lessons learned) from my first year as executive director

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During the past 12 months as the Executive Director, I’ve had the privilege of being surrounded by a community of energetic, driven, resilient individuals. This community has allowed us, the DMZ, to thrive from the momentum, to become a leading global business incubator and to focus efforts on one ultimate priority: our startups.

Muhammed Ali famously said “don’t count the days; make the days count.” As we continue to make each day count towards our mission to be Canada’s leading business incubator and a hub for startups that are having a transformative impact on the economy and society, I wanted to sha re my top highlights (and lessons learned) from my first year as ED.

1. Focusing on our mission… fuelling startup success

In consultation with our startups, it became clear that we needed to shift our emphasis to direct startup support. With that in mind, we hired Hussam Ayyad as the Director of Startup Services. His team is focused on providing customized programming for startups that are tailored to their needs and sector, creating a strategy for startup services to be more accountable to ensure entrepreneurs are reaching their milestones, building a more robust rolodex of talent and mentors and making the Toronto-Waterloo corridor a priority.

2. It’s who you know

  • We’ve learned a lot when it comes to corporate partnerships. One of the biggest takeaways is to not have a one-size-fits-all model. With each opportunity that comes our way, we make sure to ask the question “how can this benefit our startups?” And we’ve found that when the match is right, there’s plenty to offer. Some examples:

    Our “Enterprise Innovation Space” partnership with IBM Bluemix Garage that provides them with a space at the DMZ and the opportunity to be ingrained in and collaborate with the startup community

    Our “legal counsel-in-residence” partnership with one of the top law firms in Canada – Goodmans LLP. The law firm provides 20 hours a week of free legal advice and consultation to entrepreneurs at the DMZ

    Great competitions and programs with corporate partners like our Next Big Idea in Fintech program, presented by BMO

  • 3. Today Canada… tomorrow, the world!

    As a leading Canadian incubator, we have an opportunity and a duty to contribute to creating a more prosperous economy, which echoes and supports the provincial and federal governments’ innovation agendas. We’re thrilled to have established recent partnerships with incubators throughout Canada and will continue to create a space that builds a culture around developing new ideas and sharing the DMZ model to bring more Canadian incubators to the world stage.

    Not only do we operate best by being active in emerging markets at home, we’re also building relationships across borders. This past year, the DMZ has created links to top-tier incubators and accelerators around the world by hosting international entrepreneurs from India, United Kingdom, South Africa and more. We’ve also signed strategic partnerships with the U.K.’s SETsquared, Innovation Birmingham, Taiwan’s CIIC, Australia’s ATP Innovations and ProMexico to provide entrepreneurs ‘borderless innovation’ to scale their business in key markets.

    4. The only constant is change

    Change is often necessary, even if it might be frightening to some. Without change, we lack the ability to compel individuals to think in new ways. As our environment is known for its pace of change and innovation, we have to continue to make sure we’re striving to reach our goal: fuel the growth of early-stage startups. As such, we’ve had to make some adjustments to our team structure that will allow the different functions to better align, not silo, and refocus on our mission. Read more about my views on change in the workplace here.

    5. What startups have taught me

    There were many moments over the past year where startups taught me valuable lessons that helped push the DMZ to the next level. A few things I’ve learned are:

    • Although competition can be intimidating, it’s also a gift. Your competitors force you to sharpen your business and push your innovation agenda to the next level.

    • It’s critical to share the same vision and leadership principles as the rest of your team. While technical skills are important, it’s just as important to share common missionaries, not mercenaries, as your team grows.

    • Labour of love: passion, sacrifice and resilience are your superpowers. Without these components, it’s difficult to see through the fog during stormy times.

    6. Startup milestones

    This post could easily be filled with milestones our startups have reached, but here’s a small sample of some of the accolades and achievements.

    Brizi and PUSH signed partnership deals with the Portland Trailblazers and the San Francisco 49ers.

    •The Rumie Initiative launched its Learn Syria initiative providing digital education tablets to Syrian refugees living in refugee camps.

    •Maayan Ziv of AccessNow won the David C. Onley Leadership in Accessibility Award.

    Ambience Data has opened an office in India.

    Litmus Automation has opened an office in San Francisco.

    7. Where do we go from here?

    I recently returned from the Incubation Summit in Sweden hosted by UBI Global, where I presented on managing corporate and talent collaboration at business incubators. This year, the group recognized the DMZ as the top-ranked university-based incubator in North America and third in the world. This accolade sets the stage for us to push to become number one globally. We’ll do that by being more accountable to our startups and ensuring they reach their goals. We’ll get there by building out our investor network, broadening corporate partnerships and leveraging our team’s full potential. We’ll also be launching our advisory council – a group of experienced leaders and entrepreneurs to help inform our way forward – that will serve as advocates for the DMZ, representing us to the public, and opening doors to their networks and an array of opportunities.

    Looking ahead, I’m beginning my second year as ED with our challenges and strengths clearly in mind. But also with the tenacious determination to see our vision come to life.

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