Permjot Valia is the founder of Mentor Camp, which connects the founders of select tech startups with experienced mentors. He has run events and mentored startups in Atlantic Canada over the past five years, and recently worked as a mentor with the UIT program at CBU. This fall, Valia is teaching in the Nova Scotia Community College’s finance and entrepreneurship course in Halifax.
He’s observed how tech entrepreneurship is taught in universities throughout the region, and has seen many of the startups emerging from those university courses.
“There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s being torched pretty badly,” he says. “I’ve been to their demo things where they show off what their students have been working on, and I just think it’s a pile of shit.”
Valia hesitates. “I’m nervous because I know saying this is going to get me into trouble,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m saying anything that people don’t believe.”
Valia insists that at an entrepreneurship education delivered in a post-secondary institution can improve a student’s likelihood of success. But he compares the rise of tech and lean startup courses to the proliferation of MBA programs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The problem, he says, is that there’s no body regulating or controlling the quality of the entrepreneurship education being offered.
“That is bad for the consumer because the student does not know what they’re buying,” he says. “I think the message does need to get out there that all courses are not created equal.”
He argues there are too many entrepreneurship, startup, and investment conferences—all populated by the same speakers and attendees. And there’s too much cheerleading of relatively minor local accomplishments. “We are celebrating mediocrity. We are celebrating crap. I don’t see any critical thinking around this at all,” he says. “We are confusing activity with accomplishment.”
Perhaps most alarming is Valia’s diagnosis of the declining quality of Atlantic Canadian startups. Valia ran Mentor Camps in the region in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He says the quality of the participating companies was “very high.” The companies Valia selected for Mentor Camp in 2014, however, were noticeably weaker.
After receiving applications this year, Valia decided to scrap the event for the first time in four years. “The funding was there, the sponsors were there… but no, the quality wasn’t there,” he says. “I have not seen anything to inspire me in 2015.”
Valia doesn’t pay mentors to attend his camp. In exchange, he promises the mentors, many of whom are also investors, access to high potential startups.
“I can’t guarantee that this year. Last year was a big disappointment,” he says. “The mentors who had been here for two or three years have noticed a sharp deterioration in the quality.”
So what explains the drop in quality? Valia is unsure. Perhaps he did a poor job of selecting the companies. Or is some other factor at play?
“I find it weird that at the very same time that these courses have proliferated in the region, the quality of the (startup) pipeline has deteriorated considerably,” he says.
“It’s probably coincidental. But I suspect it isn’t.”