Work in Silicon Valley and Spooked About Trump? Canada Wants You

How Canada Is Using Trump Fears to Poach Tech Workers
  • Sales pitch: Diversity and less anti-immigrant rhetoric
  • Nation's tech industry has struggled to retain talent

Canada’s technology industry has chosen a mascot for its latest campaign to poach Silicon Valley talent. His name is Donald Trump.

Sortable, an advertising startup, has been running Facebook ads featuring a photo of The Donald with the tagline: “Thinking of moving to Canada? Sortable is hiring.” Next week, a group of Canadian mayors, keen to attract top people and reverse a brain drain, will visit California to tout Canada’s growing tech scene. Far too polite to mention the Republican front-runner’s divisive rhetoric, they’ve chosen to accentuate the positive.

“The embracing of diversity as opposed to it being some sort of political issue is a huge advantage we have,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory, who plans to visit Facebook, Twitter, Square, Google, Salesforce as well as several venture capital firms. “We try to have a political culture that is slightly less divisive.”

Google searches for “how can I move to Canada” surged after Trump won seven of 11 Super Tuesday primaries on March 1, according to Google data researcher Simon Rogers. Of course, Americans have threatened to move to Canada before. During the Bush II administration, interest in relocating north spiked. In most cases, Americans chose to stay put.

Sortable figures there’s no harm in trying. “Now, while we don’t think Americans will actually move en masse to Canada if the election doesn’t go their way, we do want to extend an offer,” the company’s ad says. “Because it’s the polite, Canadian thing to do.”

Christopher Reid, Sortable’s chief executive officer, says he believes Canada’s appeal will resonate particularly with non-U.S. citizens and immigrants living in America. The hope is that they’ll contrast Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s emphasis on tolerance and openness with Trump’s calls for tighter immigration restrictions and slurs against Muslims and Mexicans.

“We have a prime minister now who’s taken the opposite tack, very open and encouraging of immigrants, so that definitely plays in our favor,” Reid said.

Canada has long struggled to keep tech talent and companies from decamping to the U.S. A new wave of successful startups led by Shopify Inc. have opted to stay put, seeding a tech scene that is beginning to attract serious attention from U.S. venture capitalists. Even so, the country continues to suffer from a brain drain of experienced researchers and professors. Google recently picked off a top artificial intelligence professor, and U.S. universities have been luring top Canadian researchers as well.

Trudeau, in Washington for a nuclear security summit, lauded the tech hubs in Toronto and the twin cities of Kitchener-Waterloo as “extraordinarily productive.”

“As many American companies know because you come and poach our best grads regularly,” he said during a breakfast at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. “So what can we do to keep encouraging those grads in Canada and to continue to do what I will highlight is a very good job of stealing away the best and brightest from Silicon Valley?”

Besides encouraging Americans to move north, the mayors of Toronto, Kitchener and Waterloo (BlackBerry’s hometown), will also meet with Canadian expatriates. “They are people who have been working in California -- oftentimes in businesses that have scaled up,” Toronto’s Tory said. “We need them to come home.”

High-profile Valley denizens who grew up in Canada include early Facebook employee and venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp and Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield.

Regardless of the political situation in the U.S., Canadian politicians and companies need to reach out more internationally to compete in the global tech market, said Feridun Hamdullahpur, the president of the University of Waterloo, a key pipeline of tech talent to both Canada and Silicon Valley.

“Internationally, we have to be out there,” he said in an interview at an event in Toronto. “The world will not know us if we sit here.”

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