When tech firm Lightspeed POS Inc. quickly outgrew its stylishly renovated warehouse space in Montreal's trendy Mile-Ex neighbourhood, founder and chief executive officer Dax Dasilva, 39, got to thinking not only about where in his beloved adopted city to relocate but also about what to do with the digs being left behind.
Mr. Dasilva had bought the building – complete with outdoor pool theatre – from a film producer in 2011 and, four years later, it had become somewhat cramped as his point-of-sale software company expanded exponentially and more staff was hired on.
He decided to transform the edifice into a non-profit cultural centre with a strong LGBT component. Called Never Apart, it includes art galleries, a music room and a conference hall. Never Apart has also launched an online magazine and recently produced a colouring book entitled Colour by Icons, which highlights the lives of historical figures from the LGBT community, such as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing.
What led to your decision to gift the old Lightspeed office and create the centre?
The space was originally designed as a creative space. It's in a very creative neighbourhood of Montreal called Mile-Ex. I felt that a real way to make a difference in the world is through culture and I think that Montreal does an amazing job of culture. And I thought that to give this neighbourhood a cultural hub for art and music and film would be a great use of the space after Lightspeed moved on. So that was the motivation.
What was it that Lightspeed actually ended up doing?
I purchased the building in 2011 for Lightspeed. I purchased it personally, before we had investors. And so when Lightspeed moved because we outgrew the building in April, this space was free for me to do Never Apart with. Never Apart has always been a project in the back of my mind. I started Lightspeed because I had built software since I was 13 and that led to me creating a technology company. But also in university I studied art history and religion. There has always been a side of me personally that really was interested in culture and I thought that this was the perfect space to create a project that was a forum for culture.
How central is addressing LGBT issues at Never Apart?
The mission of the centre is to create positive change in unity through culture. And culture takes many forms. That being said, there are many people who are part of the founding group of the centre that really benefited from LGBT youth groups growing up. We wanted to make sure we gave back in terms of that particular community. Obviously, the centre is for everybody but there are some programs that have a particular benefit for LGBT people.
Do you yourself have any kind of an important say in the running of or in the policy decisions of the centre, or is it all delegated?
I work at Lightspeed during the day and I'm at Never Apart at night.
What do you think of philanthropy in the tech sector ? Do you think it plays a big role or that it's changing the nature of giving and community involvement?
Technology companies, especially those of the last few years with this startup sort of mindset, can approach problems in new ways. There is a big influence of Lightspeed on Never Apart. We're run like a startup. It's a non-profit but it's run very lean, very "technology." We multiply our resources using technology. We collaborate all day even though not all of us are in the same place. A lot of the innovation that comes from startup culture works really well when applied to giving back to the community. Whether people who work at startups and founders should be active in their communities, I think absolutely. It's something we're seeing with Mark Zuckerberg [who recently pledged to give away nearly all of his wealth]. Many people are doing great work. To whom much is given, much is expected. And many technology leaders are able to contribute back in very active years in their lives.
What do you think of Mr. Zuckerberg? Since he posted, there has been some negative feedback. Some are saying that the mission statement is too vague. That creating a limited liability company is not the way to go. There's the whole tax avoidance issue.
I think Mark Zuckerberg has a very pure intention. When I first started talking about the centre, people thought it was very vague. If you look today, it's very concrete. And so Mark Zuckerberg is not a person lacking vision, and what might sound vague at the outset, I think he probably has a pretty good idea of how he would like his charitable work to have a real impact. And I have no doubt it will be much more than we ever even expect.
What do you say to the political aspect? He has that political activist kind of element. Do you feel that can or should be part of philanthropy?
There are some areas where it does overlap into politics. You can't let political dialogue drown out the positive change you're trying to create. There is a balance. You can't just become a political lobby group even though the ends are potentially justified. In order to get things done sometimes, things have to have a political angle. In our case, we probably won't have to do as much of that because we're doing other things than probably what he's going to be doing.
Do you feel there is a difference between Canada and the United States in the tech sector in terms of community involvement?
What's probably new is a new generation of technology leaders who are able to give back at a younger age than only in retirement or only doing so through personal foundations. I think there is a generational thing, where I see people here that are still working in their companies and startups – like myself – there are other people in the city that are opening an incubator or opening an accelerator that might benefit another generation, that's got social or public good. Or, in our case, running the centre and at the same time still actively running Lightspeed. I think there are opportunities for us as technology leaders to do things in a different way and not wait for the golden years to then distribute a portion. There are active things you can do. You are actively involved in building something.
Do you agree that it's increasingly up to the private sector to fill in the gaps left by cash-strapped governments that traditionally have funded basics such as health care and education, that the private sector is taking on a bigger part of what is usually publicly funded?
I'll take the example of Never Apart. We don't have arts funding but we're creating art, music and culture. If we wait for the government to fund everything, we have a less rich society. If we want to enrich our society, sometimes we have to take responsibility and take ownership of what is there for coming generations. I benefited a lot growing up in Vancouver and Montreal from all the resources. There comes a point where it's time for you to offer inspiration to the next generation.
Should the philanthropist be directly involved in the communities that he or she is providing funding to, setting up programs and so on?
I think so. It's not always the case in every type of scenario. But if there is an active project and the funders can be actively involved in the shaping of a project, and can bring their life experience and their organizational experience and their connection to the network, the project often has a chance of being much more vibrant and much more connected and then ultimately can benefit a lot more people.