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the ladder

Razor Suleman, 44, is an entrepreneur, investor and the co-founder and CEO of Elevate, a four-day tech and innovation festival happening in September across 250 venues throughout Toronto.

I’m an immigrant. I very much identify with that, it’s a part of my journey and a point of pride for me. My family came to Canada in 1975 when I was nine months old. We left East Africa where the dictator at the time, Idi Amin, gave South Asians 90 days to vacate. To me, Canada is the land of opportunity. You couldn’t have started lower than where I started in life.

I do what I’m really passionate about, and it doesn’t always make sense. I can’t always see the path or how I’m going to make money, but I believe that money follows passion. Not the other way around.

Razor Suleman is the chief executive and co-founder of Elevate Toronto, a four-day tech and innovation festival. The events aim to bring people from around the world to connect and be inspired by individuals shaping the future.glenn lowson/Globe and Mail

I was doing probably a couple million dollars as a teenager. I loved hockey and baseball cards and, as a 15-year-old in the early days of the internet, I created a BBS (bulletin-board system) where you could buy and sell cases of sports trading cards. It took advantage of the price arbitrage between hockey cards in Canada and baseball cards in the U.S. I did that for years, while my parents thought I was studying to be a doctor.

I think sometimes entrepreneurs are so afraid to take on the incumbent, the big monopoly. But I love playing the role of the underdog. I founded Razor’s Edge, my clothing company, out of my dorm room at [Wilfrid Laurier University], and it competed with the [university] book store. It got to the point where 50 to 60 per cent of the clothing that was bought on campus was bought through Razor’s Edge versus the bookstore.

I started Achievers [an employee recognition and rewards platform] within another company I owned, Snap Inc., with the plan that I would run both companies. But in trying to run both companies at the same time, I never felt like more of a failure. Forty per cent of the staff quit over the summer. I went into my COO’s office and, in dramatic fashion, I slid my keys across the desk and said, “I quit. We’re failing, we’re not making customers happy, we’re running two companies poorly.” We ended up selling Snap, the big company that had 10 times the revenue, and focused on Achievers, the little tiny company that had one-10th of the revenue. But I was passionate about Achievers and I loved doing it every day.

By the time we moved to Silicon Valley in 2010, Achievers was a $20-million company. Sequoia Capital led a $25-million investment in Achievers and to me Sequoia was the kingmaker. They had put money into Google and Larry Page and Apple and Steve Jobs and Oracle with Larry Ellison and I’m like, “Holy crap, this is such rarefied air, I have to take advantage of that.”

But I picked Sequoia because of the firm, the brand and my ego. I didn’t focus so much on the partner that would be joining my board and helping me build the company. The partner and I didn’t really share the same values or the same vision. I’d been pretty good at picking the right partners in life and I failed in that instance. We had a pretty tumultuous relationship.

When we sold the company for $150-million in 2015, my wife and I had green cards and an American baby and a beautiful home. We were having dinner and I’m like, “Where do you want to spend the rest of your life and raise our kids?” Before we got to dessert, the answer was clear that it was Canada. There’s no better place to live, work and play than our country.

Now, I’m a festival organizer with Elevate. People don’t know how on fire we are in Toronto and in Canada when it comes to tech. It’s our time to dominate. In Canada, we are way too humble. I don’t think Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are smarter than Canadian entrepreneurs. I don’t think they work harder. But they are living in an ecosystem that forces them to think huge. And we don’t tend to do that in Canada.

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