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Elevate Toronto emboldens diverse community of innovators

Elevate’s inaugural year had some big numbers to show off: 5000 people, 100 speakers and 70 venues. Top that off with 96 different organizations contributing to its success, and you can say Elevate’s core ideal of collaboration is plainly on display. All of those involved brought into focus the very real prospect of Toronto becoming a global powerhouse of innovation and technology.

As in so many things, it’s belief that can change the perceptions inherent to international innovation hubs. Elevate CEO Razor Sulleman, renowned for his success with Achievers, worked for years in Silicon Valley, and he was quick to point out at the festival’s opening set of talks that there’s “no unfair advantage” for companies running in the Valley compared to Toronto. It’s all about the belief those people have that they are the industry leaders with the ideas that change the world.

It can seem a daunting thing: reaching that level of commitment to innovation, and the belief that your city and your country can become such an engine of change. Many in the crowd on that first day of Elevate spoke of how they really didn’t know what to expect from the event. However, by bringing diverse groups of committed people together, Elevate is allowing for that particular form of community identification to grow.

Elevate Toronto kicked off its inaugural year by emphasizing the immense opportunity for Canada s in...

Elevate Toronto kicked off its inaugural year by emphasizing the immense opportunity for Canada’s innovation ecosystem.
Jack Derricourt

Before talks got underway at the Sony Centre on the first day of Elevate, the event held a ten second open mic, allowing anyone to stand up and share their reason for being there. From the owner of Klink Coffee — a coffee shop that employs ex-inmates —, to the coordinator for Lean Enterprise Toronto, to a commerce student trying to land a summer job in Fintech, a wide array of people from a range of backgrounds were there to learn, network and help grow their community.

Diversity as more than just a buzzword
It’s not surprising that an event that stresses the need for inclusion, diversity and collaboration like Elevate would inspire this kind of turnout. Sulleman spoke to the underlying truth in a place like Toronto and a country like Canada: “Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.”

The opening talks made it abundantly clear that if Toronto is to position itself as a legitimate alternative to Silicon Valley for innovation and serious technology businesses, real diversity has to shine.

As Director of Strategic Initiatives for the mayor of the City of Toronto, Siri Agrell, announced to all those in attendance, “Inclusion is our competitive advantage.” She emphasized the economic imperative behind this kind of approach, which stretches beyond the essential moral position: greater inclusion leads to breakthroughs because there’s more people contributing to the process; diversity IS innovation, and denying it holds back ideas.

With all the immigration crackdowns south of the border, and indications that startups will lose some of their more liberal hiring capabilities, such as the Startup Visa, Canada has positioned itself as a real alternative, and is gaining recognition as such.

Elevate has vocalized and celebrated these values, harnessing the potential and gathering the community around diversity and collaboration. When Sulleman asked all the immigrants in the room to stand up on day one of Elevate, 90 percent of the attendees were on their feet. There’s no denying where the energy and resourcefulness in North America’s fastest-growing tech labour market is coming from.

AI draws big crowd
There was so much to do and see at Elevate. From fintech to civic technology, there was an abundance to engage with and learn from. But the highlight for many, and the busiest event of the three-day festival, was ElevateAI.

ElevateAI was the most anticipated track of Elevate

ElevateAI was the most anticipated track of Elevate

“To me, this is a learning experience,” said Frank Cristiano of SapientRazorfish, just back from vacation and up bright and early for the start of the AI proceedings. “I want to see what leaders in the industry are saying about AI specifically… see where the bar is right now and where people are expecting it to be pushed in the future.”

When the day’s conversations begin with Geoffrey Hinton, the esteemed godfather of AI, you can understand why people are liable to get excited. In his charming, self-effacing way, Hinton explained the basic procedures behind neural networks, technology that he has been working on in Canada since 1986, through hell and high water. It’s amazing to see how far neural networks and machine learning have come since Hinton started his work.

The story of AI  as told at Elevate Toronto

The story of AI, as told at Elevate Toronto

AI is an area full of prominent Canadian contributions. Canadian researchers now work at Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft, pushing the boundaries of AI. And as many attendees at Elevate were looking forward to a more Canadian future of innovation, it makes perfect sense so much attention would be paid to this particular space. It’s a major source of pride for the tech community, and it’s something the city and Canada at large are looking to build on.

Hinton works not only with the University of Toronto and Google, but also as part of the Vector Institute, an AI-friendly organization determined to retain tech talent in Canada.

Tomi Poutanen, a tech industry leader crucial to the creation of the Vector Institute, didn’t mince words about Toronto and Canada’s place within the developing world of AI: “We have all the pieces in place.”

Toronto Elevated?
Elevate Toronto had heady goals for itself and for the city, but the overall mood of the festival proclaimed the same kind of enthusiasm displayed by Poutanen. Attendance looked good, the ideas being presented were fresh and the attendees appeared excited about the opportunity to take part.

Brian Carey, another attendee at the ElevateAI track gave his thoughts on the festival’s launch:

“I thought they did a good job of creating the themes around celebrating diversity and bringing the tech community together. Right now, given the confluence of market factors and everything that’s going on, we have such an opportunity in the tech community in Toronto to step up and own it. It’s great to see the crowd and the enthusiasm around that topic.”

It’s too early to say if Elevate will spark the kind of revolutionary belief that its organizers and the city hope to see. But the effort was a bold one. With Toronto in the mix for Amazon’s new HQ, Facebook building up its presence in Montreal and the continuing drive of Shopify within the retail space, a festival like Elevate appears to be in the right place at the right time.

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