Nenshi pitches Calgary as an opportunity hub to Toronto tech conference

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WATCH: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and members of Calgary's tech community are trying to attract investment by selling Calgary as a great place for tech start-ups to grow. Adam MacVicar reports – May 22, 2019

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and 100 people from the city’s tech sector are in Toronto this week, making their pitch at the Collision Conference.

Nenshi is using Calgary’s talented workforce, readily available and affordable office space, and low cost of living as selling points at the conference, during which he hopes the city can attract new and upcoming tech startups.

“[It’s] a real opportunity to tell the story of Calgary’s innovation economy,” Nenshi told Global News on Wednesday. “We’re really here to attract investment, people and clients of our startups to Calgary.”
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With Calgary facing tough economic times and massive layoffs over the past five years, the city’s downtown has dropped to a vacancy rate of 25 per cent.

Nenshi is hoping the affordable space and a slew of trained workers looking for employment spurs investment back into the city.

“We have a lot of enormous talent that is looking for opportunities right now,” Nenshi said. “We have this incredibly well-trained, well-educated technical workforce because of the work they’ve done in industrial sectors in the past. Tons of engineers, tons of data scientists and young people who are really interested in driving innovation.”

Another selling point is Premier Jason Kenney’s recent announcement that the provincial corporate tax rate would be lowered to 11 per cent from the current 12 per cent on July 1. The province vowed to cut the tax again by one point in the first days of 2020, 2021 and 2022 to ultimately bring it to eight per cent.

“Alberta has always been open for business. Calgary has always been the best place in Canada to start and grow a business and we’re going to continue to do that,” Nenshi said. “I know the premier and I share a common goal, which is attracting great jobs and investment to Calgary.”

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Nenshi’s mission in Toronto has been well-received by tech companies already set up in Calgary.

ZayZoon has been in business in Calgary since 2014, with 20 employees working out of their downtown Calgary office.

The financial tech company works with payroll companies to help employees across North America access a portion of their wages between paycheques.

Shubh Sidhu, ZayZoon’s director of partner engagement, said the company began to take off over the last three years.

Although two of three founders are from Calgary, he said the cost of office space and living, and the talent pool are the reasons why they decided to stay instead of moving to larger tech hubs like Toronto and Vancouver.

“Calgary in the past has been known almost exclusively as an energy town,” Sidhu said. “But because of that infrastructure that’s in place and the talent that’s in place already, I think we are a bit of a well-kept secret. I think that’s starting to change.”

It remains to be seen whether Nenshi’s trip to Toronto pays off, but with the consistent growth of tech companies in Calgary, Sidhu is hoping for more companies to set up shop in the city.

“More success breeds success, so I think as we all become more successful, we’re going to lift each other up and bring investment here and also help other companies here grow,” Sidhu said.

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Sidhu commends the city for working to raise awareness of Calgary’s tech sector but believes it’s critical for more training opportunities for Calgarians looking to make the shift into tech.

According to Sidhu, the city landing a major tech company or a success story for a local business will put Calgary on the tech sector map.

“We need some unicorns. We need to have successes,” Sidhu said. “We have companies that are successful, they breed talent, but also people go, ‘Hey, those guys did it there. Why can’t we do it there?'”

READ MORE: Online tool launched to help oil and gas workers find jobs in Calgary’s tech sector

Back in Toronto, Nenshi hopes his efforts won’t just attract tech sector businesses or major app developers, but tech companies that could help diversify other sectors of the province’s economy.

“If we actually get the next great big app in Calgary, we’d be thrilled,” Nenshi said. “But we are actually looking at tech, AI and machine learning to enable other sectors in the economy.”

The Collision Conference is in its fifth year, and features 700 speakers and 5,600 companies from 120 countries.

About 25,000 attendees are expected to make their way through the conference over the three-day event.

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Nenshi said he wants to get the word out about Calgary’s tech sector to as many people as he can. He hopes he can attract entrepreneurs to tackle some of the most difficult problems affecting not only Alberta’s economy but also in healthcare, transportation, food and energy.

“In a world where there [are] so many issues with immigration and borders with closed minds and closed hearts, Canada and Calgary remain defiantly open to everyone, open to the best ideas, open to the best people, and that’s the story I get to keep telling and I’m very lucky to do it,” Nenshi said.

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