L-R: Matthew Machielse (Government of Alberta), Mary Moran (CEO, Calgary Economic Development), Minister Deron Bilous (Minister of Economic Development), Duncan Logan (CEO, Rocketspace), Robyn Bews (Calgary Economic Development), Michele McConomy (Rocketspace), Mayor Naheed Nenshi (City of Calgary), Emily-Anne Paul (Government of Alberta)

The announcement Silicon Valley star tech campus RocketSpace is establishing a presence in town was received with a collective approval in Calgary last  month. Some suggested one day we will reflect on it as a TSN turning point for our city.

Not only have the leadership of RocketSpace selected Calgary as its first Canadian location, know it’s their first in North America outside San Francisco. And the expansion to Calgary was announced the same week their team were planning an opening in Shenzhen, China and ribbon-cutting in London.

Almost makes you feel like one of the cool kids for a moment.

Less than six months ago our team at Calgary Economic Development doubled down on a plan that would increase Calgary’s visibility in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. To understand what this entails would mean understanding just how very “uncool” we have been for so long – and how that will ultimately help us achieve our goals.

(Before your blood-pressure rises, let me explain.)

Silicon Valley – home of LinkedIn, Tesla, Google and Netflix – is the home of some of the coolest innovations on the planet.  These uber (pardon the pun) cool, transformative tech companies are universally ideated, created and run by arguably the nerdiest people on the planet: engineers and developers. You know who else has an abnormally high representation of STEM (science, technology, engineering and  math) talent? Calgary. 

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Like the Bay Area, Calgary enjoyed decades of high employment and low rental vacancies.  But those factors reach a point where they impede organizational growth.  We called it a “war for talent”.  In the Valley they’re calling it “mission critical”.

How do the venture-capital backed, high-growth companies that haven’t reached “unicorn status” (a startup that reaches $1 billion in value) scale up operations when they are competing for top talent with the likes of Google and Apple? 

Historically, they leaned heavily on immigrant talent through the U.S.’s H1-B Visa program to hire top-tier technical talent from countries like Iran, Syria and India. There are indications the current Administration will radically transform the program or cancelled it.  

Consider what that means for the already talent-strapped tech employers, many of whom have tens of thousands of these employees on payroll.

This is our moment, Calgary.

Not only can we offer inexpensive commercial real estate to house the immigrant developer talent that the U.S. tech giants depend on (imagine being able to relocate 10,000 developers working for tier one American tech companies?!), we can tap into our own highly talented engineers. Americans we have met say our engineers are “A++”

It’s a perfect storm. 

And do American firms want to offshore projects? Not really… but Calgary is the perfect “onshore” alternative: a 2.5-hour direct flight from San Francisco, one time zone away, with a Rocky Mountain playground as our backyard. As a member of our team declared to the delight of a customer we were courting “We are Boulder, but better!” (To be fair, Boulder is a terrific city.)

So what does the RocketSpace win mean for Calgary? It means our strategy to put Calgary on the map in the Valley is working. It means our instincts are right - we have all the ingredients (proximity, talent and inexpensive real estate) to court the big tech companies.

Above all, it means we have the right to ask for the business and to expect that we can diversify our economy to the betterment of all Calgarians. Because you know what else these companies love? They love that we have 134 head offices in a 10-square block area. They love that decisions are made here. That we have powerhouse head offices (including many energy companies) looking for the types of technologies they are selling.

So maybe - just maybe - we are kind of cool, after all.

BY Robyn Bews

Executive Director, WORKshift

Business Development & Workforce Innovation

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Robyn has been the driving force behind WORKshift since it was established 2009 and grew into a national program. She co-authored the book WORKshift. Robyn is a graduate of Acadia University, before joining us her career included work in marketing with TELUS Communications and the United Nations.

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