“Where are you getting your big and bold ideas from? Where are your bodacious ideas starting out?”
When Brenda Halloran was invited to speak at the University of Waterloo’s Hackathon Weekend, she looked out into a crowd of young and hopeful entrepreneurs, and asked them this very question. Not just to inspire, but because she believes in the power of social innovation, mentoring, and open minds. That is just one of the reasons why Brenda has served as Mayor of Waterloo for two consecutive terms, runs her own successful startup, and is Board Chair of Startup Canada (and believe us when we say this introduction is just scratching the surface of the many accomplishments Brenda has to offer!)
It is with great pleasure that FoundersBeta introduces our first ever Spotlight Editorial, featuring Brenda Halloran! Someone who recognizes the benefits of innovating with empathy, working hard and understanding why entrepreneurship is an international game. Let’s dive in!
You’ve mentioned how establishing global connections & opening doors of opportunities for our universities, companies & our technology sector was an important focus for you during your years as Mayor. Can you expand a little bit on why you decided to focus on those areas?
This is something that just made sense to me. We as Waterloo region already hold a well-established international reputation with our academic institutions and global companies, so I believed that the municipal government needed to be a part of that in an effort to continue fostering support.
I worked with an organization in called Canada’s Technology Triangle and it was focused on foreign direct investment, along with helping build global outreach for the Waterloo region. Through this collaboration, I was able to sign friendship agreements while I was on business mission trips with them. As a result in 2007, the city of Waterloo was actually named the World’s Top Intelligent Community by the ICF (Intelligent Community Forum). This was a massive accomplishment for us! It was a really big deal. Naturally, building on this momentum became crucial. So through my 8 years as mayor, I took part in international business mission trips, and at the time, we had a large focus on China! I headed a group of 11 mayors from Ontario and I was the only woman amongst us! So it was marvellous to be able to represent Canada in such a positive light. One of the most notable memories I have is signing a friendship agreement with Chongqing City in China (2009), with the city of Xi’an, China (2012) and in 2013, I signed a three-way trade agreement with the governments of Taipei, Taiwan and Eindhoven, Netherlands to launch the first-ever Global Triangle for Intelligent Communities.
Wow! Ordinarily, people wouldn’t associate those cities with being ‘tech giants’.
Well, we were all really similar hubs of activity. We were communities poised on the outskirts of giants. Taiwan was very close to the Chinese market, Eindhoven was in the middle of the Europe, and obviously we are very central to the U.S. and Canada.
That’s true! Waterloo is known to have positioned itself as one of Canada’s biggest tech hubs. What do you believe made Waterloo such an extraordinary hub for innovation?
A lot of this boils down to our universities, University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier. I became mayor in 2006, and this was a time when RIM was really starting to expand and grow at an explosive rate. You could say there was a perfect storm brewing and we took advantage of its energy. We had Communitech and the Accelerator Centre in our research and technology park, which were both doing really well. You also have to consider the leaders we had pushing forward those innovative ideas during this time. For example, David Johnston was the President of the University of Waterloo, and he was a huge visionary! So all these community-centric organisations and its people worked together to award us the platform we have today. I think it helps that we as a city are very compact, and it’s in our nature, a part of Waterloo’s DNA, to collaborate and work together and help each other out. I really want to stress the importance of that.
So what would you say cities like Waterloo have to offer the global landscape?
We have a beautiful community. It’s such a great place to raise your family and advance your professional career. The opportunities here are boundless. While we have a very diverse tech sector, we also have a huge academic sector, a growing health technology field, a strong financial life insurance sector, and a stable economic community. Not to mention our centrality! We’re about an hour and a half away from Toronto and the U.S. Border, and for the summer, you’ll find a lot of lakes and beaches close by!
On a more personal note, what do you consider some of the biggest challenges you encountered in your years of leadership?
I think one of the most challenging times during my term was when RIM was downsizing. This was a challenging time for us as a community. You saw thousands of people losing their jobs and the impact on those affected was what I wanted to concentrate on. Fortunately, there were many job openings in the tech sector and with organizations like Communitech, we all worked together to help people find new opportunities. In fact, they were eager for the type of talent that RIM had at the time, so people managed to basically walk right across the street from RIM and ended up filling job openings in the tech sector and prospering well in their new jobs.
Around the same time, the engineering and advanced manufacturing firms were urgently looking for people as well. That’s when we saw a really huge growth in our startup and entrepreneur sector. I think the main takeaway is that every community comes with its challenges, but it’s about how you choose to respond moving forward. After my term as mayor, I became an entrepreneur as well and I built my own startup. I wanted to blend my exhaustive experience in municipal government with consulting, so I help people as an executive business leader coach and I feel so fortunate. So blessed. I’m learning all the time!
As it stands, you’ve lead a global city, represent many national platforms for startups, & run your own company; to say you’ve been quite busy is a huge understatement. How do you manage your time so well?
I have to say, I didn’t get to manage my time very well when I was mayor. When you’re a mayor, your time is always dedicated to the city – there is no real time off even during vacation, you’re always working on something to help improve your community. I believe in term limits, so after 8 years of leading the city, I wanted to step aside and let someone else take over. I also wanted to try other things, become an entrepreneur and spend time with my family. Every new day is an exciting one when you’re self-employed and getting to work on something you sincerely enjoy. I truly believe that. When you’re working on something for yourself, even if it takes a lot of time and effort, it’s you choosing to spend your life that way. Work like this is always going to involve a lot of hustle and long hours, but it’s well worth it when you’ve consciously decided it’s valuable to you. So now I’m on my own time; it’s how I want my hours to be spent. Reclaiming your time and worth as an entrepreneur is what makes it feel so empowering!
We definitely agree! The idea of being an entrepreneur is becoming increasingly popular because of that. Why do you believe entrepreneurship should be considered a global game?
Well, you know there’s only so many jobs that remain in their traditional sense. People and technology are blending very quickly, and I don’t just mean within the technology sector, but in social innovation as well. This is a time where we are witnessing people excited about change. In sectors like, advanced manufacturing, agriculture and even the service industry; there’s a mixture of their traditional labour incorporated with social innovation. The whole world is looking for new technological opportunities – and as global citizens we want to move forward with that. We want to do more, influence more, and have more say on how we create that change. It’s amazing to see this beautiful tidal wave of entrepreneurialism – I look back at 2 years ago and see so much transformation, because we’re changing every day!
What do you consider the top 3 traits of an entrepreneur?
- Take risks (but still be able to sleep at night)
- Believe in yourself, which means not being afraid to fail.
- Ask for help from those around you. People are willing to help out more than you think!
Before you became mayor, you worked for the federal government as a trained mediator & conflict management specialist. In your experience, what are some of the traits a team member should possess?
- Respect. People forget this one so easily. Value those around you.
- Communication is key. More importantly, communicate respectfully! While working as a conflict management specialist, learning how to have a difficult conversation and addressing those concerns professionally was integral.
- Last one I want to mention is having a sense of humour. I think it’s necessary. Learning not to take everything so seriously. Sometimes people say the wrong thing and don’t mean it. So lighten up a bit. Think about what the other person may be going through, and learn not to take everything so personally.
Why did you decide to join & support Startup Canada?
A few years ago, Victoria Lennox (co-founder of Startup Canada) and I were on a panel together with CATA, and we had a mutual admiration for each other. We kept in touch and about 5 years ago, she reached out to me with her plan to build what we know as Startup Canada today! I encouraged her to launch in Waterloo and the city supported her with some seed funding to build this beautiful organisation. Once she started looking for board chair members, she asked me to join and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of it! Victoria is an amazing force in this country and she’s accomplished so much with this organisation. What I’ve learned since joining is that most entrepreneurs are over 40 years old. So even though we associate the term a lot with the younger generation, it’s a title that is embraced by people of many different ages, genders and backgrounds. That is one of the things I love about Startup Canada: we encourage inclusivity and diversity. It is all about being a person who works incredibly hard at building their dream and we want to support that.
On your website, you place a huge emphasis on mentoring, coaching & networking. Your welcome note talks about engaging, inspiring & empowering those around you. Why is mentoring & networking so important to you? How does it benefit the startup scene?
You know, people have so much value and so much to share. All my life, people have mentored and coached me and it has been one of my biggest blessings. So I would encourage everyone else to do the same! If we don’t reach out to others and ask for help, it’s hard to progress. So listen actively and communicate effectively, because this is how we grow. Placing emphasis and value on those soft skills helps you build meaningful connections (especially if you’re building a startup). Technology and social media can be very isolating, so we have to be able to appreciate the great value that comes from human contact. Find someone who does (or maybe doesn’t) have anything in common with you, learn from them. Then pass that information on in the future. I believe in passing the torch and giving back.
Currently, we’re experiencing really positive support for women to work as entrepreneurs: in tech related/STEM fields & startups. What advice would you give to young women starting out in this industry?
Don’t be afraid. Your idea is valuable, worthwhile and important. Believe in yourself and keep moving forward (this was some of the best advice I had gotten through my early professional years). There will always be people who try and hold you back, but take the advice that you need and remove of any negative talk that won’t benefit you. I have experienced a lot of this running up to and during my years as mayor. Had I listened to those people who put me down, I would not have become mayor. We need to uplift each other. And I keep telling people, if I can do it, so can you! I’m no-one special. You’re just as amazing and qualified.
Very true! It’s undoubtedly hard when you receive negativity. But you’ve always encouraged people to persevere despite setbacks.
Yes! Remember, if you hit a wall or a door, another one will open. Knowing that there is a difference between people critiquing you because they want the best for you, and people criticising you for the sake of putting you down is important to learn early on. Ultimately, your confidence and enthusiasm is what keeps you on your path.
To finish off, we wanted to ask: what was it like meeting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles!
That was one of the most amazing moments of my life! It was the hottest, humid day we had that summer but we were all awestruck we didn’t even mind! I remember saying “Welcome to Waterloo Your Majesty”, and she replied in kind by telling me she thinks Waterloo is a beautiful city. She was beautiful and graceful. Prince Charles and I chatted shortly after for a few minutes. He was so fun and gracious. What an honour!
If you’d like to learn more about the phenomenal work Brenda is involved in, have a look at the links below!
About the Author
Maryam Zaidi is a user experience/ digital strategist currently working in healthcare. As a graduate from the University of Toronto in the Master of Information Program, her interests lie at the intersection of human-computer interaction and empathetic design. In her spare time, she loves to read, run, and occasionally code! You can find her on Twitter as @MaryZai