Karel Vuong is passionate about wringing the most from life.
The new-millennium Renaissance man has worked as a designer, writes for Betakit (an online publication that reports on Canadian tech news) and founded his own website, Spaces, to highlight fantastic workplaces around Canada.
Vuong and I meet up everywhere; so I finally had to take some time to chat with him about what he loves and where he’s going.
Q – How did Spaces come about?
A – The idea for creating Spaces came about through a series of events; but was really set into motion by a speech that Toronto Mayor John Tory delivered in Kitchener on March 23. It was on that day that John Tory and Berry Vrbanovic announced that they were embarking on a trade mission to the Bay Area to tout the successes and values that the Toronto-Waterloo corridor has to offer and expat Canadians to come back home.
For a while now, I’ve been doing my part, shouting about Canadian tech from the proverbial rooftops by retweeting posts or sharing news, and pitching the Canadian tech scene to my peers whenever I can. It was after this event that I realized I could use my skills and network to do a bit more.
Through designing the platform, developing it all from scratch, and tapping into my network to chat with as many tech organizations as I could about this, Spaces came to life on May 5. The launch was incredibly well-received from the entire tech community with requests for new tech spaces to be added from Toronto, Okanagan, Calgary, and even a small town in Prince Edward Island.
Q – What’s its goal?
A – To put every organization in Canada doing amazing, innovative things on the map.
More specifically, Spaces aims to promote the profile of Canada’s unique tech and innovation ecosystem, draw foreign while retaining domestic talent, attract new businesses and investments, and provide opportunities for individuals, organizations, and communities to tell stories about their spaces.
Q – What do you want to do with Spaces?
A – I want to create a visual directory of the spaces of Canadian organizations in innovation centres across the country to showcase what Canadian tech and innovation is all about.
As it grows, I am looking to go beyond photography and also surface insights from founders, professionals and community leaders to learn how communities are built, how spaces are shaped, and why Canada is the best place for tech and innovation to start, grow and succeed.
Spaces will span the entire country — starting with the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor. Of course, the Canadian tech scene extends beyond this to places like Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, Okanagan, London, and more.
You can read more about my intentions with Spaces in my launch article on Medium.
Q – Why did you end up here?
A – The very first time I came to Waterloo Region was at the beginning of 2014 when I started working at BlackBerry. Just coming out of my third year of undergrad at the University of Toronto, I had never once set foot in the region before then — though I didn’t stay long as I left after a year to work in Silicon Valley.
Mostly motivated by working there with my partner, Dinah Shi (who’s also doing great things here with the KW Diversity Report), I spent some time in California checking out what the hype was all about. Not too impressed, I ended up coming back to Waterloo Region shortly after to work at Vidyard.
I decided to return to the region and stick around because of its amazing community, incredibly clear potential, and, very simply, because I’m proudly Canadian. I’d like to say I’m unbiased here; but the tech and startup community here is amazing. We’re collaborative, we’re supportive, and we care. Actually, it really just sounds like we’re Canadian.
All signs point to the region as being on the cusp of greatness and the community — tech or not — is always open to helping one another. Issues like diversity, inclusion, and gentrification are top of mind for us; in part because of our Canadian values, but also because we don’t want to make the same mistakes others before us have made.
To me, this is a recipe for success. Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by success?
Q – You’re a community builder, why?
A – “Community builder” is a funny term. I guess it’s the easiest way to refer to what many like me are trying to do; but I don’t think any one person can be a community builder. Rather, it’s usually the community that, well, builds itself.
What I think the term “community builder” really means is someone who rallies and mobilizes others to come together to form these communities. Whether that’s to learn something, to teach something, or to connect with others, I think we do this as we understand that there’s a ton of value that can be extracted from having these communities exist.
This value is being created by community builders like Matt Rae of DesignChats, connecting designers in Waterloo Region to enhance their knowledge, conduct design critiques or simply talk shop. Or by Alex Norman, Marianne Bulger, and Jason Goldlist of the newly formed TechWR that brings the entire Waterloo Region tech community together to learn something and meet someone new.
Or your team at Communitech connecting corporations with startups in similar industries to form strategic partnerships. These are all different forms of community-building that offer enormous value for everyone involved.
It’s all of these things that inspire me to do what I do to “build communities”. Even if I’m not directly involved with organizations trying to do these things, there are, oftentimes, ways I am able to pitch in and help out.
Whether that’s providing a contact I know at a company for communities looking for sponsorship and a venue, or looking for areas where new communities can form, this all goes towards the notion of contributing to a rising tide that lifts all boats — it will benefit us all.
Q – What do you love about the region?
A – I love that we care. I touched on it earlier, but it’s really the fact that Waterloo Region is so on top of things like gentrification and that we are making strides towards ensuring the tech community integrates into the local community, rather than a self-inflated bubble of techie techness that other areas have fallen victim to.
A well-known public figure and company that comes to mind when I talk about this is Joseph Fung of NetSuite Waterloo. Earlier last year, he wrote an article about gentrification entitled, “One Person’s Revitalization is Another’s Gentrification.” In it, he challenges the tech community to do what we can to mitigate adverse effects of this downtown revitalization triggered by the growth of the startup community here.
Of course, this is only one example of a single person doing amazing things like this in Waterloo Region.
Q – What needs to change about the region?
A – Well, better transportation between Toronto and Waterloo is an obvious one that everyone would probably say if asked this question, but I’m going to use it anyway. Applying the idea of better transportation to community, I think we need to connect the communities in Toronto, Waterloo, and maybe even beyond.
Attending Tech Waterloo on Monday, June 20, I had the pleasure of speaking with Alex Norman, Tech Toronto’s managing director, who gave me some great insight into this. If we are to really brand ourselves as the Toronto-Waterloo Corridor, there should be better awareness of what’s going on in both ends of the Corridor. I have no idea how this would be funded, but imagine a “meetup bus” that routinely brings Torontonians to Waterloo Region to check out some of the events going on here. They’d be able to bring back their learnings of the things that are being done here and open up doors for new relationships or partnerships to form.
Q – What’s next for you?
A – Sadly enough, I will be departing Vidyard at the end of this month. As you can probably guess, I love community and my involvement within it that came out of attending community events, writing for BetaKit, or sitting on the board of StartUp HERE (Toronto’s editorial advisory board) really galvanized my passion. So, I will be joining a company called Diagram (based in Montreal, but Vuong will be located here) as their Director of People & Community. Diagram is a company builder-and-venture fund newly formed by a group of VCs, angel investors, and one of the world’s largest financial institutions that is setting out to create solutions to complex problems that all Canadians face in healthcare, financial wellness, and insurance.
There, I will be building teams, working on company branding, and getting out there to interact with the broader tech community.
Despite this shift, my goal remains the same. Through Spaces or through my new role at Diagram, I will continue to do everything I can to elevate Canada’s tech scene and make sure everyone — in Canada or beyond — is aware of all of the great things that are happening in our country.
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Even though I haven’t been in elementary school for years, the last weekend of classes still fills me with glee. I see and hear . . . The Hacking Health Waterloo Café is back. The group mixes healthcare professionals with tech workers to encourage partnership and innovation. The free event starts at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23 at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work (120 Duke St. W., Kitchener). Guest speakers include Hue Guo, co-founder at Medella Health and Alexa Roeper, of Ladies Learning Code . . . KOI Fest is back, and looking a little different this year. This Saturday, June 25 is the first KOI Fest at the Parking Lot. KOI Music Festival has teamed up with the Centre in the Square for a new venture that takes the party outside. The event features The Strumbellas, Tokyo Police Club and Sam Roberts Band. Tickets are $69.50, available from Centre in the Square. The first act comes on stage at 12:30 p.m., and the Sam Roberts Band will headline at 9:15 p.m . . .Finally, for my whiskey-loving women in the region, next Wednesday, June 29, is the first Women Who Whiskey Waterloo Chapter meeting. And let me tell you, this is a meeting I can get behind. The quarterly meetings are part of a global Women Who Whiskey club, described as an experimental whiskey club for women, with more than 14 chapters around the world. The new Waterloo chapter will meet quarterly. The first meeting will happen at White Rabbit (47 King St. N., Waterloo). Tickets are $40 and payable at the door. The evening starts at 7 p.m. and promises to be a spirited time.