Trudeau looks to lure tech talent, capital north in San Francisco visit

Prime Minister’s visit includes a sit-down with Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos

The employee roll at Ben Zifkin’s Toronto-based startup is set to double over the coming year to handle the increase in users of his free service, a business-based social network known as Hubba.

He knows he faces international competition for top talent, including the established tech ecosystem in Silicon Valley.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will make a pitch to that talent on behalf of prospective employers like Zifkin during his discussions today in San Francisco, including face-to-face meetings with the head of Amazon and eBay.

On offer is a rapidly growing tech sector in places like Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo with companies that require executive-level expertise to compete with Silicon Valley rivals. Canada has also invested millions to attract top talent and researchers away from other countries.

Rana Sankar, Canada’s consul general in San Francisco, says the goal of Trudeau’s visit isn’t to lure talent away from the region, but ensure that Canada has a voice in what has become the epicentre of the new economy.

“We are here not to steal jobs from Silicon Valley,” Sankar said in an interview this week. “We are here to co-create with the tech sector here.”

Two years ago when Trudeau took office, Canadian expats who were veterans of Silicon Valley talked to The Canadian Press about the difficult sell their home country faced. In California, salaries, sunshine and venture capital were all abundant, and the professional culture was more advanced.

READ: Trudeau talks to premiers about pipeline battle

However, they also spoke longingly about bringing that culture back home to create the same kind of success in Canada that they experienced in California.

“The valley is great, but it’s actually not my number 1 place where I’m trying to bring talent from,” Zifkin said. “It’s hard to pull people out of that.”

Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House made the pitch a little easier. Trump’s tough talk about trade deals and immigration changed the political climate in the United States.

“The political climate has obviously made Canada more attractive because we’re more diverse, we’re more welcoming and we’re more open, so the pitch is much easier,” said Lekan Olawoye, who leads the venture talent development division at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

Companies like Microsoft and Amazon have invested in staff in Canada to get around the American visa quotas for overseas workers, said Chris Sands, Director of the Center for Canadian Studies at John Hopkins University.

“Canada has been a safety valve for these big companies that are able to bring people from Asia and elsewhere into Canada.”

In a paper published last month co-authored by Olawoye, MaRS researchers suggested Canada rethink its pitch to top tech talent. Instead of promoting itself as a place to settle, companies and governments needed to sell the virtues of regions and cities.

Trudeau is likely to do just that when he sits down face-to-face with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s top executive, as his company decides whether to make Toronto home to a second headquarters.

Trudeau’s job, meanwhile, won’t simply be to act as a salesman; he’ll have to play the role of digital diplomat.

There are conversations taking place about privacy, how technological disruption affects traditional jobs and even trade deals, and Canada wants to be a part of those talks — much of which are happening in San Francisco, Sankar said.

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press

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