There’s a quiet but mighty undercurrent supporting Newfoundland and Labrador’s surging tech sector. And it’s led by the province’s former finance minister.
ConnectioNL, pronounced “connectional,” is a group of volunteers, many of them veterans of the Atlantic Canadian business community, seeking to mentor emerging tech companies in the province and help them find funding and talent. Two main forces driving the group are Mark Dobbin, founder of Killick Capital, and former Liberal finance minister Cathy Bennett.
“We’re going to let the entrepreneurs tell us what they need, and if they ask for something we’re going to try and get it for them,” says Bennett, adding: “We know that this is the economy of the future.”
Bennett was elected to the House of Assembly in 2014, as a Liberal, in the St. John’s-area district of Virginia Waters. She became the province’s finance minister in 2015 and, under Dwight Ball, delivered the notorious austerity budget of 2016. After what she described as relentless bullying, both from the public and from members of her own caucus, she resigned from the post and ultimately left politics.
She’s also a successful business owner and was the first woman to win Atlantic Business Magazine’s Atlantic Canada CEO of the Year award.
Started at the kitchen table
ConnectioNL grew out of a kitchen-table chat at her house with about 12 other people, she says, “talking about what we could do to create some jobs.”
They organized an event in March at the Quidi Vidi Plantation to talk about job creation. It was at that event they really saw the energy and the promise driving the tech sector, she says.
On the flip side, they also saw the challenges the sector was facing, she says. And they knew they could help. Zeroing in on the three largest obstacles — talent shortages, access to capital and getting the right mentorship — Bennett says nearly 300 ConnectioNL volunteers have been dispatched since to lend a hand however a hand was needed.
“Some of them have done a lot of work and some have spent as little as an hour. But sometimes the right mentor with the right experience for an hour is critical for these startups,” she says.
‘We owe it to ourselves’
Mandy Woodland is one of ConnectioNL’s volunteer mentors. She’s also a co-founder of Safa, a tech company that uses artificial intelligence to help curb employee turnover. She’s been to ConnectioNL events about angel investing and venture capital, among others.
“It’s not just more talking about it, it’s action,” Woodland said. She says she volunteers because she doesn’t think the onus should be on the younger generation to transform the economy.
“I’m really excited about what this is doing. As someone who decided to stay here and work to make this place better in some small way, I just want to see more people get involved.”
As for the former finance minister, Bennett chuckles at the suggestion that she could easily sit back and relax, rather than spend her free time corralling hundreds of volunteers. She says her generation of business people have a responsibility to help the new generation usher in this new economy and help them seize the opportunities that come with successes of companies like St. John’s-based financial crime-fighters Verafin.
“We really need to fight hard in Newfoundland and Labrador to shift our economy back to a place we’re all excited about. Natural resources has served us well and will continue to do that … But the tech sector impacts all of those. We can’t let the innovation coming out of these incubators and accelerators be lost because these companies aren’t supported,” she says. “We owe it to ourselves not to stay on the bench.”