Cultivating Excellence in Canada’s Youth and Entrepreneurs
Founder & Executive Chairman
Germain Lamonde is the founder of EXFO and its Executive Chairman. He served as the company’s CEO for nearly 32 years, during which he grew the company into a global leader in its market. Today, he acts as executive chairman and leads EXFO’s acquisition, investment and growth strategies, and its corporate governance policies. He also serves as Chairman of ENCQOR, a C$400M Canada–Quebec-Ontario partnership focused on 5G/IoT innovation; as Chair of the Quebec Digital Transformation Council; on the Board of QG100; and has been on numerous other boards. EY selected him as the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year for both Quebec and Canada.
EXFO develops test, monitoring and analytics solutions for fixed and mobile network operators, webscale companies and equipment manufacturers in the global communications industry. For over 34 years, it has offered a blend of equipment, software and services to speed up digital transformations related to fiber, 4G/LTE and 5G deployments. EXFO now has revenues nearing C$400M, 1,900 employees in more than 25 countries, and over 2,000 customers in 120 countries, including more than 95 of the 100 largest Tier 1 communications service providers, network equipment manufacturers and webscale companies.
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1- Cultivating a culture of entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship with a strong notion of world-class excellence is very important. In an increasingly global economy that is impacted at lightspeed by digital transformation that knows no barriers, all entrepreneurs from all industries will have to compete against top national and international players. Striving for excellence should be a core component designed in the Canadian education system to prepare students, every member of our workforce and our entrepreneurs for the future realities of the labour market in our economy, which is increasingly global every day.
2- Canadian businesses, communities and universities are putting a much bigger emphasis on cultivating a student’s entrepreneurial mindset with programs that merge university-level education with discipline-focused degrees and real-life work experience in leading industries through work-terms, internships, and other similar programs. Students who show a passion for innovating, inventing and founding new ventures are better supported and encouraged to further develop and test their ideas and products.
3- All levels of government in Canada must play a more important role in supporting startups’ early stages to help them grow and go global, especially by facilitating the development of the proper funding schemes for the various development phases—from seed money, early-stage investment, venture capital or by always keeping a laser focus on encouraging Canadian ownership of our best new ideas. The days of simple subsidies are no more. Entrepreneurs must have skin in the game themselves to ensure complete buy-in and to bring the entrepreneurs’ grit to the table. Each entrepreneur also needs to think of giving back to our society over the long term, as our education system and society gave them the opportunity to be where they are—and this isn’t free.
The federal and provincial governments have immense procurement contracts. Within limits of international trade agreements, our governments should prioritize giving these procurement contracts to Canadian companies and start-ups—if, of course, they are competitive. At the same time, these companies must drive even harder to deserve to win them.
In what ways are entrepreneurs important to the future of the Canadian economy? What is the importance of cultivating the entrepreneurial mindset in Canada’s youth?
As the global economy is constantly being reinvented and is more fluid than ever thanks to bold new ideas and disruptive technologies, the status quo is simply not an option for Canadian companies. To survive and thrive, companies need to transform much faster than ever before—it is imperative to disrupt to not be disrupted, and to think outside of the box to not be outpaced.These are essential characteristics of entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, but not all traditional firms adapt fast enough; some are waiting too long to defend legacy thinking, technologies or business models. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are thus fundamental to Canada’s future economy as a 21st century workforce.They are the innovators who must identify today’s and tomorrow’s new problems and resolve them with creative solutions that will challenge the past, while creating future value through meaningful changes.
Our economies are now less tied to geographic barriers, and entrepreneurs who want to succeed need to understand that they must compete not just against national companies, but also international best-of-class players. To win, our Canadian leaders and entrepreneurs need to be far more visionary to identify these new opportunities, ideas or business models earlier than anybody else, but also deliver outstanding execution to take full advantage of them and transform them into sustainable market share before someone else does.
Wayne Gretzky said: “You’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Cultivating an ambitious entrepreneurial culture will have an innovative, faster and bolder impact on the Canadian economy. In short; Canada’s new entrepreneurs need the boldness to aim high and global, as well as the discipline to execute to a world-class level.
How can the Canadian education system best prepare tomorrow’s innovators?
Our education system in general, as well as our sport programs to some degree, will tend to reward the average and foster environments where everyone succeeds and no one fails. It is well intentioned, but giving students easy credit cripples innovation and a culture of excellence, while not preparing them to compete globally. Many students fall short of excellence not because they lack talent but rather because they weren’t pushed enough to deliver long-term, sustained efforts.
The Canadian education system should tie the pursuit of excellence to a larger mission, such as long-term economic growth and social impact.The French system is a good example where general culture and deep knowledge are well balanced. I believe a culture of excellence should be implemented from early on. I salute countries that have the courage to give the best performing college students access to their top universities, and in turn give that access to their best colleges to their best performing high school students. This creates an incentive to perform from a young age.
It is also largely the responsibility of parents to train for excellence, especially early in life. Learning languages; developing a culture of curiosity, tolerance and an optimistic mindset; acquiring unique skills; supporting excellence in areas of personal interest; encouraging their interest in the sciences—especially for girls—are all parts of preparing the next generation.
Canadians entrepreneurs, but also every new adult, will need to put in enormous efforts to succeed in tomorrow’s world. But assembling a group of brilliant and hard-working people is still not enough to create a successful new enterprise. Vision and passion must be shared, with everyone carrying a part of a collective dream that goes well beyond financial motivation to contribute to making the world a better place.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you? What are the characteristics of successful entrepreneurs that are applicable globally?
Simply having a dream isn’t enough. It is far more demanding to be willing to put in the effort and take the risks to make it come true. The entrepreneurs with the best chance of success are those who are prone to jump into action while bringing aboard additional ambitious people with complementary talents and skills. They have the naiveté to “go for it” without overthinking the risks of starting a business. They have the boldness to see solutions where others simply see obstacles or problems. In my opinion, the most successful entrepreneurs are not motivated by money but rather by a vision and the will to transform the world in their own ways.
The ability to inspire is key. Major transformations don’t occur through one person alone. Entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with people willing to fully contribute with their talent and enthusiasm in the pursuit of big dreams. Take Elon Musk, for example: he brought thousands of people to commit their entire careers to pivot the automobile industry into mass adoption of electric vehicles. They believed in his vision and leadership. Entrepreneurs must multiply their capabilities by attracting people who are committed to contributing to their cause. The people who surround and support them are the ones who will propel the business. An entrepreneur alone can only do so much.
“Entrepreneurs must multiply their capabilities by attracting people who are committed to contributing to their cause. The people who surround and support them are the ones who will propel the business. An entrepreneur alone can only do so much.“
Last, an entrepreneur needs to tolerate risk. While risks are an inherent part of the game, it doesn’t mean they should be taken lightly. While it is important to seek expert opinions and to spend time considering the reasons why many will say “this can’t be done”, true entrepreneurs don’t take “no” for an answer and embrace the boldness and creative thinking required to make it happen. Similarly, they must remain agile in their thinking because when risk is involved, sometimes failure is unavoidable, which means that successful entrepreneurs must also pay attention to the signs that matter and change course when required. Being aware of risks and being able to rearrange, redirect and change course also takes strong personal confidence. “Fail fast, fail cheap” is how I’ve been saying it forever.
How has Canada progressed in developing our future entrepreneurs and business leaders?
Today, the Canadian business environment makes it easier to be an entrepreneur. If we look back thirty years, bankruptcy was a fatal setback and peoples’ names were burned—this has changed. Someone who has survived through failure learns to better face obstacles and to be smarter about risks. The mentality has also shifted from a negative perception of those achieving success to a positive view—near rock star status for entrepreneurs willing to go all in. People will say, “You’re willing to start your own business? Good job!”
Another big shift concerns businesses and their willingness to onboard graduate students. This is driven by the fact that Canadian universities are putting in place very thorough programs to help cultivate a student’s entrepreneurial mindset by supporting them and implementing programs that merge university-level education with discipline-focused degrees.If a student shows passion for innovating, inventing, developing and founding new ventures, they are now encouraged and supported by professors; coached by or introduced to successful entrepreneurs; or offered positions with companies that are willing to help develop and test their ideas and products.
“Canadian universities are putting in place very thorough programs to help cultivate a student’s entrepreneurial mindset by supporting them and implementing programs that merge university-level education with discipline-focused degrees.“
As an anecdote; I completed my master’s degree while working full time as an engineer in a company where my research project was the subject of my thesis. Such industry-university collaboration wasn’t well perceived at the time and I was told that “Universities are intended to further science, not business topics with too much commercial interest.” Happily, the world has changed since then!
Last, entrepreneurs were often sent straight into incubators that were notorious for throwing in marketing and communications professionals to make decisions for the entrepreneurs-in-development rather than helping them to develop. Now Canada and its education system are better at helping entrepreneurs learn and develop, thanks to better networking and information sharing, so their bright idea can be turned into success.
Is it important for entrepreneurs to have a “go-to-export-markets” mentality right from the founding of their company? If so, what would you recommend they do early on to prepare themselves and their company to go global?
The decision to stay local or go global can be different for each entrepreneur based on their products or services. Beforemaking that critical decision, entrepreneurs need to be knowledgeable and up-to-speed on their industry; their sector; their competitors; the opportunities at hand; and from where the disruptors are most likely to come.The need to go global will greatly vary depending on the type of business they are in, the segment in which they work, as well as the timing of their activities.
For example, in the tech space, technology around the world moves very quickly. The research and development costs to develop new technologies are sometimes so high that startups may never get an adequate return on investment unless they go outside of Canada—and fast.This was my case while starting EXFO. Keep in mind that Canada represents less than 3% of the global GDP, so the Canadian market is often too small.
My second piece of advice is that if a company decides to remain local, to dominate its local market its leadership team should always be thinking: “How could a firm from outside come in and disrupt our market?” Innovation is not just for technology but for all sectors. It is about doing things better. To be successful with a new clothing store or candy store requires a greatly differentiated offering. Innovation is the foundation of every business, whether is at the level of product, service, packaging, retail or marketing—or ideally all of them at the same time.
As a whole, it is critical that Canada and Canadian companies become stronger in export markets. This is how we bring wealth back to our country. Winning in export markets requires not just great ideas but, critically, great minds who understands the world. Immigrants bring great value, especially when recruited for their abilities, skill, talents and ideas. Overall, Canada is a very open and welcoming country, which I fully support as this diversity strengthens our very fabric while helping Canadians have a better understanding of our increasingly complex world. Canada has been built by immigrants who dedicated their hearts and souls to their quest of improving their own quality of life.
Our government and companies must increase their focus on bringing in the very best talents and resources in areas where there are severe shortages: artificial intelligence, software and also several other innovation areas driving the growth of our economy.
We must not go back in time and close our borders; we have to realize that the most critical resources for tomorrow will be talent, education and ideaswell supported by targeted immigration. Countries like Singapore have started implementing new criteria and creative solutions to attract, retain and train talented young people who will fuel their future economy. Part of Singapore’s initiatives include an international bursary program to help attract the most brilliant students from around the world. We in Canada can certainly do better in that direction.
What would you like to see from government to better support our SMEs to help them thrive?
First, I believegovernments should shift their focus away from subsidizing companies based on job creation as Canada is now fairly close to full employment. There should now be much more of a focus on “Canadian-owned value creation”. In other words, our governments must focus on helping Canadian companies be successful globally; create high paying jobs, and grow capital and share ownership, which will mean revenues for our governments whenever there is a cash-out. Moreover, entrepreneurs must have skin in the game, which goes against the idea of subsidies.
Government should help ensure the right environment for a full suite option to provide start-ups with access to capital at all stages of development. We have a strong banking system, but are yet very timid compared to California, for example, in our ability to fund new start-ups of various stages, and to properly support them with the experienced advisors, board directors or specialists to help make new global market leaders. But there is a need for a minimum of self-financing to get the entrepreneur’s grit to the table, and make sure they have skin in the game.I think governments should help more in the early stages of business. The whole ecosystem from early seed, VCs and banks is, however, required to help local firms go global and be successful.
“Governments should shift their focus away from subsidizing companies based on job creation as Canada is now fairly close to full employment. There should now be much more of a focus on “Canadian-owned value creation.”“
On a different note, our various levels of government have immense procurement requirements for products, technologies and services. Within the limits of global trade agreements, our governments should encourage local firms and entrepreneurs to compete for these procurement contracts. On their end, entrepreneurs must work hard to position themselves to be competitive enough to win—and not wait for easy deals to come in. In the current global trade environment, the best firms can win, anywhere around the world, and this is helping new better ideas to make it to the top. This is in the best interest of economic development around the globe.
You were invited by our governments to serve as chairman of ENCQOR—a $400M 5G initiative with the governments of Canada, Ontario, Quebec and leading companies—as well as chairman of the Quebec Digital Transformation Council. What is government’s role in accelerating innovation, disruptive technology and digital transformation? What is the importance of national and cross-provincial collaboration in these initiatives?
First, ENCQOR (Evolution of Networked Services through a Corridor in Quebec and Ontario for Research and Innovation) works to assure Canadian firms, especially in Ontario and Quebec, are strongly positioned for the disruptive 5G transformation. ENCQOR is a unique partnership between the Canada-Quebec-Ontario governments and five international companies (Ericsson, Ciena, IBM, Thales and CGI) that is focusing on research and innovation in the disruptive fifth generation (5G) of wireless technologies. By providing five real-life test centers across Ontario and Quebec, we plan on assisting 1,000 local firms to test new concepts, launch new initiatives or simply adapt their existing technologies for the 5G revolution, which we hope will speed up the Canadian digital economy.
This initiative is mainly focused on giving SMEs, researchers and academia access to Canada’s first pre-commercial and cutting-edge 5G networks, helping them get positioned at the forefront of this industry transformation and subsequently access the global market with highly competitive new offerings. This is the main reason I accepted the Chairman position of ENCQOR. I’m convinced our best Canadian companies must position themselves now to compete in the future 5G global market to hopefully create more success stories like EXFO.
“Our various levels of government have immense procurement requirements for products, technologies and services. Within the limits of global trade agreements, our governments should encourage local firms and entrepreneurs to compete for these procurement contracts.“
There are parallels here with our own history: EXFO was among the world’s first companies to see the fiber optic test opportunity for the telecom industry. With a laser-focus on becoming the global market leader, we now have 40% global market and have since expanded to other telecom segments to now generate near C$400M in annual revenues, nearing C$5B in cumulative exports and C$1.5B in cumulative salaries paid here in Canada.
The 5G network will open up new possibilities for a multitude of life-transforming applications—from 3D video to immersive media, autonomous vehicles and the enablement of smart cities—through ultra-high data speeds, enhanced capacity and reduced latency. This pre-commercial corridor will allow entrepreneurs and businesses to test out new ideas and bring them to market. It will then be up to our local entrepreneurs to get a head start by jumping into the global market early and hopefully take industry leadership.
Part of the Entrepreneurship Series presented by