Sue Paish, Shahrzad Rafati and Tamara Vrooman unveil their hopes for B.C.’s regional development agency

The business leaders talked with Mélanie Joly at a Board of Trade event.

The business leaders talked with Mélanie Joly at a Board of Trade event

Before the holiday break, federal Minister of Economic Development and Official Languages Mélanie Joly announced the creation of a regional economic development agency focused squarely on B.C. Though few details have been released, Joly did say that she would be consulting with business leaders and stakeholders around the province in January.

To that end, the minister attended a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade–sponsored Zoom event today with Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster CEO Sue Paish, BroadbandTV Corp. founder and CEO Shahrzad Rafati and Vancouver Airport Authority president and CEO Tamara Vrooman, to get their perspectives on what the agency should prioritize.

Moderating was GVBOT president and CEO Bridgitte Anderson, who started by welcoming Joly for some opening remarks and then asking the panel how they assessed B.C.’s business prospects as the province moves past the COVID-19 pandemic.

A pandemic-driven opportunity

Paish, who pointed out that B.C. had been at the top of GDP growth in Canada for the past several years, argued that major projects in traditional industries had driven much of the expansion. “It’s important to acknowledge the growing and constant sense of change in B.C.s tech sector,” she said. “We’ve attracted some of the best talent in North America in quantum computing, data analytics, VR/AR. And we have an opportunity that’s accelerated by pandemic.”

Though Paish said she was “optimistic we would we see tremendous growth in tech” in 2020 that didn’t happen as scheduled, she allowed that “COVID also created opportunity” and that “to have a minister from Quebec put her focus on B.C. speaks volumes to me and, I hope, to others about how our province is seen across the country.”

Rafati also painted a pretty picture of the technology industry, asserting that “B.C.’s fast-growing tech sector is really a leading economic driver. More businesses coming up and supporting and fostering tech talent is going to be key to supporting the B.C. economy. There’s a rising need for tech expertise in other industries.”

Vrooman agreed with that last point: “The tech sector is a huge part of everybody’s industry. When I think about what we’re doing at YVR in areas like logistics and mobility, the tech sector has a huge contribution to make to our business. If you were picking up a piece of cargo here at our facility, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s still 1982. Being able to have AI that makes sure that the truck is able to be where it needs to be will increase our efforts a lot. And it also helps with the environment, so your classic double-word score.”

But the newly minted YVR boss was also a little less celebratory of B.C.’s success. “Before the pandemic, we were leading the charge in economic growth in Canada, but I do think it’s important to put that in context,” she said. “Compared to competitive regions internationally and globally…it’s sort of like being first in the turtle derby. Against the more competitive forces, it’s clear we had more to do.”

What do we stand for, anyway?

As for what the women wanted to see in the new agency, their thoughts and visions more or less aligned, with a few discrepancies. 

Maintaining that there’s no one-size-fits-all equation in a province as large and diverse as B.C., Paish added that we’ll need to leverage the tech sector’s strengths.

Rafati stressed awareness and simplicity. Make sure companies know how to be engaged,” she said. “And use case studies to see how this has worked and generated results.”

For her part, Vrooman pushed the importance of timeliness. “Need to pick two or three initiatives and sectors and regions now. That way, we can start to work on them and leverage it so that we can be positioned for post-recovery early.”

She also talked about making sure this is a sustained recovery and that B.C. would be competitive when it came to the “trillion dollars circling the planet looking for the next digital and climate-related investments.

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of telling the world what we stand for from an economic point of view. Are we just a place for real estate and a view? Or are we a place that you can build your business?”