Concordia Starts Up

Photo Erin Sparks

Alan Shepard Wants to Bring Tech Culture to ConU, As Soon As He Figures Out What That Means.

Alan Shepard wants you to play baseball.

He’s going to build the field, hand you a bat and walk away. After that, it’s sort of up to you.

At least, that’s how the university’s president explains bringing start-up culture to Concordia.

It shouldn’t be much harder than that, Shepard says. In a city bursting with creative entrepreneurship, at a school committed to practical learning, the ingredients are all there. Someone just needs to build a couple of strategically placed bridges. Or a baseball diamond.

So Shepard teamed up with Gabriel Sundaram from the Notman House, the local start-up incubator that bills itself as “the home of the web in Montreal.”

Neither Shepard nor Sundaram, who’s a Concordia grad, know exactly what that partnership is going to look like. But they’re committed to bringing the community, connections and culture of this booming business model to the school.

“The thing about universities is we’ve been around for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Shepard said. “So you run the risk of getting stuck in old habits.”
Start-ups, on the other hand, are new by definition.

A start-up can be just a couple of twenty-somethings in a garage with a bag of LEDs, a maxed-out credit card and a million-dollar idea.

And they fail a lot.

Forbes reported that in the United States, a quarter of all start-ups fail in their first year. After 10 years, less than 30 per cent of those original start-ups will still be around.

It’s risks like those that universities don’t like to take—particularly in Canada, where they rely so heavily on public funds.

But if the U.S. is any measure, it might be absorbing this potential failure that makes Concordia a success.

The same Forbes article reported that virtually all job growth south of the border comes from start-ups.

The crumbling job market is coming from flat-lining big businesses that were built in an era that’s no longer relevant.

Start-ups are creating the technology those corporations will be using in 20 years. Where start-ups are 3-D printers, traditional businesses are fax machines.

“I want to try to use my position so that if somebody says they graduated from Concordia, the people they are talking to or the person potentially hiring will say, ‘That’s the cool edgy place where new stuff happens.’”
—Alan Shepard, Concordia President

Universities, Sundaram said, need to be more like start-ups.

“In this world, information changes so quickly and technology changes so rapidly,” said Sundaram. “The best way students can learn is to learn how to be adaptable and learn how to learn.”

And that’s exactly what Shepard is trying to do. But he’s quick to tell you that he didn’t get the idea himself.

“When I came to Montreal, [start-ups were] something people kept bringing up with me,” he said.

So he looked into it and found a start-up culture that’s “much more alive” than what he had seen in Toronto.

For Sundaram, that’s due in large part to the diversity of the city.

Montreal, Sundaram said, benefits from being able to mix a French culture that’s willing to experiment with the business-focused English side.

To the tech buffs, it doesn’t matter if you’re franco or anglo because either way, you speak Javascript.

“One of the great things about the web community is that it’s really language-neutral,” Sundaram said. “The language is the language of the web.”

And it’s more than that, said Concordia professor and start-up founder Mouna Andraos.

“There’s a huge cultural milieu in Montreal and Quebec,” she said. “I see entrepreneurship here in so many ways.”

That same culture is what Shepard sees at Concordia.

“The students who come to Concordia—my impression is—are pretty hungry for doing stuff,” said Shepard. “Some schools have students who want to come to school and then just go home. I don’t think that’s the kind of students Concordia attracts.”

The Concordia Student Union’s space report, however, said that that’s exactly what roughly two-thirds of the student body does.

But Shepard feels it’s his job to help provide for the students who do want to stick around. He wants to give them a campus they’re proud of.

“I want to try to use my position so that if somebody says they graduated from Concordia, the people they are talking to or the person potentially hiring will say, ‘That’s the cool edgy place where new stuff happens,’” he said.
It’s a great initiative, says Andraos—as long as it’s thought-out.

“The only thing that I would keep in mind is what part of start-up culture are we interested in bringing?” she said.

“Is it innovation? Is it about bringing ideas to the market? Is it about building relationships with the industry? I don’t think they are all the same thing or have the same intentions.”