Entrepreneurship

Shopify COO bringing entrepreneurial message to Montreal Startupfest


“I’m a proud Canadian entrepreneur, but I’m also a proud Montrealer,” says Harley Finkelstein, seen at C2 in Montreal on May 25, 2018.


John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

Everyone is an entrepreneur.

At least, according to Harley Finkelstein.

“You are an entrepreneur if you see a problem and you choose to create a solution,” he said.

Finkelstein is the chief operating officer of Shopify, an Ottawa-based e-commerce company that provides a platform for businesses to open online stores and fulfill orders. Founded in 2004, Shopify supports more than 820,000 businesses in 175 countries. It is used by brands associated with some of the world’s biggest celebrities, including Kylie Jenner, Kanye West and Drake. Last year, the company’s total sales exceeded $40 billion.

“In terms of the Canadian landscape, we are the most valued Canadian technology company,” Finkelstein said. “This is something that we are very proud of because, for a long time, we were just a little startup.”

As Shopify’s public reach has grown, so, too, has recognition of Finkelstein’s achievements. Recently, the 35-year-old businessman received the Canadian Angel Investor of the Year Award and Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 Award. An inductee of the Order of Ottawa, Finkelstein was appointed to the board of directors of the CBC. He is also one of the “dragons” on CBC’s Next Gen Den.

On Thursday, he’s returning to where it all started when he comes to Montreal to speak at the city’s annual Startupfest conference.

“I’m a proud Canadian entrepreneur, but I’m also a proud Montrealer,” he said. “I believe that I would not have been nearly as successful in my own career had it not been for the atmosphere that Montreal breathes.”

Finkelstein’s grandparents immigrated to Montreal in 1956 from Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution. After arriving here, his grandfather became a staple at Jean-Talon Market, where he sold eggs at the Le Capitaine stand. To Finkelstein’s grandfather, selling eggs was a means of survival. But for Finkelstein, watching his grandfather work at the market represented his very first brush with entrepreneurship.

“My grandfather was an entrepreneur. He just didn’t call himself an entrepreneur,” he said.

Finkelstein says entrepreneurship is not limited to business ventures. He says all anybody needs is a single quality: resourcefulness. To demonstrate, he talked about his mother, who survived two bouts of breast cancer.

“The way that she took her recuperation into her own hands was incredibly entrepreneurial,” he said. “She took photographs of what was happening. She talked about the doctors she was going to see and created a community of people who were also going through chemo.

“She may not have considered herself an entrepreneur, but I had to point out to her that everything she did was incredibly entrepreneurial.”

But Finkelstein’s entrepreneurial influences extend beyond his roots. When his wife wanted to open an ice cream shop in Ottawa, Finkelstein found her reluctant to embrace the title of entrepreneur.

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“My wife wasn’t willing to call herself an entrepreneur because, in her eyes, she defined an entrepreneur as someone that looks like me, a white dude.”

However, in the last few years, Finkelstein says she has begun to accept that she is as much of an entrepreneur with her ice cream shop as he is with Shopify.

“If people believe that the concept of entrepreneurship is out of reach for them or that they themselves don’t look like a white guy in Silicon Valley wearing a hoodie, that is a very, very bad thing.”

This is the idea that Finkelstein is trying to turn on its head during his talk at Startupfest on Thursday. At the conference, hundreds of startup founders and investors will participate in networking activities and workshops.

This year, Startupfest created an inclusivity initiative designed to bring more women to the conference by offering discounted tickets to 500 female entrepreneurs.

dsucar@postmedia.com

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