Silicon Valley North #50 December,
The Way I See It… by Michael C. Volker
We need more
initiatives to nurture our brain trust (Shad Valley)
A favorite topic among
proponents of Canada’s
innovation strategy is that of nurturing the natural resource base of advanced
technology, i.e. people and their know-how. This is expressed in many ways: the
acute shortage of management skills, the importance of technical talent, and
the need for more entrepreneurs and risk takers.
Two decades ago,
technology executives were voicing the same concerns. Canada’s future
in the technology sector would depend directly on our human talent and our
ability to grow and cultivate this talent.
Their goal was simple: to get more bright high school students to look
at high tech as a career option.
That’s why, back in 1981,
a group of industry folks (mostly CATA members) decided to get behind a unique
initiative to encourage the country’s brightest teenagers to pursue careers in
science, technology, and entrepreneurship. Instead of looking for government
handouts, this group got their companies to support the concept.
The concept I’m referring
to is Shad Valley, named after the creek running through the
campus of St Andrew’s College where the idea turned into reality. Shad Valley
started as a modest program with fifty teenagers spending a summer stretching
their minds on exciting technologies plus getting immersed in technology
entrepreneurship by spending half their time interning at sponsoring companies.
Today, some twenty years
later, this scenario is repeated at almost a dozen university
campuses from coast to coast. There are more than 7,500 alumni, 13 of whom are
participants for the program, Shad
Valley looks for high academic
achievement, especially in math and sciences, indications of a creative mind,
demonstrated initiative and drive, and good interpersonal and communication
skills. Indeed, it is these gifted “kids” that the Shad program targets. We
have many good programs for so-called “special needs” people – those that are
at the other end of the spectrum for whom life is a struggle. But in much the
same way that these need help, those with exceptional talents require nurturing
and support as well – if they are to achieve their full potential.
are now more than 200 companies and organizations that provide support. Some
companies view this as a way to encourage young Canadians to choose a career in
the science/IT/engineering fields, while others see it as a recruiting tool.
An important component of the Shad Valley
experience is the company work term that follows the on-campus part of the
program. This takes place at a sponsoring tech company. Sponsors are often
overwhelmed by what Shads can accomplish in a short period of time – even
though that’s not why they’re there. Students make significant contributions in
a variety of work environments such as a laboratory setting, information
systems, engineering or human resources, just to name a few. Students have completed
work terms in departments including IT, engineering, market research, finance,
human resources, technical writing and many other aspects of business and
Shad Valley students make a difference. More than 85% of them
have gone into science or engineering disciplines in university. At or near the
top of the class, they continue to garner numerous awards and scholarships and
approximately half go on to pursue graduate degrees. Many Shads have
established their own enterprises.
I think the students say it
best: “I think the most important impact was a much greater interest in
entrepreneurship. Before Shad
Valley, my goal was to
make robots with a large firm; now it is to make robots with my own company.”
Another noted: “I was amazed by the emphasis of the entrepreneurship aspect of
the Shad Valley program. In school, business and
science were taught as two unique disciplines of the curriculum. The Shad Valley
program showed me how the two disciplines could be combined to compliment each
The way I see it, there are many things we should
do to develop our brain trust. More industry-led initiatives such as this will
allow us to realize the potential of our country’s most valuable natural
Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and
director of Simon
Industry Liaison Office. He oversees Vancouver’s Angel Technology Network and
is Chair of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and past-Chair of the Vancouver Enterprise
Forum. He may be reached at email@example.com.