Salim Teja’s long career in tech has touched every part of the ecosystem, from entrepreneur, to investor, to corporate innovator. In his current role of President, Venture Services, at MaRS, he’s not only championing Canada’s tech ecosystem, he’s helping to guide it towards greater diversity — with initiatives in research, representation, and funding.
By Hailey Eisen
For the past twenty years, Salim Teja has been fully embedded in the technology world, first as an entrepreneur, then a venture investor, then a corporate innovator, and finally as an ecosystem builder. His career began in the late 1990s when upon graduating from Western University, he moved to the Bay Area in California and launched an internet venture that brought him great success.
Drawing upon his experience at the helm of a start-up and using it to launch a career in the tech sector, Salim says he’s been fortunate to touch so many aspects of the innovation space over the past few decades. In his role as President, Ventures Services with MaRS, he and his team’s work influences more than 1,000 start-ups.
“One of our biggest areas of focus is getting Toronto on the map globally,” says Salim, who grew up in Edmonton. “We’re out there championing the Canadian story to investors and corporate talent, because Canada is starting to catch the attention of the world, and we have to capitalize on that for our entrepreneurs.”
A big part of the Toronto story is diversity, something that’s top of mind for the past and present leadership at MaRS. “Putting aside the fact that focusing on diversity is morally the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense,” Salim says. For start-ups, he points to leveraging diversity internally as one of the best ways to ensure the products and services they’re producing are relevant to diverse markets. Diverse teams tend to bring about more diverse thoughts, ideas, and opinions, which means more informed decision-making.
One of the areas in which MaRS is working to be an active community leader is around the stewardship of research. Salim says there’s great power in data to drive the diversity conversation forward. “I think one challenge we’ve seen is that much of the conversation still tends to be anecdotal, and it will take time to develop the strategies and solutions we need to move to an empirical discussion.” In order to obtain the data needed to drive action, MaRS has partnered with #movethedial, a global movement to increase the participation and leadership of all women in tech, to produce an annual, “Where’s The Dial Now?” report that examines the state of women in the tech and innovation community in Canada.
“We’re looking at how companies are thinking about diversity and the challenges that come with trying to implement change,” he says. “We want to know how big the problem is, and how we measure the solutions.” To help support this, MaRS undertook a research project to work with companies across the Toronto tech sector to shed light on the challenges companies face in attracting, hiring and retaining diverse talent, and to provide data on how workers feel about the state of diversity, inclusion and belonging in their workplaces. The key insights of this research has been published publicly in the Tech For All: Breaking Barriers In Toronto’s Innovation Community report.
As a community hub that hosts hundreds of events, MaRS has also committed to the mandate that every single event have diverse representation, from the agenda to the tone of conversations. “Even the little things can be really important in setting the tone of diversity,” Salim says. MaRS also supports external events including Elevate and Collision, with a focus on D&I and how the MaRS community can contribute to the conversation in a meaningful way.
Community-building is a big part of Salim’s mandate as well, including the work he does with the Tech and Innovation Advisory Council for Tech4SickKids. As Co-chair of the initiative, Salim says this is the perfect opportunity for technology and innovation to become part of the pediatric healthcare story.
Innovation has historically been a male-dominated industry and the investors who fund innovative start-ups have also typically been male. “In the last five years I’ve seen a big shift in the innovation space, with a focus on the opportunities to get more women involved in these organizations at the team, leadership, board, and investor level.” The conversation has certainly begun to take shape, and the next step is walking the walk, he says. “This isn’t something we’ll solve in six months, but will require sustained conversation over the next five to 20 years, not just in the tech space, but in every industry.”
MaRS has focused on this through the creation of StandUp Ventures, a venture capital fund for seed-stage technology companies with at least one woman in a C-level leadership position and an equitable amount of ownership, powered by the MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund and led by Michelle McBane.
Taking these conversations and putting them into action through meaningful programs is where MaRS’ focus lies. Take “The Women in Cleantech Challenge,” for example, jointly supported by MaRS and Natural Resources Canada. The program set out to find the country’s most promising cleantech entrepreneur, drawing attention to the women across the country taking a typically male-dominated industry by storm. The program received 150 applications for a chance to win a $1-million grand prize.
Beyond all of these external programs supported by MaRS, Salim says that internally MaRS is on their own inclusion journey as well. “We’ve set up our own DIBs (diversity, inclusion and belonging) council and continue to challenge ourselves in terms of how we’re doing as an organization and as a leadership group, and what we can do to walk the walk in the way we run our organization. As one of the world’s largest innovation hubs helping entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses, we want to ensure that MaRS is setting a good example.”
After 6 years at MaRS, Salim will be moving on to a new career opportunity this spring. “I’m incredibly proud of what we have accomplished at MaRS as a team and organization. We have strong leadership — past and present — and a commitment to continue to build upon our momentum in the ecosystem. The world is watching us as our tech scene in Canada takes off and MaRS will play a big role in helping to show the world what an inclusive industry can look like.”
What is the role of men in gender equality? Over the next year, the 30% Club Canada and Women of Influence are partnering to explore this question. We’ll be sharing the stories of allies — men who are pushing for gender equality in the workplace, or making it happen in their own business. These Champions of Change can act as visible role models, inspiring and guiding other men to follow in their footsteps. If we’re going to level the playing field, we need men to be engaged.