Graham Wong – Founder & CEO of LAUFT
Graham is the former principal and founder of Urban DNA, an advertising agency in downtown Toronto, that was founded in response to the lack of diversity in the advertising industry in Canada. The agency from the top down prided itself on recruiting talent from a broad spectrum of candidates from diverse backgrounds. This enabled the agency to successfully create innovative campaigns for brands like Athletes World, Toronto Public Health, and others.
Graham has been a creative entrepreneur for over 17 years building, executing, and deploying brand strategies for some of Canada’s best-known brands including Aeroplan, Nike, 3M, Greenpark Homes, Fujitsu, City of Toronto, Ontario Ministry of Health, and Enbridge. He’s also a UX strategist and architect for solutions for clients such as Toronto Public Health, Jibestream, CTT Pharmaceuticals, INUO, and CAMH.
He introduced Mobile Proximity marketing to Canada in 2006 and was responsible for the sell-through of mobile solutions across Canada and in the U.S. resulting in ongoing relationships with OOH vendors, Telcos, and Advertising agencies. Graham has lent his voice to discussions on race in media and consulted on diversity and integration campaigns in the advertising industry.
As CEO of LAUFT, what would you say has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced and what strategies did you use to overcome these challenges?
One of the biggest challenges that I’ve faced in building our business has been the absence of ready access to an established network of established business mentors who know and understand me personally. I believe that your network is critical to entrepreneurship and without a strong network – things can be challenging. Everything is harder to navigate without a map or guide to help you along.
Entrepreneurs with established family and social circles stocked with ready resources like other entrepreneurs, senior level executives and other experienced members have clear advantages over entrepreneurs without this same level of access. Entrepreneurship is a journey of wins and losses and your ability to mitigate loss is directly correlated to the speed at which you can identify a loss, counteract and learn from it.
In the absence of these circles, I have rolled into many losses which could have been mitigated much faster had I an easy to access network of friends, family and mentors who possessed first-hand knowledge of entrepreneurship and business.
The key strategy that I employed was to take an extensive audit to self-identify where my gaps were (both professionally and personally). Then I built a list of experts with the requisite experience to advise and guide me – both professionally and personally – across these gaps. I actively pursued these individuals and recruited them as advisors to the business so that I could secure guidance for both the business and myself personally.
Why do you believe the tech industry is lacking Black entrepreneurs? What would you say is the biggest factor that’s impacting the void of black entrepreneurship in the tech industry?
I believe that the tech industry has followed similar patterns as other industries that are similarly lacking in Black representation. Many companies implement recruitment pipelines focused on candidates from ivy league or comparable institutions and many of these institutions are underrepresented.
While the tech industry is somewhat more diverse than other sectors comparatively, it falls behind in other key areas such as gender and black representation.
You believe that there are five factors that if implemented by the tech industry, there will be a significant increase of black tech entrepreneurs. Can you go into further detail about these five factors and why you believe they will have a strong impact?
Build A Strong Advisory Board:
Identify where you have gaps and be bold and relentless in building a strong advisory board for guidance to fill in these gaps.
As a black entrepreneur, it’s very possible that your personal network may not include as deep a resource pool as other groups to source networked experts for mentorship and guidance. This is supported by the stark reality that even though 1.2 million Canadians identify as black, representing 3.5% of the population, a Black in Canada survey found only 2,000 black-owned businesses of significant scale. Furthermore, this is not just reflected in Canada. In 2018, a U.S. study found just 1% of venture-backed founders were black.
The value of pulling on others who can assist you in filling in the knowledge gaps will be critical for success. Your ability to intimately know what your knowledge gaps are and your transparency in sharing this with potential advisory members will go a long way in your recruitment efforts. Many senior professionals have spent their careers building up their intellectual knowledge and would welcome the opportunities to help – if only someone asked.
An integral part of our strategy in building LAUFT was to recruit and pursue executives to fill the required skill sets that we lacked internally. We could not afford to hire these individuals nor did we have a personal network of said professionals. We aggressively reached out in areas ranging from Risk Mitigation to Commercial Real Estate to Data Analytics. We aggressively pursued the executives who could provide us with insight to fill in our gaps regardless of their ethnicity. Many agreed because they appreciated us valuing their expertise and our passion for the business.
In the absence of having the same level of access (as other groups), it would be extremely helpful to have a database of vetted business professionals in and outside of the tech industry executives who are willing to advise, guide, and participate in black-owned ventures.
Acknowledge Scrutiny :
A US study in the Harvard Business Review revealed that African American employees tend to receive more scrutiny from their bosses than their white colleagues, meaning that small mistakes are more likely to be caught, which over time leads to worse performance reviews and lower wages. In Canada, a recent Environics report says 40% of respondents who have experienced some form of discrimination, experienced it in the workplace.
As a black entrepreneur, I understand and accept that I often face added scrutiny of ymy work vs. other groups. It’s become part of my checklist. I am definitely my harshest critic and constantly vet everything that I do as to preempt any added scrutiny. If there’s an angle to be had – I’ve probably measured it and remeasured it. Truthfully, it may be viewed as over kill but I also realize this means that my ision is often crystal clear in my head and I use this as my personal motivation to plough through the challenging times. It becomes empowering forme under the right lens.
Accepting that this scrutiny is systemic and real, the tech industry could benefit from having available resources set up to help nurture black entrepreneurs with a holistic approach that addresses some of the psychological baggage that a sense of being under a high-intensity microscope produces. Helping them achieve and understand that they don’t need to be perfect (because no one is ) could help encourage greater participation in the industry.
If you started with nothing, you have nothing to lose.
As a black entrepreneur, you are already part of a small group in an industry that is highly underrepresented by people who look like you. In Silicon Valley, only 1% is black. In Canada, blacks represent the one of the lowest participation groups in the tech sector.
Given this reality – I say that the silver lining is that you have nothing to lose but to be audacious in the pursuit of your goals. Own the fact that if you’ve built a great product, recruited a strong advisory, and survived your own scrutiny – you will have a great chance of cutting through the clutter.
A solution would be for the tech industry to actively participate and recruit in marginalized communities to nurture and build interest in the tech industry. The willingness to connect with the black community in a meaningful way (internships, community workshops, internship programs) would go a long way to demonstrate that this audacity is valued in tech.
Black Resilience is a Super Power :
Never underestimate the power of black resilience. Resilience can be defined as the “ability to form a successful adaptation in the face of obstacles and adversity” (Seiler, Shamonda and Thompson 2011). A Statscan report found 65% of the Black population in Canada felt that they “always” learned something from those experiences compared with 48% in the rest of the population.
I truly believe that being black has tempered my resilience. I know that many of my life experiences carried significantly more consequences than whether or not a pitch in a boardroom went successful. I’ve been in business environments where colleagues have come apart over things – that given my personal experiences – would be a blip on my radar. By no means is this to minimize what they felt. It’s just that, my threshold was different.
The tech industry could benefit from implementing a resilience index into their recruiting practices if it doesn’t already exist. In an industry that is extremely high paced and competitive, resilience is a superpower against issues of burn-out and other concerns.
Partner & Connect with Other Black Founders/Entrepreneurs :
A 2018 report by Innovate Inclusion found that some of Toronto’s top tech incubators — institutions tasked with helping new startups thrive — lacked diversity at several levels. A growing problem, the study says, that’s contributing to a “digital divide” in the province.
It has to start somewhere and if you are a black entrepreneur, make a concerted effort to connect with other black founders and entrepreneurs across as broad a base as possible. Then pay if forward. Lend assistance, sit on boards and nurture and guide other black-owned businesses.
The tech industry would benefit by actively establishing and partnering with black entrepreneurs outside of tech to build more on-ramps into the industry. Many black entrepreneurs could become investors and participants in tech start-ups. This would lead to expanded opportunities into communities that are underserved and open up businessopportunities on both sides.
Do you believe that there are certain initiatives that the federal government of Canada can also implement to help increase black entrepreneurship within the country?
Access to funding has always been a gap for entrepreneurs. Add to these systemic barriers for entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups and the gap becomes wider.
The recently announced program is a welcome kickstart for black entrepreneurs but additional support programs designed to support these entrepreneurs beyond the seed round of financing that match these entrepreneurs with financial resources that continue beyond the initial loan t help them to employ funding in order to effectively scale their business and prepare and match them up with funding partners for later rounds.
You’ve been an entrepreneur for almost two decades and have built yourself a strong reputation of building strong brand strategies for several well-known brands, such as Nike and Aeroplan just to name a few. What can you tell us about the strategies you used that have contributed to your success?
I’ve always approached business with a nothing to lose attitude. I will always analyze an opportunity and identify where to attack it effectively. In instances where I don’t have the network or cache to walk in the front door – I have been creative in finding a reason for the door to be open. Whether this was by finding an innovative technology (like proximity marketing) that didn’t exist in our market but had value for advertisers and would force the door open or specializing in an area of marketing that was foreign and somewhat uncomfortable to advertisers (like the urban market). I was successful at identifying where I could insert my entrepreneurial drive and match it up with a real-world pain-point. I have employed this same strategy with LAUFT as well. Finding a convenient, consistent, and professional remote work experience has become a very real pain point for millions of workers. We identified this over 3 years ago and have been building our solution to meet the growing demand. COVID simply put it into overdrive.
On a final note, what can you tell us about any future plans you have for LAUFT? What do the next 5 years look like for the company?
It’s a global vision for LAUFT. We want to build the largest network of on-demand flexible smart workspace for people and organizations to do their best work in the most convenient, consistent, and professional way possible. Aside from Smart Desks, Offices, Workrooms, and Boardrooms (all bookable by-the-hour), we’ll be introducing more services from green-screen rooms to podcasting to 3D printing for creative content creators.
“Our mission is to MAKE SMART WORK and we truly live it and breathe it.”
In the end, we want to be as close to home as possible so that people can truly experience the life that they need by working when they want. This means airports, conference centers, malls, stand-alone locations, store-in-store, hospitals (when feasible), and everywhere in between.