Kristi Miller
Founder and National Managing Director, First West Capital
(Winner)

MillerAdam Blasberg

“I’ve spent my career financing entrepreneurs, so there’s always a story,” says Kristi Miller. Turns out, her own tale is nothing to sneeze at. 

It starts in a South Vancouver kitchen where the Winston Churchill Secondary graduate spent a lot of time with a Russian friend, eating cabbage rolls and trying to understand what she and her family were talking about. “It was 1988, and it was just everywhere—glasnost, Gorbachev, Chernobyl,” Miller recalls.

“So I decided I wanted to take a Russian language class in university; the class was full, but I cried my way in, and by Thanksgiving most people had dropped it because it wasn’t the bird course they were hoping for. But I loved it. It was just so cool to be studying a society that was changing right in front of you.”

Miller ended up graduating from McGill University with a joint honours degree in history and Russian studies. It also came in handy when, while studying for a master’s degree in strategy and international business, she did an exchange in St. Petersburg. Two years later, she’d go back to the city for her first-ever job in finance—a 23-month spell as an investment officer with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

“We were putting money into Russian companies that had recently been privatized—weird companies,” Miller remembers. “Corrugated-paper manufacturers, a printing company, a totally corrupt bakery—two bakeries, actually, one corrupt, one not. And that’s when I realized that I love working with entrepreneurs. But there was no real plan, except to do things that were interesting.”

After that, there were stints back home at institutions like Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, but Miller eventually co-founded First West Capital in 2010. The firm stands out from its rivals because it has “the heart of a entrepreneur with the discipline of an institution,” she says. “And that is unique in the marketplace.”

Vancouver-based First West has 15 employees (all of whom Miller lists off by name) and has supplied almost $250 million in funding to more than 100 growing businesses. And, of course, they all have a story.

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?

That no job or task is beneath you. And that there is dignity in a good, honest day’s work.

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 

Both. I meet some people who have the creative drive, ambition and risk tolerance to be entrepreneurs right from day one. Others are shaped by circumstance; they decide that there is a better way and strike out on their own a bit later.

What is your definition of success?

Always having the power to choose rather than to be chosen for. It’s all about freedom and control over my own destiny.

What other career might you have had?

Dream career—being an archaeologist. I always imagined myself as a female Indiana Jones. The near-miss career—came close to pursuing a career in academia focusing on the emerging economies of Eastern Europe.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

You get your choice of two. One, I learned to speak fluent Russian during my near-miss-career phase. Two, I’m a certified fitness instructor and teach two to three classes a week (did this because the demands of the business were crowding out my workouts… this way I’m accountable).

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Creative junior capital! I have to say this given what I do for a living.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Elon Musk and [Cirque du Soleil founders] Guy Laliberté/Gilles Ste-Croix. I admire those who combine intellect, creativity, vision and ambition—in ways that leave the world better.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

Read, kayak, travel and spend time with my family in the Gulf Islands.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Collaborative and ambitious.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.

Refresh eye drops. My eyes get super dry in airplanes and when I’m jet lagged or under-rested. I love these drops but too often forget to pack them!


Monty Sikka + Mark Catroppa
Co-founder and President + Co-founder and Executive Vice-president, Monark Group
(Runners-up)

MonarkAdam Blasberg

If there were such a title as serial disrupter, Monty Sikka and Mark Catroppa would qualify. The two met at then–Kwantlen College in 1991 before becoming business partners 10 years later, when they started an e-commerce-based pharmaceutical distribution company. “We noticed price discrepancies, particularly in the EU, of prescription drugs,” Catroppa recalls. “So we set up a company trading them, mostly in Europe.”

After growing the business to 300 employees and selling it off, they developed the Monark (Monty+Mark) Group banner and began compiling a diverse portfolio. In 2010 it was ReShip, which simplifies buying and shipping from other countries; a few years later it was Kater, a ride-hailing service that is “disrupting the disrupters,” says Sikka; and Zenabis Global, a cannabis producer with facilities in Delta, Langley and Atlantic Canada.

Monty Sikka

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?

My summer jobs were working at 7/11 and a Petro-Canada gas station. At a young age, I learned that opportunities to create businesses exist everywhere. If we have the ability to take risks and work hard, success is achievable.

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 

In my opinion, entrepreneurs are born, but there are always exceptions to the rule.

What is your definition of success?

Finding a balance between the things that are most important to you, both personally and in business.

What other career might you have had?

I never considered another career path; I always knew that I would be an entrepreneur and run my own business.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I don’t like to travel anymore.

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Skepticism when making business decisions and focus on SWAT analysis, particularly on the threats. Entrepreneurs tend to get into a bubble of why the business will be successful and don’t pay enough attention to how and why it could fail.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Elon Musk.

What do you do to relax/unwind?

I unwind by working out, playing squash and relaxing with my kids and family.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a visionary leader. I look at the big picture and I am driven by inspiring my team to find innovative approaches to business problems.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.

My slippers for the hotel room.

Mark Catroppa

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?

My first summer job was working at a restaurant washing dishes and delivering food. The most significant lesson I learned at this job was to never invest in the restaurant industry!

Is an entrepreneur born or made?  

I think entrepreneurs are born. I don’t believe you can teach someone to be entrepreneurial; you can only coach them to be better at it.

What is your definition of success?

In business, success is when you take an idea that you had and develop it into a reality that actually works.

What other career might you have had?

I started my career with the Correctional Service of Canada. I quit my full-time job to pursue business ideas that I had and to start my company.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

When someone tells me something can’t be done, it makes me want to do it! 

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Friends that are entrepreneurs who can contribute ideas to your business. Non-entrepreneurs are not good people to get advice from about your ideas or your business.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Walt Disney.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

I enjoy working in my garden, golfing, hunting and spending time with my two beautiful daughters, Sophia and Natalie.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would describe my leadership style as macro management. I take a hands-off approach, with lots of delegation and minimal supervision. 

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing.

My swimming shorts. 


Karm Sumal
CEO, Daily Hive
(Runner-up)

KarmAdam Blasberg

Karm Sumal and his co-founder Manny Bahia got the idea for what became a national media power while sitting on the couch playing video games in his parents’ basement in Southeast Vancouver. “We stumbled on the idea talking about Vancouver from a lens that hadn’t been talked about,” Sumal recalls. “Younger, not from the west side, maybe a little more raw in the sense that we were never trained in journalism.”

But the two and third co-founder Farhan Mohamed didn’t let that dissuade them. They plugged away at their day jobs, using early mornings and late nights to start Vancity Buzz, an online publication targeting millennials, in 2008.

Sumal, who earned a BBA in accounting from SFU, finally left his job in the finance department of Blenz Coffee in 2015, a year before the site went national, rebranding as Daily Hive.

Today, the company has about 80 staff and offices in Vancouver and Toronto, with an eye toward expansion into Seattle and Portland this year.

What did your summer jobs teach you about business? 
I used to deliver pizza, and believe it or not, it taught me a lot. Back then, the minimum wage was less than half of what it is now, so I definitely learned the value of a dollar.  

Is an entrepreneur born or made? 
I think some people are born with a desire to create and build. These people will never be happy in a 9-to-5. They love to problem solve, aren’t averse to risk and are willing to make sacrifices without a second thought. 

Entrepreneurship is often glamourized today, but not everyone is built for it. I think it’s an innate calling, but takes a lifetime to get good at. 

What is your definition of success? 
Doing what you love every day and being able to share that with family and friends. When you’re counting down the minutes to the weekend, you’re not fulfilled in what you’re doing. To me, success is about feeling proud of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. 

What other career might you have had? 
My background is in finance. In fact, I worked as a controller for a major coffee chain before jumping full-time into Daily Hive, so I’d probably be in accounting in some capacity. I also love street art. I could have seen myself doing it as a side hustle or attempting it as a full-time gig.

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you. 
I'm a pretty decent sketcher. 

Finish this sentence for us: “Entrepreneurs need a lot more…”

Self-awareness.

What businessperson do you most admire? 
I really admire what Jim Pattison has done with his career, and in particular how he supports the local community. He grew up in East Van—we also graduated from the same high school! 

I also admire how Gary Vaynerchuck has owned leadership in the social media era. We’ve witnessed his evolution and his influence on how we think and use the platforms. 

What do you do to relax/unwind? 
A run along the seawall or playing video games with my son. 

How would you describe your leadership style? 
I strive to make sure that my team is happy over everything else. If you take care of them, the rest will come easier. I don’t like to micromanage. I’m a firm believer that people will do great things if you step back and let them. 

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. 
My AirPods!


Stephen de Jong
CEO, Vrify Technology
(Runner-up)

VrifyAdam Blasberg

After serving as president and CEO of Integra Gold for five years and growing it from a $10-million business to a $590-million sale in 2017 to fellow Vancouver outfit Eldorado Gold, Stephen de Jong didn’t stay unemployed for long. 

At the start of 2018, he already had four clients on board his new venture, Vrify, which helps companies redefine how they present information by using tools like virtual reality, 3D modelling and 360-degree photography.

“Most public companies market the same way they did 20 or 30 years ago–a corporate presentation and a tech space press release,” says the 35-year-old.

Thanks to de Jong’s experience and that of co-founder George Salamis (former executive chair of Integra), most of Vrify’s 90 or so clients are in mining, including Newmont Goldcorp Corp. and Teck Resources. The firm, which has 40 staff, plans to hit 200 in two years.

What did your summer jobs teach you about business?

I once started a summer business with a friend called the Everything Guys and our motto was “Give us a call, we do it all.”  There was one day where we put together a Bowflex home gym, drove someone to the dump to look for free stuff, and redid the roof of someone’s carport. I learned an important lesson about how to run an effective business: always hire specialized professionals who know what they're doing versus trying to do it all yourself.  

Is an entrepreneur born or made?  

Entrepreneurism is kind of like a disease, some are born with it and some are infected along the way. As far back as I can remember, I liked the idea of building something from nothing.

What is your definition of success?

Knowing you built something from scratch that enhanced the lives of those involved.

What other career might you have had?

Fishing guide. 

Name one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.

I’m one of four boys but have three girls under five at home.  Not sure what happened.

Finish this sentence for us: "Entrepreneurs need a lot more..."

Balance.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I’m a big Musk fan. Equal parts crazy and vision; love him or hate him, no one can deny the disruptive impact of his ventures.

What do you do to relax/unwind? 

A slow Grouse Grind with a chubby infant squawking away in a hiking backpack.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I'm full of ideas that often go against the grain. In order to execute on these ideas, it's essential that I rely on a team of experts and trust them to make decisions, try new things and make mistakes. I believe that if you really want to innovate, you have to create a space where employees and collaborators are willing to take risks under your leadership. 

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing. 

Vega Sport Recovery powder. Being on the road often involves late nights and early mornings, and half a scoop before bed washes away the sins of the evening and gets you ready for the day to come.