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TechTO Pride event talked about authenticity in startups, role models, and RuPaul

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Starting a startup is no easy feat, but the task becomes much harder when you can’t be yourself during the process. Monthly talk series TechTO turned the spotlight on Pride month in Toronto, featuring LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs on the mainstage. Talks ranged from personal stories of loss to quoting legendary drag queen RuPaul, each with their own takeaway for the audience.


“A pornographic obsession with work”

Michael Helander, co-founder and CEO of OTI Lumionics, spoke about work-life balance. His company creates OLED lighting technology for flexible lighting displays, and the idea came from his (and his co-founder’s) PhD research. Noticing some of the anecdotal benefits of taking time to think and rest, Helander applied a scientific approach to see if the data backed up the claims that working too much is harmful.

It turns out, the data backs up the claim.

“Setting time aside for family is important,” Helander said. “Setting ‘white space’ in your schedule gives you time to think.”

In Helander’s case, he measured his heart rate and sleep patterns on days he took no rest versus days he worked “a regular day” and spent time with family. When he carved time out to think and spend time with family, his nights were spent in far deeper sleep and his body actually rested.

“We have a pornographic obsession with work,” he said, adding that people think of overwork as a “badge of honour”. “But if you’re doing this all the time, it’s not productive.”


From selling graves to protecting medical data

Anne Genge graduated university with debt and took the first job she could get – telemarketing to sell pre-planned graves to senior citizens.

Genge said the experience was great – “if you want a fast lesson in rejection.”

She eventually stumbled upon the big problem of medical records, offering the audience a harrowing take on the dangers of unsafe medical records.

There are “hundreds of thousands” of medical records available for sale on the dark web, said Genge. She further added that, “medical records have all the necessary ingredients for identity theft… Think of the STDs, things you tell your therapist, and medications you may be on…”

Genge’s company focuses on protecting medical data, but she advised the audience to be careful and always ask what happens to data that they share.


“You need to see it to be it”

As part of TechTO’s Raise of the Month talk, where one startup that announced fundraising shares their story, SalesRight founder Taylor Bond shared his insights on building a company from scratch. Bond is also a co-founding team member of Venture Out, and cited his joining the nonprofit as a major way he overcame his nervousness in sales and networking.

He co-founded SalesRight with his boss from development consultancy MindSea, where he still works in sales as a VP. During his talk, Bond shared how the two co-founders inspired each other in different ways – Bond was running Venture Out, while his co-founder was on a personal journey to lose over 200 lbs.

Seeing his co-founder’s journey, he said, was a huge inspiration.

“I’ve always believed in role models,” Bond said. “That you need to see it to be it.”


Going all in on your startup

Sage Franch, co-founder and CTO of behaviour change startup Crescendo, talked about going “all in” on your startup and your life. Franch worked for years in a fairly cushy corporate job, working long hours but getting paid well and getting the opportunity to travel the world.

It was fun but she soon realized she was trading hours for dollars in a way that didn’t feed her soul. This recognition came with her mom’s cancer diagnosis, when the doctors told her family to plan her mother’s life “in months, not years” anymore.

For Franch, going all in means “on your [startup] idea, your team, and life as a whole.” She advised that anyone wanting to go “all in” do a quick diagnostic check for:

  • Evidence that your idea is both targeting a real problem and offering a solution people want
  • Stability to chase your idea and your dream (really, this means having money – on your own or a side source of income that doesn’t take up much time)
  • Bandwidth to dedicate all forms of energy to the cause – money, time, and effort.


“Overcoming significant hardship”

It would not be a pride event without legendary drag queen RuPaul making an appearance, and Scott Stirrett, the co-founder of Venture for Canada, made sure no one was disappointed. Quoting the TV icon, Stirrett wanted to share the message that “if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love somebody else?”

He further explained that drag culture offers two valuable lessons for startups: the importance of authenticity and the importance of finding your tribe.

While the makeup and outfits worn by the queens on shows like RuPaul’s Drage Race and in gay bars around the world are performative, each queen strives to find their unique style. The makeup may not be “authentic” to what the person really looks like, but the way they apply makeup and the colours they use are. It’s a lesson startup founders can take to heart as you often have to put on many faces as a founder – so make sure each one is tailor made for your personality.

Drag queens, as Stirrett said, “overcome significant hardship in their lives” in many instances, but have each other for support (and the occasional “read” as RuPaul frequently talks about on the show). Drawing another similarity to the startup world, individual founders can feel alone and dejected, overcoming unique hardships, but finding one another can make the journey a lot more bearable and fun.