Mature Waterloo entrepreneurs defy tech industry age stereotyping

Age bias is a common problem in the work culture of Silicon Valley. But in Canada's own major tech hub in Kitchener-Waterloo, a number of mature entrepreneurs are making a successful mark in the industry.

Startup scene generally filled with younger talent

Jad Saliba, pictured on the right, and Adam Belsher both left their jobs in 2011 to start data surveillance company Magnet Forensics. Saliba was a former police officer and Belsher worked at BlackBerry on the business side. (Matthew Kang/CBC)

One of the most revered values in Silicon Valley is the notion that anyone with a great idea can become a success story.

But it appears the work culture there is not as sunny as a typical California forecast.

Reuters reported in a feature series last November of age discrimination in the Bay Area’s tech community. Several older workers shared their struggles of losing out on opportunities to younger applicants and being perceived as incapable of keeping up with new technology. 

'Technology is a young person's industry.'—Alan Kearns, CareerJoy

In Ontario's Waterloo Region, one of North America’s fastest growing startup clusters, stories like these can be worrisome for older entrants to the startup world. 

"Lets face it. Technology is a young person's industry," said Alan Kearns, head of Canadian career coaching firm CareerJoy. "It’s never impossible for an older employee to get in, but you have to prepare for more challenge."

However in the Waterloo tech cluster, a number of mature entrepreneurs have created successful new careers in tech, defying the industry’s ageist attitudes in the process.

Unlikely partners

When Jad Saliba, 32, became a police officer with Waterloo Regional Police in 2004, he thought he would wear the badge until retirement. 

'This could really go somewhere if I was able to dedicate full-time resources to it.'—Jad Saliba, Magnet Forensics

But while working in the technological crimes unit, Saliba found it difficult to recover data from online communications and social media for investigations. 

Saliba had a background in computer science and began working on a program that could make data searches faster and easier in his spare time.

"I started adding more features and saw that this could really go somewhere if I was able to dedicate full-time resources to it," said Saliba.

Eventually he met Adam Belsher, 38, who was working for Research In Motion (now BlackBerry) at one of its American business units and also thinking of a career change.

In 2011, both left their jobs and partnered up to create Magnet Forensics. The data surveillance company now has 30 employees and over 1,300 law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies around the world using their software.

As for the question of age, Belsher says professional experience that comes with being older can be a great asset.

"There’s a lot of smart people coming out of the University of Waterloo and Laurier with some great ideas," said Belsher. "But I think the thing they’re lacking is having gone through a number of situations, highs and lows and being able to handle those with maturity and calmness."

Over 40 in a young person’s world

The sheer number of young graduates adds to the challenge for older applicants. Last year, the Ontario universities application centre reported a 10 per cent increase in student enrolment in engineering programs.   

Alan Kearns of CareerJoy says the average startup employee is in his or her 20s, not far removed from school. But he adds not everyone needs to be an engineering graduate to make it in the tech world. 

"You might not be able to get in as a software developer, but you might get in as a financial person or a marketing person." said Kearns.

That’s the path taken by Carol Leaman.

Currently, the 46-year-old is the president and CEO of Waterloo-based Axonify, an e-learning platform for corporate employee training.

But in a previous life she was an accountant at KPMG. She entered the tech industry after being recruited to work in corporate finance for appliance manufacturer Electrohome in 1994.

She went on to become CEO of tech firm Fakespace in 1998, before selling it in 2003. She sold her last startup PostRank to Google in 2011. 

Carol Leaman started her professional career as an accountant at KPMG before entering the startup scene. (Courtesy of Carol Leaman)

Leaman says there was a steep learning curve when she made the transition from corporate rules and structure to free-form startup culture. She adds that when she became the CEO of the startup Fakespace, she could sense some doubt among the board of directors.

"There was probably a measure of disbelief that I couldn’t do it, but they took a leap of faith putting me in that position," says Leaman. "Fortunately it worked out."

Cultivating success

Tom Emrich, a writer for the Canadian tech journalism site Techvibes, says there are a number of factors that allow entrepreneurs of various ages to have a shot at success in Waterloo Region.

They include the area’s two universities, the presence of large tech companies such as BlackBerry and Google and the region’s proximity to Toronto’s tech market and investors.

And Emrich adds that brilliant ideas generally trump any questions about age.

"I think the focus on improvement, betterment, and on utilizing technology in new and amazing ways is probably the reason why we’re seeing people of varying ages being supported within Kitchener-Waterloo," said Emrich.

Another big factor are tech hubs like Communitech and the Accelerator Centre, which help startups in Waterloo Region grow and become profitable.

Dave Beaton, 46, owes much of his success as a tech entrepreneur to Communitech, which shepherded his company ChangeIt through its early life. 

Dave Beaton was a high school math and physics teacher for 18 years before he founded his company ChangeIt. (Matthew Kang/CBC)

Beaton left his 18-year career as a high school teacher to start the firm, which has produced a program that lets people round up their debit purchases and donate the extra change to charity. Beaton says one major benefit of being a mature tech entrepreneur is having an extensive contact list from his previous work life. And he says it helps that he’s working his dream job.

"People invest in the person as much, if not more, than a good idea." said Beaton. "So it’s really important to be passionate about what you do."