The Networker recently had the opportunity to sit down with Eric Agyemang, Founder and Managing Partner of Maple Bridge Ventures, and Ingrid Polini, the company’s Partner. Agyemang and Polini, both immigrants to Canada themselves, shared the unique challenges companies led by immigrants face, and how Maple Bridge is working to get them the support they need – and help them build a better Canada.
The Networker: Why don’t we start with an introduction to Maple Bridge Ventures. What is your company’s mission?
Agyemang: Maple Bridge was really created by looking at the market. Compared to our fellow G7 countries, we are quite behind in terms of innovation. At the same time, we have an incredible source of talent, of newcomers coming to Canada. The metrics show that immigrants historically have created some of the best companies in Canada. But through my work in the community, I noticed that there’s an incredible hardship for them to see their dreams realized. So we set on kind of a journey to find a way to close some of these gaps for immigrant founders in Canada, as a way to also close Canada’s innovation gap.
The Networker: Let’s talk more about those gaps. Are these financial gaps? Are they bureaucratic gaps?
Polini: The tech ecosystem in Canada is very tight, and we have a small circle. As a founder, it’s very hard to break in because you don’t know what the events are, you don’t know where the people are. You might not know who the investors are or you might have challenges with the language, especially if English is not your first language. So we have a gap in terms of networking and access to opportunity. For example, we heard from another founder, super successful in Canada, who said ‘I didn’t even know that grants were possible. In the country where I am from, we don’t get grants from the government for businesses.’
They get brought in sometimes on business programs such as the Startup visa, but they might not be given the opportunity to understand how the ecosystem works. You have the financial gap when you talk about investment for those founders. So when we look at the bias research, we talk a lot about gender diversity and investing more in women, and yet women only get two per cent of investment. But when you look, for example, at black women or Latinx women, that number is even, like 0.5 per cent off the two per cent. Those people tend to be people who also came from other countries. So you add that layer to it. So they are underfunded, even though they have amazing ideas, because they don’t have access to the same networks. In venture capital, you’re investing in businesses with a high risk profile, especially at an early stage. So you tend to consider people in your network. People that you know. These founders are not usually part of that, yet.
Agyemang: I think all of us have heard countless stories of gritty immigrant founders, or immigrants, period, who come to Canada, pursue that Canadian dream, leave everything behind, and they come here. And some of these people coming here are some of the brightest, educated from some of the best universities in the world. And Canada as a country, we’ve always done a wonderful job attracting these talents.
Maple Bridge really wants to play that middle position where we harness some of these brightest Individuals coming in into Canada who don’t understand maybe the system and the ecosystem, as well as someone born and raised here, privileged with access to a network that has existed their whole life and of course, capital that will really help them scale their business.
The Networker: What’s your personal connection to this?
Polini: I always make the joke whenever I talk about this, that when I moved to Canada from Brazil, I didn’t know anyone to the point that my emergency contact was my Airbnb host. I already had a successful business in Brazil. We wanted to bring the company here, but I didn’t have the contacts. I went through all these hurdles that immigrant founders go through. I’ve gone through this and seen how difficult it was to break in and understand the system.
Agyemang: For me, it sounds funny, but it really has been my life’s purpose. Originally from Ghana, I moved to Ottawa about 14 years ago. I was the president of the International Student association at Algonquin College. Through that role, my first week in Canada, first month in Canada, I just got to see just the beauty of all these different cultures and how they enrich our society.
I got to see firsthand the challenges of navigating Canada for your first time and also the excitement of the promise of Canada. I came to this country with an incredible love for what Canada represents, and I think it is the vision and kind of the desire for many newcomers. I have been a volunteer with the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO) since 2014. And when you see the contributions of such an organization locally serving over 11,000 immigrants per year in the Ottawa region, that gives you a sense of fulfillment that is really hard to get from anywhere else.
On the business side, I really saw that when immigrant founders and immigrant entrepreneurs are given the right tools and support, they can do amazing things with it.
The Networker: Why is it important for Maple Bridge to partner with Hub350?
Agyemang: I first heard of Hub350 about two years ago, and I knew that they were setting out to bring together key strategic partners to unleash the next wave of innovative companies and innovative startups in the Ottawa region.
I mean, naturally, being the largest tech park in Canada, there are already some big players in that region, but I was really drawn to what they are doing to pave the way for the next generation of tech giants to be built out of our region. And for someone who was on that journey to really contribute to really building that next wave of innovation, there was a perfect alignment, and I got a chance to meet a few of the partners in the ecosystem
If you look at the companies that come out of the Ottawa region, that’s all great, but what can we do to make sure we sustain that flow of innovation and technology coming out of here? And so we saw ourselves really being a perfect fit because we think immigrants will be very central to that future innovation story of Canada.
The Networker: I’m going to ask the flip side of that question: why is it good for immigrant founders that Maple Bridge is now partnered with Hub350?
Polini: I know that a lot of investment firms and investors say that they really want to be hands on with their founders. But for us, it’s really like creating the partnerships and being able to have access to partners that can support our portfolio companies. The partnership is important in the sense that we have access now to multiple partners that are within our network, not just at Hub350, but other partnerships that we’re looking where we can give that access to our founders and be able to touch base with different service providers or different, multiple things that our founders may need during their journey with us.
Agyemang: We have an incredible empathy for our founders, just based on our own life stories and what we’ve gone through. But a key differentiator for us, for our founders, is the fact that it really takes a village for an immigrant founder and like for any entrepreneur in general, but more so for an immigrant founder to really succeed in Canada.
By being connected to entities like Hub350, it really broadens our own capability, what value we can bring to our founders. So that really opens up a lot of doors. If you think about that, Kanata’s Tech park and some of the greatest tech companies in Canada have built and continue to build a very strong connection to that region. So we can open doors to our founders if they need to get into some of those rooms, if they need to connect with some of these people or maybe collaborate.
It really takes a village in this case, and we are building a very strong village of very strong partners.
The Networker: Thinking about the government’s immigration Initiative, where it wants to bring in so many immigrants in the next few years, where do you hope Maple Bridge is five years from now, thanks to this partnership, or in general?
Polini: I’ll give you more of a 20 year perspective. Our mission is to invest in about 100 immigrant founders in 20 years. So that can give you a perspective on what we’re going to look like in five years.
Agyemang: We fundamentally believe that the next wave of immigrants coming in, whether it’s the next five years, next ten years, or next 20 years, is going to play a role that we’ve never seen being played in Canada before.
We really want to embed ourselves to really capture those talents, make that investment when no one’s willing to make a bet on them, actually put value on the international experience and not diminish that they don’t have that Canadian experience. We really want to go out there, build those companies, give them all the strategic support they need to get through all the cycles.
Five years from now, when we look at Canada and some of the greatest companies that’s been created, that we took a bet on , those brilliant minds that came in, we didn’t allow them to squander in Canada, waste those talents or leave, which is now a very growing trend in the immigrant population where people are starting to leave.
At the end of the day, what gets us really excited about Maple Bridge is we’re doing this for the incredible love we have for this country, the love that drew us to this place in the first place and we want to make sure that we do something really good for Canada and new Canadians.
The world needs more of Canada. There’s no doubt about that. But the world is coming to Canada, and Canada needs to find ways to invest in those people coming in to be able to put ourselves in a better position on the global stage with those talents coming in. That’s how Canada can be competitive globally by really taking advantage of the global talent that continues to come into this country and making serious and intentional investments in their success in Canada. Because when the world gets more of Canada, it’s good for everyone.
By Melanie Coulson