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opinion

Jonathan Metrick is the chief growth officer at Portage Ventures

It was a conventional afternoon in San Francisco: the sun shining over the Bay Bridge and two sneaker-clad execs discussing the latest fintech trends. But their conversation was anything but conventional. These two execs were brainstorming ways to accelerate growth at a Canadian-based startup.

My conversation was with Alex Otrezov, an alumnus of U.S.-based tech leaders Uber and Expedia, and now the chief marketing officer at Koho Financial Inc., one of Canada’s rapidly growing fintechs.

While Koho is based in Canada, Mr. Otrezov manages the firm’s marketing from San Francisco. He’s part of a growing trend of executives based in the United States being hired by Canadian startups.

There is a certain irony in this new phenomenon, since Canadians are used to constant carping about the brain drain of talented Canucks leaving for greener pastures in America. Statistics Canada estimates thousands of Canadians move south of the border each year.

I am part of this trend, having grown up in Toronto before seeking job opportunities in the U.S. after finishing school. Living in New York, I’ve met many Canadian expats who moved to the U.S. for career advancement.

But like so many pre-COVID-19 norms, the pandemic has thrown this conventional wisdom into question. Extended lockdowns have forced companies to embrace remote work forces across all levels of seniority. Canadian startups have leaned into this trend by seizing the opportunity to hire remote executives – increasingly from the rich, deep talent pool in the U.S.

The trend arrives at a crucial time as Canadian companies are increasingly facing a labour shortage and costly competition for tech talent. Enterprising companies are looking beyond the nation’s borders to fill gaps in the labour market.

And why shouldn’t they? Hiring experienced talent with exposure to larger markets and bigger budgets is beneficial for Canadian companies, and their employees. Seasoned American talent brings new ideas, new operating models and complementary networks that can help ambitious companies scale. A reverse Canadian brain drain.

I see this trend playing out in real time. Recently, LinkedIn published a list of Top Startups in Canada for 2021. The study ranks startups headquartered in Canada that have seen the largest increase in employment, job applications and ability to attract top talent.

I work closely with companies such as Wealthsimple Inc., Koho and Borrowell Inc. (No. 1, 6 and 7 on the list), all of which have hired at least one senior executive based in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

In fact, of the top 10 Canadian startups in the LinkedIn report, half have hired senior executives in the U.S. since March, 2020. This amount grows to 70 per cent of the 10 largest startups with more than 100 employees.

The senior roles being filled by U.S.-based employees range from chief corporate officers for finance, technology, marketing and product – among the most difficult positions to fill in today’s competitive job market.

As the CMO at Koho, Mr. Otrezov is just one example of a highly experienced, U.S.-based executive who is helping to build a rapidly growing startup without uprooting his life to relocate. It’s a win-win.

“While Canadians are unique, they use much of the same technology and media as Americans do,” he told me. “I can apply many of the growth strategies I learned at Uber in the U.S. to build Koho’s business in Canada.”

All businesses can draw inspiration from the unconventional conversations Canadian startups are now having south of the border. Remote work has unlocked a rare opportunity for Canadian companies to access sought-after talent, no matter where those individuals live.

More Canadian companies should expand their horizons and consider filling competitive roles with U.S.-based talent. Not only will this help firms grow faster, but it will also expose Canadian workers to the innovative business practices happening south of the border, without forcing them to leave the country.

It would also be an important step toward slowing, and potentially reversing, the perennial brain drain to the United States.

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