Trail blazing is the name of the game for Lisa Zarzeczny. She co-founded the Elevate Tech Festival, which quickly became Canada’s most important event for tech and innovation, establishing a respected global presence. Since, she has been instrumental in evolving Elevate to Canada’s leading tech and social innovation not-for-profit, uniting innovators through training, entrepreneurship programs, and events.
In February, Lisa was promoted to Chief Executive Officer of Elevate. We were fortunate to catch some time with her to discuss the promotion, and how she plans to thoughtfully shake things up. With impactful community building, breaking down barriers, and mentoring the next generation on her immediate to-do list, Zarzeczny is moving at break-neck speed, and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.
How did the concept for the creation of Elevate begin?
In 2017, advocates of Toronto’s tech and innovation ecosystem came together with the goal of attracting a global audience to celebrate Canadian innovation. That summer, they met with Mayor John Tory who reaffirmed the need for a festival to unite and celebrate Toronto’s rapidly growing tech sector. The first-of-its-kind, this festival came together that September in only 95 days by a group of passionate volunteers.
The festival rapidly grew from 5,000 attendees to more than 20,000 in three short years, welcoming world-renowned speakers, including Michelle Obama, Al Gore, Chris Hadfield, Akon, Martha Stewart and many more. Since then, the festival has been recognized as a catalyst for innovation in this country while also highlighting Canada’s tech sector on the world stage.
Tell us a bit about your personal journey and role with Elevate
I’ve spent my career in the not-for-profit and charitable sectors. After graduating from McGill, I found my first job at United Way, where I managed marketing, communications, and events. I then moved to an incredible opportunity at MaRS Discovery District, one of the world’s largest urban innovation hubs. I was immersed in the technology and innovation space at MaRS, gaining a deep appreciation and passion for the developing programs and events to help entrepreneurs build their businesses. While at MaRS, I had the opportunity to work on the first Elevate festival (called Elevate Tech Fest at the time), and I was instantly drawn to the mission and vision that we were trying to build for the community. When the first year proved successful, I left my full-time job to be the employee number one at Elevate, which many thought was a risky move, considering the company was a new startup. Though, one of the benefits of working at a startup is that you get to wear many hats. In a short period of time, I was responsible for marketing, programming, government relations, and HR. For the first year,
I was issuing payroll, if you can believe it! I was able to grow and develop a wide skill set within the organization that prepared me for what was to come. Intimately knowing Elevate’s past and having a vision for its future, I was appointed CEO to lead the company into the future, with the opportunity to change the face of tech and innovation in Canada.
As Newly appointed CEO, what is first up on your agenda?
First up is bringing back a reimagined festival that unites people once again and showcases the best of what our Country has to offer in innovation, technology, and arts. After a tough winter and an exhausting two years for so many individuals and businesses, I’m hopeful we can kickstart cityscapes and business opportunities once again. Given the incredible challenges we’ve all faced, we’re more inspired than ever to support the next generation of innovators and continue to strengthen the Elevate community. I’m also expanding the suite of programs we offer to founders and creators to help them grow their businesses and shine a light on their work. We’re excited to launch a first-of-its-kind NFT Residency Program for Canada’s underrepresented creators, which will give visual artists and designers access to mentorship, capital, and community to help them mint their first NFT collections. Given the barriers for many artists in the mainstream art world in Canada, where 92% of arts professionals are Caucasian and visible minorities represent a little more than 4%, our goal with this residency program is to ensure that creatives from underrepresented communities are not left behind.
Why is championing women and underrepresented minorities in this space important to you?
Growing up, I watched my mom build her career as an intelligent and successful business executive. She left the house every morning in a suit with a briefcase. She set an example for me and showed me what was possible. Because of that example, I’ve understood for a long time how important representation is in the workplace. I’m also deeply aware of the lack of diversity and representation in the tech sector. I’ve watched first-hand so many talented women-identified entrepreneurs get turned down for funding, get questioned about their ‘commitment’ to the business, or get laughed out of the room when presenting female products. For instance, women founders receive only 3% of VC dollars. Even more shocking, women of colour receive just 0.2% of funding. That’s appalling when you think about it. In our community, there are many incredible people and organizations working to change this and Elevate has stepped up to by designing our programs with equity and impact from the outset.
Tell us about the shift when Elevate went digital during the pandemic?
Our business model completely shifted over the pandemic. Up until that point our revenue model was based on producing an annual festival, which was restricted because of COVID-19 health regulations. Within weeks, we transitioned to digital events, offering an Elevate Live series free for our community to help them better navigate the crisis, featuring thought leaders like Mark Cuban and Arlene Dickinson.
At the same time, the pandemic exacerbated the barriers to entry in the tech sector and left many behind. We were hearing from many communities in Canada who were being disproportionately impacted throughout the entire tech ecosystem, both entering the industry, and those building their businesses in startups. Knowing that we have a responsibility to the tech and innovation sector to leverage our network and partners to help everyone thrive in this industry, we launched Elevate Talent, a program designed to break down barriers in tech by giving underrepresented people access to the tech industry through certified training programs,1-1 support, and job placement opportunities. We also saw the explosion of ecommerce and the necessity for many small businesses to get online, so we launched an ecommerce accelerator in partnership with Moneris to help entrepreneurs build and scale their businesses.
What did you take away from the pivot to digital during the pandemic?
For me, I have a new appreciation for the power of connection, and how important it is to our industry, our communities, and our Elevate family. I’ve really missed bonding with my team, something that just isn’t conducive, no matter how many virtual socials you have. I agree that people can be extremely productive working from home and believe the future of work will be a hybrid model that will vary at the team level. But for certain occasions, nothing compares to the connections we forge and the moments of celebration we experience in person.
How do you see Elevate evolving moving forward?
We’ve spent the last two years rapidly evolving as an organization. I’m looking forward to seeing our programs mature and have a meaningful impact in our community.
That being said, we are starting to think about what a larger, nationwide presence could look like. I get excited about the possibility of expanding our reach across communities in the far-reaching areas of the country where the barriers to entry continue to exist, and where we can leverage our partnerships, our network, and our great people to impact the tech and innovation ecosystem in sustainable, equitable ways.
How do we stay informed on developments at Elevate?
If you’re interested in all things tech, social impact, and sustainability, make sure you follow us on social media (@ElevateTechCA). We’re making some big announcements about the upcoming festival in a few weeks with some great contests and giveaways, so stay tuned!