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Management How Google’s Nicolas Darveau-Garneau learned to power through after failing kindergarten

Nicolas Darveau-Garneau.

Cliff Redeker

Nicolas Darveau-Garneau, 50, became Google’s chief search evangelist in Mountain View, Calif., in May, 2017. He began his career at Google in 2011 as general manager of Google Quebec.

In what I call the journey of my life, from Chicoutimi to Los Gatos, 40 years in concentric circles, the most important thing was learning English – my mom’s idea. I couldn’t speak English almost at all until we moved to Montreal, then I learned it while going to university in Ontario.

The second most important thing was becoming globalized, seeing Canada and the United States, then travelling to 75 countries, where I’ve had extraordinary experiences. If you were born in northern Quebec 50 years ago you didn’t necessarily think highly of people in Toronto. You get there and think, “These are wonderful people.” Then in New York: “These are wonderful people.“ Travel broadens your horizons, taking away preconceived notions.

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I advise young people to take computer-science first principles classes – like in liberal arts, reading traditional texts. At university, I was intrigued by theoretical underpinnings. I enjoyed working at McKinsey & Co. in Toronto; they trained people well to summarize tough issues, strategy and forecasting. Doing my MBA in 1994, I grasped the coming revolution, really for the first time, while I was sitting in Harvard Business School’s computer lab. I got excited by the early browsers; Amazon and Yahoo had barely launched. I was fortunate to work at Microsoft. Fully grasping what the internet would bring to the future created my career path.

My MBA was incredibly valuable. You do hundreds of cases, so your level of pattern recognition is extraordinarily good. It also creates lifelong relationships with incredible people. I had two options: Go back to McKinsey, which would’ve been fantastic and paid for my MBA, or join an internet company. I was worth negative-$250,000, with the brilliant idea of starting an internet company – difficult in 1996. Imix.com was one of the first companies in the world with legal music downloads from all major record labels. That was a lesson learned; get the timing right. Plus or minus a year or two makes a huge difference – we were early, and struggled. After the infamous 2000 crash, we were fortunate to get some money out. I worked on Wall Street for a wonderful company for a year and a half. It required grit to leave a job paying high six-figures, but quitting brought me back to my first love, the internet.

I joined Google Montreal in September, 2011. Now I’m kind of a consultant sent to its top partners around the world to help think about their digital strategies. I talk to CEOs and CMOs [chief marketing officers] about, in many cases, how to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve how we talk to consumers. I have access to so many wonderful people, not because I’m particularly clever, but because I work at an interesting company and people want to hear our point of view. One strategy we discuss is the toothbrush test – universal tools used two to three times a day that over a billion people can use. It’s important to have diversity to make sure systems work well, not just from an equity perspective, but to make things right as we build technologies.

One underpinning of my philosophy is freedom – to be who you are, of the press, association, free enterprise – because I’ve seen the opposite at its worst. I’ve appreciated every second living in Canada and the U.S.

I’m going to join at least two [more] boards, so I’ll get back to Canada more. Canadians tend to be a little more civil; I miss that. I’m really proud of the work [against Quebec separation] by Groupe des cent, which I co-founded for 1995’s referendum, and I’m really happy that Canada is still one country. That was a tough moment.

Grit and going through adversity is a big thing. My mom’s been my inspiration my entire life, the reason where I am today. I’d failed kindergarten. Being painfully shy, I didn’t recite a poem in front of my peers. She said, “I’ll teach you.” The next year, I could read, write, count, multiply – I skipped first grade. That time with her, honestly, is what allowed me to develop grit and not only succeed, but to power through.

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