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Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)
Chris Albinson is a managing partner in Panorama Capital, a Sand Hill Road VC firm. (Melissa Barnes)

ROB Magazine

Lessons from Canada's Silicon Valley diaspora Add to ...

In his nearly five years there, Palihapitiya helped to build the initial Facebook platform, working on its approach to advertising, and then on its global expansion. Last summer, he exited with some very valuable equity, and purchased a major share of an NBA team, the Golden State Warriors. He also began to look around for start-ups to back. He’s going at it with his customary energy: His private venture fund, the Social + Capital Partnership, has already disbursed nearly $60 million.

I meet him in another basic office on a second storey off University Avenue in Palo Alto (modest digs are a point of pride out here, like dressing as if you’re nobody special). The space is mainly occupied by the staff of a company he’s funded called Glooko, which connects diabetics and their blood-sugar monitors via smartphones.

Palihapitiya is one-part savvy investor, one-part mystic. “If you believe that tech is deterministic, then you believe that whatever the technology makes possible will eventually happen.” He also beats the creative destruction drum. “There will be chaos, but a ton of opportunity there.” What does he do well? “I understand the nuances of building really compelling software,” he says. “That’s probably the only thing I’m good at, to be honest with you.”

When he decides what bets to place, is it—in a common Valley metaphor—the horse (the idea) or the rider (the team) he backs? “The rider,” he says, then experiences a rare moment of indecision. “And the horse. But mainly the rider.”

Palihapitiya is more critical of his home country than the others I interview. “The culture of entrepreneurship in Canada is very limited—it’s way too rigid. It doesn’t promote risk and doesn’t embrace failure. It’s optimized more for the middle and the mean—and doesn’t like outliers. I tell anyone who has ambition to make a go in the tech sphere to come down here.”

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THE EXECUTIVE

Siva Ananmalay, on the other hand, is the most rah-rah of the Canadians I interview. He’s a 47-year-old vice-president of engineering at Cisco’s competition, the smaller Juniper Networks —with head offices in Sunnyvale, it has more than 9,000 employees in 46 countries and annual revenues in the $4-billion range. He’s one of the main forces behind Digital Moose Lounge, a Canadian networking group that’s open to all, less exclusive than the C100. He gets CBC on satellite. He recently took up hockey again, playing in a weekend warriors’ league that is alleged to be the biggest one west of the Mississippi—and packed with expats.

I come to watch him and his team, the Red Bulls (“no sponsorship deal is in place—yet”), at the rink complex where the San Jose Sharks practise. His team gets down three early goals, but fights back to a tie, before going down two more in the third. Ananmalay, a solid, never-ruffled defenceman, has one length-of-the-rink run, but doesn’t convert. Afterwards, we have a pint in Stanley’s upstairs—the Lord and his coveted Cup are depicted over the bar; there’s Molson on tap.

Ananmalay is part of a Nortel diaspora that helps explain the strong reputation Canadian engineering enjoys in the Valley. Nortel transferred him here in 1999, when it acquired Bay Networks. In the many post-mortems on Nortel, some observers saw the beginning of the end in its expansion to the Valley—that it spent too much on acquisitions and too little on innovation. But given the accounting scandals and miscues by ever-changing leaders who came later, no one (yet) can say for sure what caused the biggest corporate downfall in Canadian history—a fall that Ananmalay witnessed from the inside. When the company began to falter, he remembers being asked back to Ottawa to fulfill the unpleasant duty of dismissing his entire team. “I could see the business case for it, even though it was terrible.”

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