The Elevate technology conference returned to Toronto this week with lively spectacle — it closed several blocks of the Esplanade neighborhood for a block party featuring performances from the likes of rapper Haviah Mighty and scheduled more than 350 speakers, including tennis star Venus Williams to grace his three Venues through the end of Thursday evening.
But the return of the annual festival after a two-year pandemic hiatus comes at less than great time for the industry. A number of startups and tech giants, as prominent as Netflix, Shopify, and Wealthsimple, have slashed their workforces as the sector grapples with waning investor fervor and a possible recession.
That meant how to deal with the economic headwinds – and predictions of how long they will last – were hot topics on the Elevate stages.
“I don’t think we’ve hit rock bottom yet,” Dragons’ Den star Michele Romanow said in a Wednesday Mainstage session titled “Leading Through Uncertainty.”
“Tech has seen the first kind of bump on this trail and it could get a lot worse.”
Its e-commerce investment firm, Clearco, wasn’t immune to the industry’s woes. It laid off 60 employees last month when it divested its international business, a month after shedding 25 percent of its workforce.
Expecting much international growth that no longer made sense in the current economic climate, the company ended up cutting back on “experimental” projects that Romanov called “devastating.”
Since then, she has been outlining a new business plan for employees, reminding them that she cannot promise that this plan will go perfectly.
“Being an entrepreneur is an extremely tough job. It’s largely masochistic, even if the sun comes out and it starts to rain and we get into gloomier economic conditions, it’s a very difficult thing,” she said.
Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ technology center in Toronto, agreed that more cuts are on the way from more companies.
“This is just the beginning,” he said when Elevate launched on Tuesday. “Not to create this over-the-top scare narrative, but I sure think they’re going to see a lot more layoffs.”
The labor data aggregator Layoffs.fyi counts 630 startups worldwide that laid off 80,902 employees this year alone. Some 1,193 startups have laid off 176,874 workers since the pandemic began.
Workers watching and affected by these cuts are now familiarizing themselves with the fact that “the world will not be what it was” as companies shed “ridiculous” numbers of workers in a short period of time, Snobar said.
But these workers are still needed.
A 2019 report by the Information and Communications Technology Council, a nonprofit organization that provides employment policy advice, predicts demand for digitally skilled talent in Canada will reach 193,000 by 2022 and more than 305,000 by 2023.
A 2020 addendum, which accounts for COVID-19, forecasts that demand would fall by nearly 24 percent and says that under new baseline scenarios, the digital economy is expected to record demand for 147,000 workers by 2022, with total employment falling nearly will reach two million.
Banks, insurance companies, and even retailers are beginning the hiring spree as they delve deeper into artificial intelligence, apps, and other software to fuel their operations and address labor shortages.
“I don’t think you’re going to watch a Gotham story like the clouds have come in and we have to be very careful and all hide a bit,” Snobar said. “We’ll get over this.”
Lisa Zarzeczny, CEO and co-founder of Elevate, agrees. It’s one of the reasons she purposely wanted to book speakers who were willing to talk about the harsh realities facing technology and offer tips on how to move forward.
“We don’t want to sugarcoat it,” she said. “We think there’s an opportunity to learn, and that’s why we ask some tough questions at all of our stages.”
In addition to Romanow’s session, Elevate had Wealthsimple founder Mike Katchen and Properly CEO Anshul Ruparell explore how to grow a company despite headwinds, and Rangle.io CEO Nick Van Weerdenburg gave a talk titled “Hedgehogging and Outfoxing: The Psychology of Uncertainty Leverage”. ”