Newfoundland and Labrador has one of Canada’s lowest immigrant retention rates, yet the province’s innovation hub is seeing a record-breaking level of newcomers and women who are working on building high-tech businesses.
At 47.8 per cent, Newfoundland and Labrador’s newcomer retention rate only ranks above PEI when considering immigrants admitted from 2015 onward, according to Statistics Canada. (PEI has a 28 per cent retention rate.)
All Atlantic provinces significantly lag behind Ontario (92.0 per cent), British Columbia (86.5 per cent), and Alberta, with 84.5 per cent.
Yet, in St. John’s, Genesis, Memorial University’s innovation hub, has achieved record diversity indicators.
According to their official data, more than half of the startups participating in Genesis’ three-year incubator program, Enterprise, are founded by Newcomers to Canada. In another diversity indicator, techNL estimated that 40 per cent of the companies in the hub are led by women.
A key contributor to Genesis’s success is Laura Aguirre Polo, who is originally from Colombia. At Genesis, Aguirre Polo is a Success Manager with a focus on belonging.
A native of Bogotá, Aguirre Polo went to university in Salt Lake City, Utah, before moving to St. John’s to continue with her studies.
“There is a very solid sense of belonging here, one that I haven’t found in other places. People are very kind and welcoming, and they genuinely want to help and will help when they can,” says Aguirre Polo.
Genesis has helped develop some of Canada’s most successful companies, like Verafin, a technology company focused on developing anti-money laundering and fraud detection solutions. Verafin was sold to NASDAQ for $2.75 billion US, the largest private acquisition of a Canadian technology company at the time.
Overall, Genesis has helped spur the creation of more than 2,500 jobs and boost companies that generate more than $250 million in annual revenue.
Genesis is not Aguirre Polo’s first foray into working with newcomers, or into figuring out ways to bolster diversity and inclusion initiatives. Before Genesis, she worked with the Nunatsiavut Inuit communities in Labrador, and she was a project lead for the first anti-human trafficking program for newcomers in the province.
These experiences help her understand what communities need to feel included, a critical factor that has helped Genesis foster a collaborative environment that helps people to succeed, and therefore, enables them to stay.
“A strategy that has helped us attract and retain clients from historically underrepresented groups is to meet these entrepreneurs where they are and actively seek out ways to support them,” says Aguirre Polo. “Genesis offers a standard range of amazing support and services to all clients, but we recognize that each venture is led by entrepreneurs with unique life stories, opportunities, and challenges. To truly support them, it is often necessary to provide tailored support that addresses their specific needs and circumstances.”
By looking at the human face behind the venture, Genesis is able to provide founders with the support they need to navigate the complexities of the Canadian immigration system, access mental health resources, enhance their leadership skills, connect with funders, and expand their business network. Aguirre Polo emphasizes how addressing the founders’ top concerns helps remove the stress from their lives, which further unleashes their potential.
“We have the mission of helping build amazing tech companies,” she says, while at the same time, highlighting how there are several factors that can influence a founder’s success, many of which are not related to their business. Several times, these constraints have to do with the founder’s migratory situation and how it might limit what the founders are able to accomplish.
Despite the challenges, the innovations being developed at Genesis could have a significant impact beyond St. John’s. Some of these solutions, if scaled, could have a worldwide influence. And one of the reasons why this is possible is because of the collaboration between people from all over the world, which is what keeps Aguirre Polo and her team at Genesis going.
Javier Ortega-Araiza has multiple global experiences as a storyteller and social entrepreneur having travelled to over 30 countries. Now based in Toronto, he is a published author in both English and Spanish."