At 8:30 in the morning on March 25th, some of Windsor’s best and brightest hopped onto the REMO virtual event platform to celebrate Tech Homecoming Day: YQG Edition.
As part of the fourth annual Tech Week YQG, Tech Homecoming Day brought together Windsor-area expats, alumni, newcomers and regional leaders to reconnect and reinvest in the city that they once called, or will soon call home.
“Since 2017, Tech Week has brought together thousands to build a unique experience for entrepreneurs, industry investors, tech talent and community leaders in a week-long celebration of everything tech,” President and CEO of WEtech Alliance Yvonne Pilon explains. “As a proud resident of historic Walkerville and a graduate of the Odette School of Business, my team and I have made it our personal and professional mission to put YQG on the map.”
As WEtech Alliance celebrates a decade of working with business owners and tech entrepreneurs in the region, the organization has been taking some time to reflect back on all the trials and tribulations of the previous 10 years. But more importantly, Yvonne takes a moment to stress how our community rose to the unprecedented challenges presented to them over the last 365 days.
“We have seen entrepreneurs pivot, grow, innovate and diversify,” Yvonne states. “Everything we’ve seen demonstrates the resilience of this region’s peoples and companies. Despite a full year of curveballs and pivots, one thing remains top priority at WEtech: to do our very best and keep things business as virtual.”
The two-hour event included four distinguished panelists and featured several discussions centered around how to turn Windsor-Essex into a glowing Hub of Innovation for the next generation.
After Yvonne’s opening remarks, the event kicked off with some words by former WEtech Director of Partnerships and current Member of Parliament Irek Kusmierczyk.
“Today’s theme of tech homecoming really hits me in the feels a little bit.” Irek explains. “Because it really is a homecoming for me—having been a part of WEtech Alliance and our exceptional tech ecosystem for the better part of a decade. And I’m very excited about tremendous opportunities I see for the City of Windsor!”
“It’s a natural evolution to move into the automobility sector.”
Next, Matthew Johnson, the Director of Automobility and Innovation at the Windsor Economic Development Corporation, took the virtual podium.
“The Windsor Economic Development Corporation is the lead economic development agency for our region,” Matthew states. “We are currently focusing on automobility—the secure, zero-emission movement of people, goods and services using advanced information technologies. We know that Windsor as is the Automotive Capital of Canada. Our goal is to make Windsor-Essex the Automobility capital of Canada.”
Matthew called attention to Windsor’s transition from auto manufacturing to automation to automobility.
“We’ve been developing a lot of new technology,” Matthew states. “We’ve been working with a lot of our automation companies here locally. It’s a natural evolution to move into the automobility sector.”
After Matthew, Yvonne invited each of the four panelists to elaborate on their distinct history with Windsor and Essex County.
“I was born and raised in Windsor,” Kristina Verner, the Vice President, Innovation, Sustainability & Prosperity at Waterfront Toronto, explains. “I’m a three-time alumni from the University of Windsor. The community and my identity always been inextricably linked. I still read the Windsor Star every morning. And Windsor is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night. It’s my love and it’s my hometown. I’m always thinking about how we can advance the region.”
“I definitely identify as more of a county kid,” Nicolas Seguin, the Manager of Mobility Analytics at FORD Global Data Insights & Analytics, admits. “I grew up out of the cornfields and the soybean fields. I remember riding my bike miles to get to friends and cousins houses. My family was very linked to the automotive ups and downs in the region. But, I always knew I wanted to work in technology. So, I was always aware that I would likely have to relocate to a big city. Now I reside in Detroit.”
Yvonne asked the four participants how they think Windsor can attract more startups and opportunities.
“When we started Edison Financial, Windsor just made sense,” Bekim Merdita, the Vice President of Sales & Business Development at Edison Financial, explains. “The proximity to Detroit was the biggest ticket for us. That cross-border connection is a great opportunity for anyone in the automotive industry. And in many ways, Windsor is a smaller Detroit. Blue-collar towns. Had their boom in the 50s. But, as the economy changed, they both struggled to adapt. So, as a result, a lot of the young talent left. And that is still an issue for both cities.”
Bekim and other business owners are currently working to create an innovation hub in Downtown Windsor.
“I keep telling people, ‘You don’t have to leave! Work with us and we can create opportunities together!” Bekim stresses. “We want others to capture some of that energy as well.”
“Windsor and Detroit are right next door to each other,” Nicolas adds. “I don’t know that the region fully understands the opportunities available when it comes to partnering with businesses across the border. Automobility represents 28% of Michigan’s gross economic output. As a hiring manager in this base, I can’t find enough talent to fill all the roles! To the people that are hopping on planes and trains and leaving Windsor—the opportunities are right in your backyard!”
Kristina talks about the importance of changing the narrative when it comes to the brain drain afflicting Windsor and Essex County.
“Growing up, there was the sense that you had to leave,” Kristina recalls. “That was certainly the model that I was told. ‘You have outgrown this fish tank. Time to move on to a larger aquarium. Go swim with the big fishes and then come back.’ And I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case anymore. When I would have friends visit me in Windsor they would always be floored by the Detroit skyline across the river. ‘It looms large,’ someone once said to me. It’s a constant reminder of what Windsor must not become—in terms of the rough patches that Detroit has experienced.”
“…we need to think big! We need to be bold! We need to just say, ‘why not?’ and go!”
As a newcomer to Windsor, Jason Reynar, the incoming Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) at the City of Windsor and the former CAO at the Town Innisfil, brings a unique perspective to the discussion.
“This is about the short-term,” Jason explains. “When we’re talking about strategy, it has to be the 20-year or the 50-year or the 100-year vision. ‘What can we do to lay the foundation so that things come to fruition?’ And diversity is a critical component of that. Interdisciplinary teams. Cross functional thinking. Different perspectives to the table. There may be a way we can innovate and create better service for the residents and Windsor and Essex. And I think we need to think big! We need to be bold! We need to just say, ‘why not?’ and go!”