Changemakers: Meet 50 emerging leaders reinventing how Canada does business

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Is it just us, or has this winter felt interminable, with the war in Ukraine, soaring prices and economic uncertainty adding to the existential angst we’re all blundering through thanks to the pandemic, the spectre of climate change, income inequality and more? Consider our third annual Changemakers list a bit of much-needed sunlight in an otherwise gloomy season.

Once again, we put out the call for nominations both from the business community and from across The Globe and Mail. Finalists were evaluated based on their ideas, accomplishments and impact. Out of hundreds of submissions, we narrowed it down to 50 activists, executives, entrepreneurs and academics whose single-minded devotion to making the world a better place for everyone should be an inspiration to us all.

Lise Birikundavyi | Managing Partner and Co-founder, BKR Capital

TAIWO AINA/The Globe and Mail

Lise Birikundavyi was just 20 when Muhammad Yunus won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his novel use of micro-loans to help underprivileged people start businesses and escape poverty. But it was a defining moment for the Burundi-born, Montreal-raised student, then in the trilingual business admin program at HEC Montréal. “I became really interested in social entrepreneurship from a financial perspective,” she says. “That mindset of creating social change but also earning revenue-—because then it becomes more sustainable.”

Birikundavyi went on to obtain an MBA from the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, where she wrote her thesis on impact investing, and later worked as an impact-investment manager in the Ivory Coast with a focus on improving access to quality education in rural communities. In 2020, however, after returning to Canada and having her second child, she was drawn to the idea of using capital markets to level the playing field here at home. “When the George Floyd murder happened, I thought about how I could contribute to the movement to make sure the table is big enough for everyone,” says Birikundavyi, now 36. Her solution, along with business partner Isaac Olowolafe, was to create BKR Capital, a $20-million venture capital fund that invests in tech startups founded by Black entrepreneurs.

With anchor investments from Business Development Canada and RBC, the Toronto-based fund is the first of its kind in the country, creating opportunities for a talented group of innovators who often face challenges accessing capital in a largely white VC space. Those financing roadblocks could be a result of unconscious bias by investors or simply a lack of understanding for disruptive companies answering the unmet needs of minority communities.

Take Calgary-based fintech mIQ, one of five companies in BKR’s growing portfolio. It helps new Canadians build their credit history by reporting payments they make to a lending circle—a group of people who pool funds to access interest-free loans. While lending circles are a common financial tool in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, the concept is new here in Canada. “I’d met different VC and angel investors, and until BKR, it was always a no,” says mIQ co-founder Jonah Chininga, who had difficulty accessing credit and building a credit history himself after emigrating from Zimbabwe in 2014. “They didn’t live the problem, didn’t know the context, so they couldn’t understand the market opportunity or see the business viability.”

Birikundavyi did. Not only did she give mIQ its first yes, but she also provided Chininga and his co-founders with the knowledge and network to pitch other investors successfully. The company has raised $1.4 million from six backers, including BKR, and has signed on Visa and Equifax as partners, with plans to launch an app this spring.

With no shortage of promising, underrepresented founders in the tech space—BKR says it has received more than 520 pitch decks since its creation in June 2021—Birikundavyi only wishes there were more opportunities for Black entrepreneurs to access financing.

“When pitching us, some founders have said it was their first time speaking to investors who looked like them, and they became quite emotional about it,” she says. “We’re aware of the position that puts us in.” /Tamar Satov

Gautam Bakshi | Founder, 15Rock

Nelson Huang/The Globe and Mail

The economic risks of climate change can seem abstract for major financial players with bottom lines to look out for. With 15Rock, a risk analytics company he founded in 2019, Gautam Bakshi is on a mission to change that. For two decades before starting 15Rock, Bakshi worked in risk evaluation for financial institutions like TD Bank and Manulife. All the years of thinking about risk from a technical perspective set him up to tackle an underserved market: investors who need someone to boil down the risk of climate inaction into terms they’re comfortable working with.

15Rock uses machine learning and industry-leading financial modelling to spell out the financial consequences of climate risk for investors looking to green their portfolios. Instead of assigning a score to a given portfolio using black-box technology, Bakshi’s firm articulates risk in terms of dollars and cents—and transparently lays out the criteria it uses to do so. For instance, a given billion-dollar portfolio might have $50 million of built-in climate risk that can be mitigated by reallocating investments to less risky companies (or engaging with risky ones to get them to consider shifting strategies). “We try to speak investors’ language,” says Bakshi. “Most firms don’t have teams focused on climate change, but every company has someone managing the budget.”

Right now, 15Rock works primarily with investors to mitigate the climate risks associated with their portfolios, but Bakshi hopes to expand his offerings to help guide corporations toward climate-friendly decisions internally. “By articulating climate risk in monetary terms, all of a sudden a company has a financial case for deciding what kinds of vehicles to use in their factories or what types of heat pumps to use, for instance,” he says.

The work is far from simple—not every climate-friendly decision is economically viable. But by translating the nebulous concept of climate change into concrete terms, Bakshi hopes his tech will help lay the groundwork for environmentally conscious decisions—even if they’re not immediately possible. “When people see a big problem that’s not solved yet and has major financial consequences, that sparks innovation,” he says. “It helps people understand the scope of the opportunities to solve them.” /Liza Agrba

Lindsay Lorusso | Co-founder and CEO, Nudnik

Bre Elbourn/The Globe and Mail

Let this sink in: Due in part to the rise of fast fashion, there’s now enough pre-consumer textile waste (otherwise known as factory waste) to clothe the world’s entire population two times over. But upcycling textile scraps, which normally end up in landfills, can be prohibitively time- and labour-intensive, given the inherent headache of making consistent products out of unpredictable raw materials. Lindsay Lorusso, who worked in waste management for 15 years before she set her sights on the garment sector, teamed up with her twin sister, Alexandra, in 2016 to found Nudnik, a fashion line based on 100% upcycled scraps.

Why focus on upcycled and not recycled textiles? “Upcycling is far less wasteful, since it uses waste as is, rather than adding water and energy to the equation to process waste into something new,” says Lorusso. In terms of carbon cost, upcycled textiles beat out even more common environmentally friendly options like organic cotton. “Textiles are a challenging material to upcycle, but we saw that as an opportunity,” she says. Leveraging their connections from the waste-management industry, the Lorusso twins teamed up with factory partners overseas and got to work.

Initially, Nudnik would receive a batch of waste from its partners and—based on colour, fabric type and volume—manually come up with styles, a process that could take weeks. Now, the company’s secret sauce is specialized software, finalized six months ago, that cuts the timeline from raw inventory to production-ready collection from weeks to minutes. Doubling as an inventory-management tool and design aid, the tech helps Nudnik make consistent, replicable designs suitable for larger-scale production.

In 2018, Lorusso participated in the NEXT Canada’s Next Founders program. “This is where we were challenged to think about how we can scale our upcycling project,” she says. “Our tech was based off the back of this thinking.” Reza Satchu, the accelerator’s founding chairman, distinctly remembers Lorusso being a star of her cohort. “I often talk about founder-market fit, and Lindsay certainly had that,” he says. “With her experience in the waste sector, she really found the bull’s-eye around an industry she knew and cared a lot about. I’ve been thrilled, but not surprised, to hear of her success.”

Notwithstanding its breakthrough tech, the company also relies on a few clever workarounds that make it easier to deal with scraps. Nudnik uses a signature patchwork style—often using contrasting panels of bright, solid hues—which makes mismatched fabrics less of a problem. And since smaller items are easier to make from scraps, it has focused exclusively on children’s clothing.

But the tech has paved the way for an exciting new era for Nudnik—this year, it will expand its product range to include clothes for adults. “I believe waste is the greatest resource of our time,” says Lorusso, “and upcycling is the new recycling.” /LA

Dax Dasilva | Founder, Age of Union Alliance

Oumayma B. Tanfous/The Globe and Mail

One of Dax Dasilva’s formative experiences as a teenager in Vancouver was joining the logging protests at Clayoquot Sound. “I remember driving through hours and hours of clearcut, seeing these literal moonscapes,” says the 46-year-old founder of Montreal-based tech firm Lightspeed Commerce. “Now I realize how big of an area we were able to protect, and that motivates me.”

So, when he sold some shares in Lightspeed following the company’s lucrative IPO in 2019, he knew exactly what to do with the proceeds. He founded Age of Union Alliance, a non-profit that supports organizations working to protect the planet’s threatened species and ecosystems. “What else would you want to do with your wealth?” says Dasilva, who left his position as CEO of Lightspeed last year (he’s still the chair), in part to focus on Age of Union.

Since the non-profit’s launch in October 2021, Dasilva has allocated $40 million of his own cash to 10 high-impact conservation and restoration projects in Canada, Peru, Trinidad, Indonesia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including $14.5 million to the B.C. Parks Foundation—the largest single donation it’s ever received. That gift will secure key ecosystems in the province, such as the Pitt River Watershed, a 733-acre salmon-river sanctuary in Katzie First Nation territory near Vancouver, and the French Creek Estuary—a 23-acre eagle sanctuary on Vancouver Island.

But Dasilva isn’t just a guy in a suit writing cheques. He has visited eight of the conservation projects in person to better understand the problems they face, as well as the potential solutions. “Other people would’ve just gone out and created a [philanthropic] association with their name on it,” says Paul Rosolie, a founder and director of Junglekeepers, a grassroots organization that works with Indigenous populations in the Peruvian Amazon to protect the Madre de Dios region—one of the most biodiverse and pristine areas on Earth. “What’s beautiful about what Dax is doing is that he’s coming to the conservation organizations that have been working on the ground for a long time and asking us, ‘What’s the best way I can help?’”

That help could involve funding—like the US$3.5 million Age of Union has pledged over five years to Junglekeepers, which will allow it to conserve an additional 50,000 acres of rainforest, preventing the destruction of ancient trees and thousands of species. But it could also come in the form of strategic, legal or technical support, or guidance on how to best tell their story—which can help attract additional funding. Indeed, Age of Union has already produced four documentaries to raise awareness about various projects, and Dasilva spoke at the COP15 biodiversity conference this past December.

“When Dax says he wants to solve a problem, it’s not lip service,” says Chelsea Finnemore, who worked with Dasilva for more than a decade at Lightspeed and is now Age of Union’s executive advisor of strategy and operations. “But no one group or project is going to solve this, so we’re looking at how we can expand the impact beyond leveraging his resources.”

To that end, Dasilva wants Age of Union to develop a transparent reporting platform that appeals to other philanthropic leaders. “If we can give businesspeople a real-time dashboard of results, they may feel more comfortable donating,” he says. “I want to show people what’s possible and that there’s hope for change.” /TS

Josh Domingues | Founder and CEO, Flashfood

Anne-Marie Cloutier/The Globe and Mail

A digital tool that lets consumers buy meat, dairy, produce and other grocery items nearing their best-before date at a discount sounds like something retailers would gobble up. Customers save money, grocers sell stock they’d otherwise toss, and food waste is diverted from landfills, thereby reducing harmful methane emissions—an all-around win. But when Josh Domingues started shopping around his Flashfood app in 2017, that’s not how it played out.

“Selling it to grocers was a challenge,” says Domingues, 34, given that retailers often accepted food waste as a cost of doing business, not a problem to solve. “It took a while to get in front of the right people and partner with the chains.” But he kept knocking on doors and making connections, ultimately convincing Loblaw to be the company’s first major partner in Canada in 2018.

That talent for building relationships and gaining trust is Domingues’s superpower, says Flashfood chief product officer Cedric Samaha, a skill he noticed in his colleague in 2015, when the pair first worked together at a Toronto-area management consulting firm. “Josh has a real ability to disarm and relate to people,” he says. “When he talks to grocers, it’s not just a cheesy sales pitch.”

Nicholas Bertram, former president of northeastern U.S. grocery company Giant, agrees Domingues’s authenticity sets him apart. “Josh was interested in what we could do together, rather than what I could do for him,” he says. “He genuinely wants to lower food waste and increase access to fresh food for disadvantaged people.” After conducting a successful Flashfood pilot in a single regional market in 2019, Giant went for a full-chain rollout at its 192 grocery stores in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. “There’s an elegance to it, which is what good innovation usually is,” says Bertram.

Flashfood now operates in more than 1,400 grocery locations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and to date it has diverted more than 50 million pounds of food from landfills, preventing 95 million pounds of CO2-equivalent from reaching the atmosphere—that’s like taking 9,285 gas-powered passenger vehicles off the road for a year. Moreover, the app has saved shoppers more than $120 million—helping thousands of families afford fresh food at a time when rising inflation is making that increasingly difficult.

This year, Domingues is looking to increase Flashfood’s impact by scaling stateside, as well as adding non-traditional food partners in Canada. “All I’ll say is that we’re trying to feed your whole family affordably,” he says coyly, “not just the human members.” /TS

Nagwan al-Guneid | Director, Business Renewables Centre-Canada

A non-profit that helps corporations buy solar and wind power directly from Alberta’s renewable energy producers, BRC-Canada set a goal in 2019 to secure two gigawatts worth of deals by 2025. In May, under the direction of Al-Guneid, it hit that target three years ahead of schedule, bringing 4,500 jobs and $3.8 billion in investment to Alberta, while helping to decarbonize its electricity grid. To meet its new target of 10 GW by 2030, BRC-Canada is working to open up markets in other jurisdictions and involve additional sectors. “Cement, steel and heavy industry have big electricity loads,” says Al-Guneid, 38. “If they procure renewable energy, it’ll have an even bigger impact.”

Sarah Keyes | CEO, ESG Global Advisors Inc.

While studying accounting at McGill University, Keyes had an aha moment that would define her career. “I realized I could change the profession from the inside out.” She has: Not only was Keyes a principal of sustainability at the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, where she helped translate climate-change issues into the language of finance, but she also designed the first-ever certificate program in climate change for the Institute of Corporate Directors, where she has trained 150 board members. Now the 35-year-old heads up ESG Global Advisors, which has helped more than 110 companies and institutional investors with their ESG practices.

Nathan Hall | Founder & CEO, Culture Check

When he was named one of Ottawa’s Forty Under 40 in 2020, Hall did what most of us would do: posted the news on LinkedIn. But amid the congratulatory messages he received was a racist comment from a stranger, shocking many of his connections. “They couldn’t believe someone would say that in a professional setting,” says the 38-year-old. “But people have been saying these things to me throughout my career.” That led him to create Culture Check, a consultancy that helps organizations build inclusive cultures, as well as a resource that supports racialized communities so they can thrive in the workplace. “Something that was meant to tear me down did nothing but build me up,” says Hall. “I’m proud of that, and I want to give that experience to others.”

Kevin Krausert | Co-founder and CEO, Avatar Innovations

When the oil industry collapsed in the mid-2010s, Krausert was at the helm of Beaver Drilling, the Calgary business his grandfather co-founded in 1965. “The low rig count prompted a lot of conversations about energy transition, climate change and new technologies,” says Krausert, 42. “So we started an in-house accelerator to build out those skills.” In 2020, he left Beaver to turn the accelerator into a standalone operation where experts could work together to bring clean technologies to market faster. To date, 644 young professionals have participated in Avatar’s program—supported by Cenovus, Enbridge, TC Energy, Suncor and other large energy companies—working on innovative solutions, including carbon-capture catalysts, methane-emission reduction and geothermal.

Manuel Rodriguez | Business Development Manager, SKLatam

When Rodriguez and his wife arrived in Saskatoon six years ago, they spoke no English and had a tough time navigating the transition to Canadian life. “For us, even simple things were very difficult,” he says. “I have a business degree and had a high position in Colombia, but after I arrived here it took four months to find work.” So Rodriguez, 45, launched the Latino-Canadian business community network (SKLatam) to help other Spanish-speaking newcomers access settlement services and training, and to provide a way for Latino entrepreneurs to connect with each other and share knowledge.

Lael Williams | Director of Materials Research and Innovation, Canada Goose

As Canada Goose’s head of materials research, Williams oversees multiple teams that work on R&D. But she doesn’t let managerial responsibilities get in the way of what she loves most about her job: hands-on product development. She was integral to the development of Kind Fleece, a sustainable fleece made mainly of bio-based fibres and recycled wool. That innovation is part of Williams’s larger goal to support the outerwear company towards its goal of using 90% environmentally and socially sustainable textiles by 2025.

Alexandre Guindon | Co-founder and General Manager, 2 Degrés

Guindon had planned to study humanitarian health and international development until others suggested a degree in finance would likely open more doors for his altruistic goals. They were right: After spending five years in corporate finance at Desjardins, in 2019 he leveraged his knowledge and network to co-found 2 Degrés, a Quebec-based incubator for cleantech startups. Public and private partners provide funding, resources and expertise to more than a dozen startups, working on technologies that address everything from decarbonizing domestic water heating to collecting microplastic from beaches. “We need to work collectively to create concrete sustainable impact,” says Guindon, 33.

Shelley Kuipers + Judy Fairburn | Co-CEOs, The51

Last year, 82.6% of U.S. venture capital funding went to companies with male-only founders; just 2% went to all-female teams. “It’s a largely paternalistic system,” says Kuipers, a 55-year-old entrepreneur. “By funding overperforming, underinvested entrepreneurs, we’re making the pie bigger.” That’s something The51 is working to change. Its two feminist venture funds have activated $21 million in capital (90% from women investors) to 29 innovative women-led or co-led companies in Canada and the U.S. “This is an and, not an or,” says Fairburn, 59, a former C-suite executive who also notes that 98% of the world’s capital is deployed through a man’s decision making, citing the book The XX Edge.

Kookai Chaimahawong | ESG Partner, UpperStage Capital

“I’ve always had a personal thesis of integrating living with giving,” says 30-year-old Chaimahawong. Indeed, in 2014 the self-described optimist helped launch one of Thailand’s first social enterprises, a platform where businesses accept charitable donations as payment for unsold products or services. Later, she helped the United Nations mobilize public and private sector support for its Sustainable Development Goals. In 2018, while getting her MBA in Vancouver, she joined VC firm Pangaea to develop impact strategies for venture capital investment. Now, she’s working at UpperStage to ensure the firm’s portfolio meets strict impact criteria.

Andrew Lester | Co-founder, Lyric Cycles

A bike is handy for picking up a carton of milk, but a full grocery run usually requires a car. Lester, 46, wants to change that, by getting riders to replace gas-burning car trips with Lyric Cycles’ Squamish, B.C.–made high-performance e-bikes, which can carry up to 200 pounds of cargo and still have enough torque to handle inclines. “It’s an affordable way for people to get into electrical transportation,” says Lester, “so they can use as little energy as possible to get around.”

Chase Edgelow | Co-founder and CEO, EverGen

It almost sounds too good to be true: a source of energy that can be stored, can be deployed using existing infrastructure and that reduces harmful emissions. But that’s what EverGen’s renewable natural gas (RNG) is. Projects like its Fraser Valley biogas facility convert the methane produced by food scraps and manure into RNG. And because more emissions are captured during production of the gas than are emitted when burned, the cumulative impact is carbon negative. With a target to use 15% renewable products in its pipeline mixture by 2030, utilities like FortisBC are providing 20-year contracts for RNG. “For newer transition fuels, that certainty on the back end is unique,” says Edgelow, 38.

Arati Sharma | Angel Investor and Founding Partner, Backbone Angels

When Sharma and her husband, Satish Kanwar, received a windfall in 2015 after Shopify, where they both worked, went public, he began angel investing—and she noticed most of the founders were men. “That’s when I decided I wanted to back women with big ideas,” says Sharma, 37. She’s invested in more than 50 mainly Canadian startups with women founders through her family office. And Backbone Angels, which she started in 2021 with nine other female Shopify alums, has invested in another 45-plus. “Women are incredible founders,” she says. “This is my call to action to ensure investors are looking at diversity.”

Dolma Tsundu | CEO & Founder, Flutter Care; Co-founder, CC4SP

About one in every 116 births in Canada is a stillbirth, but research shows many of these tragic losses are avoidable. “We need to educate the public and care providers on how stillbirth can be prevented,” says Tsundu, a certified doula and biomedical engineer. So she created Flutter Care, a free app that allows expectant parents to track fetal movements and note potential red flags so they can seek preventative care. Last year, Tsundu also co-founded the Canadian Collaborative for Stillbirth Prevention, lobbying the government for a national strategy to reduce stillbirths by at least 30% by 2030 and improve support for bereaved families.

David Katz | Founder and CEO, Plastic Bank

Every year, 11 million tonnes of plastic flows into the world’s oceans, harming marine life and destroying vital ecosystems. Katz realized he could help reduce the problem by compensating locals in poor coastline communities for the plastic waste they bring to nearby depots. The material is then melted into pellets, flakes or bales and sold to Plastic Bank’s corporate partners to be made into new bottles or other materials. In 2022 alone, the social enterprise prevented about 30 million kilograms of plastic—the equivalent of 1.5 billion plastic bottles—from reaching the ocean. “Nobody is coming to save us,” says Katz, 54. “It’s just us.”

Justin Abbiss | CEO, MRKTBOX Inc.

As an environmentalist and former avalanche forecaster in the Yukon, Abbiss long idolized leaders like Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who helped popularize “B Corp” certification as the social and environmental gold standard. Now, Abbiss has his own certified B Corp in MRKTBOX, a Hamilton-based grocery company that supports small-scale farms, bakers, coffee roasters and other producers. “Buying local is the best thing you can do for your city,” says the 38-year-old entrepreneur. With three stores and an online delivery service, the company put more than $2.5 million back into the Hamilton-area food ecosystem in 2022 alone.

Vickram Agarwal | Chief Marketing Officer, Credit Canada

In a year and a half at Credit Canada, Agarwal has completely rebranded and reimagined the 57-year-old non-profit. “Since the ‘60s, we’ve offered the same single service—credit counselling—to help people get out of debt.” All well and good, but spending has since changed rapidly, and there are more ways to get into debt than ever before. To better help those drowning in debt, Agarwal’s team has grown from one person to 10 and has modernized their financial coaching and education to promote a more holistic notion of financial health. “We’ve all been talking about financial literacy, but not financial health,” says Agarwal. “We’re shifting that knowledge to change financial behaviour and see actual results.”

Pat Chaisang | Founder and CEO, Isempower

When Chaisang moved to Canada from Thailand to get a bachelor’s degree in 2013, finding a job was a steep climb. “I didn’t really speak English and was rejected from even minimum-wage jobs,” she says. “I didn’t even know what a resumé was.” In 2021, she channelled her lived experience into a venture called Isempower that now helps more than 20,000 international students find meaningful work. The company provides introductions to industry mentors, tailored educational resources and connections to vetted employers. Higher education is due for disruption, and who better to make waves than a 27-year-old newcomer who knows its pain points inside-out?

Apoorv Sinha | Founder and CEO, Carbon Upcycling Technologies

It’s one thing to reduce carbon emissions; it’s another to convert them into something useful. Carbon Upcycling Technologies—founded by Sinha, a chemical engineer, in 2014—sequesters CO2 from mines and coal plants in industrial byproducts, and is using that process to create an ultradurable cement replacement. Sinha wants to apply the company’s technology to other sectors like mining, steel and agriculture. “Our mission over the next 10 years,” he says, “is to become the most impactful carbon tech company in the world.”

Jennie Coleman | President, Equifruit

If you’ve ever wondered why bananas—a fruit that can only be grown in tropical climes—are so much cheaper than locally grown produce, the answer isn’t pretty. Retailers pressure growers to keep prices down, which means they often rely on forced child labour. Montreal-based Equifruit is 100% Fairtrade-certified, which guarantees safe and equitable working conditions, and a sustainable floor price for its partner farmers in South America and Mexico. Longo’s has carried only Equifruit’s bananas since 2021, and Costco stocks them, too. “We’ve managed to catch people’s attention and inspire them to join us in making change,” says Coleman, 52.

Helle Bank Jorgensen | Founder and CEO, Competent Boards

Corporate directors haven’t traditionally considered ESG initiatives to be under their purview. “They were pet projects of the CEO, instead of embedded in the business,” says Bank Jorgensen, a 55-year-old Danish lawyer and accountant who created the world’s first so-called green account and the first annual report combining ESG with financial performance. “But there’s a duty of care for board members, and they need to understand all the aspects of ESG so they can make informed decisions.” To help them get up to speed, she launched Toronto-based Competent Boards in 2018, which has now delivered the online ESG and climate designation programs she developed to more than 600 leaders in 46 countries. Her next goal: to train at least one board member on every Fortune 1000 board by 2025.

Leejoo Hwang | Chief Operating Officer, Co-founder, MeaningfulWork

When the COVID-19 lockdowns hit in 2020, Hwang noticed that many non-profits were struggling to transition their activities online. At the same time, he and many others had more time on their hands and wanted to help. So he co-founded MeaningfulWork, a website where organizations can connect with new volunteers ready to give back. “I’m always looking for ways to build communities,” says Hwang, 23, who also started a communal garden near his home in Vancouver.

Kayla Isabelle | CEO, Startup Canada

Isabelle took the reins at Startup Canada in 2020. The company, which connects entrepreneurs with resources to grow their businesses, has since tripled its team, expanded its virtual services, grown its reach from 10 to more than 300 cities, and gone from supporting 75,000 entrepreneurs to 140,000-plus. “There’s nothing more inspiring than seeing the ideas entrepreneurs come up with to solve the world’s most pressing challenges,” she says. “That takes enormous courage, and I see my role as helping them achieve their dreams.”

Starrlee DeGrace | Global D&I Leader for Native and Indigenous Communities, IBM

After 15 years in sales at IBM, DeGrace scored a big promotion with an even bigger task: to create safe and inclusive spaces, programs and policies for current and future Indigenous employees. “I’m newly in a position to make a difference,” says DeGrace, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation. She’s already launched countless networks and initiatives focused on Indigenous youth. In just seven months, she met with and mentored 150-plus young people interested in a career in STEM.

Emma Stern | Co-founder and COO, Felix Health

One in five Canadians don’t have a family doctor, and amid a nationwide shortage of medical practitioners, private digital providers are helping increase access to basic medications like birth control and acne treatments. “There’s no reason ER doctors should be filling Viagra prescriptions,” says Stern, co-founder of Felix Health. The company, created in 2019, offers virtual appointments and sends medications to people’s homes. “Lowering barriers to health care is our mission,” she says. And while Felix currently charges for online visits, Stern hopes the service will eventually be covered by government.

Chris Russell | Energy Engineering Manager, EastPoint Engineering

It’s not always easy to find common ground between Canada’s climate goals and the people responsible for implementing necessary changes to infrastructure. That’s exactly what Russell, head of energy engineering at Halifax-based EastPoint Engineering, does. Drawing on a combination of technical chops, policy knowledge and people skills, Russell develops climate-friendly retrofitting plans for existing buildings, typically slashing their greenhouse gas output in half and reducing energy costs by up to 30%. “Environmental policy is no longer the only driving factor. The technology is there, and the business case is there,” he says. “The problem is usually bringing people up to speed, and that’s where we come in.”

Jonathan Edwards | Principal Research Scientist, CERT Systems

The production of ethylene, a petrochemical used to make plastic, exceeds that of any other organic compound in the world. It’s traditionally made in a carbon-intensive process using fossil fuels, but Edwards is working at Toronto-based CERT Systems to change that. He’s developing a new method to make ethylene using CO2 emissions from, for example, the steel and cement industries. His research is still precommercial, but if it scales as planned, it could beget a titanic shift in the way one of the world’s most ubiquitous chemicals is produced—and substantially lower global greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

Majid Mirza | Co-founder and CEO, ESGTree

The past couple of years were big ones for ESG investing, from Glasgow’s COP26 to the implementation of the first ESG-related regulation in financial markets (the EU’s Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation). ESGTree—a platform for private equity investors helmed by impact-investing veteran Mirza—jumped on the opportunity, enjoying 2.5 times annual growth, while helping investors align their portfolios with environmentally and socially responsible companies. With his private-equity clients managing more than $200 billion in assets, Mirza is determined to prove ESG investing isn’t a fad—it’s a high-impact tool for effecting positive change.

James Yurichuk | Founder and CEO, Wuxly Movement

Before he started a fashion company, Yurichuk was a professional football linebacker—albeit one with an entrepreneurial bent. His first foray into clothing was a personal project: making the perfect parka for his then girlfriend (now wife and mother of his four kids). Yurichuk took that $5,000 investment and turned it into a full-fledged outerwear business. His motto is “360-degree warmth”-—a stalwart focus on environmental sustainability, animal welfare (all Wuxly coats are free of animal products) and ethical manufacturing. Plus, they’re made in Canada by workers who make a living wage.

Shukri Abdulle | Productivity Manager, Bimbo Canada

After four years in the leadership trainee program at Canada’s largest and oldest bakery, Abdulle had a big task to “make our production chain as productive as possible.” Automation is a new prospect at Bimbo, which, like many food and beverage multinationals, faces a labour shortage. At Bimbo, that shortfall could hit 65,000 by 2025. Its new gantry system is a 30,000 square-foot robotic system that “does all our picking and sorting—much faster and with better accuracy.” Abdulle seamlessly led Bimbo from the old system to the new, saving $2.3 million a year in the process, all while training the company’s humans to take on more skilled tasks robots can’t do.

Kevin Read | President and CEO, Nomodic

Modular buildings, where components are put together off-site, are still a niche part of Canada’s construction industry. But their many benefits—including significantly lower costs and carbon-intensity, shorter timelines, and reduced waste—make them a potential game changer in the current housing crisis. Read, who leads 10-year-old Nomodic, is among the country’s foremost innovators focused on scaling up the modular business. Nomodic has worked on hundreds of projects, including housing for Indigenous communities that face supply and labour challenges. Its specialized modular assembly team, meanwhile, also supports the work of other companies—living up to its motto, “Leaving things better.”

Teresa Marques | President, Rideau Hall Foundation

Marques says the word “foundation” at the decade-old Rideau Hall Foundation is “a bit of a misnomer.” In four years, she’s transformed the non-profit into a dynamo of powerful partnerships in support of a better Canada. Still, like all non-profits, she faced familiar hurdles: rasing money and getting innovative. She secured nearly $100 million from private and public donors (including $45 million to support Indigenous teachers), then put that money into better, more robust programs for young people, including a skill-building platform called Catapult and the Queen Elizabeth Scholars program in partnership with Canadian universities in honour of the late Queen.

Eva Lau | Founding Partner, Two Small Fish Ventures

The proportion of women leading venture funds in Canada is still minuscule, but entrepreneur-turned-investor Lau is helping turn that reality on its head. The former Wattpad exec co-founded Two Small Fish, a sector-agnostic fund that scales up companies using Lau’s “asset framework”—a system focused on the value of user engagement. “Operators and entrepreneurs like myself bring unique value to the ecosystem as investors because we have our own experiences to draw on,” she says. In October, Two Small Fish closed a $24-million funding round, with an overall target of $40 million.

Juanita Marois | CEO, Métis Crossing

“Growing up, my parents decided it would be easier for me to thrive if I didn’t identify as an Indigenous person,” says Marois, a citizen of the Métis Nation of Alberta. Today, she works to ensure families never have to make a decision like that again. Marois was a key force in developing Métis Crossing, a Métis-owned gathering place and destination outside of Edmonton. From handmade quilts on the beds to a wildlife park that’s home to heritage species like bison and elk, everything on the 668-acre property is designed to educate guests about Métis heritage, provide a cultural home for citizens of the Indigenous nation, and feed into a self-sustaining economy designed to ensure continuous Métis stewardship of the land.

Melissa Allen | Founder, Capital M Ventures

In 2018, Allen was disturbed by a study that found self-driving cars had trouble recognizing people with darker skin tones and were more likely to hit them in tests. “I couldn’t help but think that had something to do with the demographics of the teams designing the tech,” she says. Aiming to increase diversity in Canada’s venture capital landscape, she raised $1 million to launch Capital M, an industry-agnostic VC fund that focuses on BIPOC-founded businesses. This year alone, her fund raised $5 million to support BIPOC founders.

Nancy Wilson | Founder and CEO, Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce

Canada didn’t have a Chamber of Commerce representing the interests of self-identified women and non-binary people until Wilson thought to create one in 2015. The CPA was moved by a near-complete lack of policy recommendations concerning women in the past few years, which she noticed while reviewing records from the Canadian and Ontario chambers of commerce. “There was no one speaking for us,” she says. Now, Wilson works directly with policy makers to bring about equality in Canada’s business ecosystem. Her advocacy goals for the near future centre on economic equity and access to capital; she’s also putting together a cross-sector alliance to examine policy, or lack thereof, that supports self-employed Canadians.

Ajay Kochhar | Co-founder and CEO, Li-Cycle

Mining the lithium, nickel and cobalt that make up lithium-ion batteries—used to power everything from electric vehicles to household appliances—has heavy social and environmental impacts, and recycling those materials is highly complex. That’s why Kochhar helped start Li-Cycle in 2016. It’s now the North American leader focused on lithium-ion battery recycling. Getting there meant creating novel tech that would significantly drive up the sustainability, scalability, and economic viability of battery recycling. “We’re hoping to continue to be a great Canadian success story,” says Kochhar.

Stéphanie Jules | Co-chair, Legal & Regulatory Compliance DE&I Council, BMO

At BMO’s LRC group, Jules oversees 80 volunteers on the diversity council, which she’ll be the first to admit is too often an empty buzzword. Her mission? “A clear, extensive action plan that focuses on inclusion for all.” Of many big changes at the bank, Jules has revamped the LRC group’s hiring process to reduce bias and eliminate subjectivity. Thanks to her, instead of one decision-maker in a suit, would-be employees now face a diverse panel of trained interviewers representing different genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, skills and experiences.

Stephen Penstone | Senior Consultant, Quinn+Partners

Before a business makes any net-zero promises with respect to its real estate, it might want to call Penstone. “If they want to set a target but don’t know the path to get there, I can help,” he says. Penstone assesses each situation, develops measurement tools, devises a workable model and monitors progress—all to help slash Canada’s commercial real estate emissions, which account for 16% of greenhouse gas emissions, and meet Canada’s commitments under the Paris Agreement by 2050. It’s telling that Quinn has grown tenfold in less than a decade.

Boluwaji Ogunyemi | Assistant Professor, Memorial University

St. John’s–based dermatologist Ogunyemi specializes in diseases that disproportionately affect or are commonly misdiagnosed in racialized people—an emerging practice in this historically white-dominated field. Besides his role as a physician and assistant dean at Memorial University, he’s a thought leader whose regular speaking engagements (including a TEDx talk) and numerous publications explore the long-neglected intersection between health, equity and diversity.

Kevin Lee | Founder, ImmiSearch

Canada is set to bring in 465,000 immigrants in 2023. Unfortunately, since many immigrants begin their journey outside Canada, where the immigration consultant industry isn’t always regulated, some are bound to get caught up in costly scams. Lee, whose own family emigrated from Korea, started Immi-Search in 2019—a tech-enabled platform that allows potential immigrants to fill out applications themselves with step-by-step instructions and support from staff. The service costs less than half of what immigration consultants normally charge—and the team is working to drive the cost even lower.

Alfred Burgesson | Founder and CEO, Tribe Network

Burgesson started his first business, a digital media marketing company, in his first year at Saint Mary’s University; six entrepreneurial years later, the Ghanaian-Canadian launched the resource network he didn’t have: Tribe Network, a Halifax-based online innovation hub and community of 700 BIPOC entrepreneurs. There, they find help accessing capital, educational programming, coaching and mentorship. “I didn’t see a space for anyone who looked like me,” he says, “so I built it.”

Alwar Pillai | Co-founder and CEO, Fable

The internet is still widely inaccessible to users with disabilities, and efforts to make websites accessible too often focus on bare-minimum compliance. Pillai’s Toronto startup wants to make digital accessibility the norm rather than the exception. “Over a billion people live with a disability. It’s high time digital products adapt to everyone’s needs,” she says. Companies can use her platform to access testers with disabilities and engage them throughout product development, or access custom training from an in-house team of experts. The four-year-old company has raised $40 million in venture capital financing, and past clients include Wealthsimple, Shopify and Kijiji.

Vass Bednar | Executive Director, Master of Public Policy in Digital Society, McMaster University

Bednar is on a mission to make public policy accessible, understandable and…fun? “I’m trying to bring levity and playfulness to discussions about policy, and technology and competition law,” says Bednar, whose popular “regs to riches” newsletter calls for Canadians to get passionate about the intersection between public policy (a.k.a. the regs) and the innovation ecosystem (the riches). Last year, Bednar took on shady apps on Shopify Inc. and Cineplex’s exhibition monopolization.

Varun Chandak | Founder and President, Access to Success

When Chandak moved from India to study business in Canada, he deliberately left his disability—he’s hard of hearing and has Erb Palsy—off his application. Many people like him do; according to his organization’s own research, of two-thirds of MBA students who require accommodations, a full quarter don’t even ask. For them, and for anyone else committed to a more equitable workplace, Chandak founded Access to Success, which he grew from a student initiative at the Rotman School of Management to a not-for-profit dedicated to accelerating accessibility for future leaders with disabilities. While some solutions are large and lofty—Chandak dreams about “smart contact lenses that would give me live captioning”—others are surprisingly easy to make a reality: 15 of the 25 most requested accommodations, he found, cost exactly zero dollars.

Zak Lefevre | Co-founder and CEO, ChargeLab

For more than 10 million EV drivers and counting, Lefevre is about to make life much easier with what he hopes will be the “Android of the electric charging market.” Charging stations are too often rows of single stations, each with a finicky credit-card machine. ChargeLab builds back-end software for buildings and communities to invest in their own stations, monitor and optimize electric-fuel distribution over the grid, and—for 10,000 users who’ve already embraced the new technology—streamline the sometimes-frustrating process. “With ChargeLab, you just scan the QR code, and our app pulls up all your information.”

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