Now, continuing with a bit more of an in-depth look at our sidebar profiles, today’s pick is Deepa Mehta – one of the country (and the world’s) most acclaimed, provocative, and politically engaged filmmakers.

The Oscar-nominated director of Water is set to tackle the shameful Komagata Maru incident – one of Canada’s major moral oops moments, when, in 1914, the government turned away 397 Indians (most of whom were Sikh) who attempted to land and establish themselves in Vancouver. Due out sometime in 2009, the film will hopefully force North Americans to take a hard look at the exclusion laws that ounce served to keep the continent “untainted” by “coloured” immigrants.

Deepa grew up in the shadow of the Indian Partition of 1947. She also grew up with movies. Mehta’s father was a film distributor who owned a number of theatres in Amritsar, near the Pakistan border. She fell in love with the romance of Hindu cinema, as well as the Hitchcock movies her father would show on Sunday mornings. After seeing how the pursuit of weekly grosses had worn her father down, though, Mehta’s love for commercial cinema slowly faded. When it came time to go to university, the bookish teen chose to study Philosophy at the University of New Delhi.

As is true of so many graduates of liberal arts programs, though, Mehta emerged with few answers where questions of career were concerned.

“By the end of university, the only thing I knew about my future was that I needed some time off,” she remembers. “I needed time to decide if I wanted to study further. A part of me definitely wanted to, but I needed to decipher what I really wanted from what others thought I should do. Luckily, my parents never pushed me. They never expected me to be a lawyer or a doctor or anything.”

During what she identifies as her “awkward period,” Deepa met Anil, the owner of Cinema Workshop, a company that made documentary films for the Indian government.

“He said, “While you’re deciding what you want to do, why not work for me?,” Mehta recalls with a smile. “I couldn’t see why not, so I agreed.”

“Cinema Workshop was a wonderfully interesting place. There was a five-person team: Anil, who was the administrator, his wife, the creative brains behind it, a writer, an editor, and a camera person. They were this tight-knit group of creative people, all of whom loved what they were doing. I was only hired as a gopher for a few months, but they realised early on that I wasn’t going to be very useful in that regard. I couldn’t type. Even the coffee I made was horrible.”

Mehta loved to watch Joya, the editor, work on her Moviola machine. She had read about editing in books, but the process she witnessed in Cinema Workshop was magical. Since she was of little use in other areas, Mehta was allowed to help Joya. She learned to edit, then she picked up sound engineering, and finally began playing around with a camera and writing scripts. Though the films she helped to pen were two-minute educational pieces like “How to Grow Wheat,” Mehta loved that she was learning.

Soon after, Deepa set out to make a half-hour, black and white documentary on her own. Her first film was called Vimla. It was a simple story about a maid servant’s daughter who, at the age of fourteen, was getting married. The film documented Vimla’s excitement and examined what the concept of marriage meant to her.

Lightning Strikes

“By this point, I was hooked on directing,” Mehta says. “All of my reservations about working in the film industry went out the window. The documentary seemed like a completely different animal from the film world I’d experienced growing up. As a child, when a new film was released, the stars would come to my father’s movie halls. They’d even eat lunch at our house. I saw them up close and, as a result, the cinema world lost its lustre. But documentary was different. It was real and had the power to be very meaningful.”

But when Cinema Workshop closed down, Deepa needed to look elsewhere. She took a job working for the youth section of a newspaper while she was searching for more film experience. At one point, she was assigned to write about the Canadian High Commissioner’s daughter. While working on the story, she met Paul Saltzman, a filmmaker from the CBC who was in Delhi shooting a documentary about the High Commissioner.

Lightning struck and the next thing she knew, Deepa’s life had changed.

“He was incredibly knowledgeable and I was keen to see how other people made documentary films,” Mehta recalls. “We fell in love, were married six months later and we moved to Toronto.”

Deepa had never planned to move away. She had visited Europe and North America, but she always assumed she would stay in India.

“At the time, though, leaving was easy, because I didn’t think it would be forever,” Mehta says. When you’re young, nothing seems permanent. It doesn’t feel like you’re making life-altering decisions, even when you are. Even though we were married, I felt like I was “trying out” Canada.”

In the beginning, Deepa was shocked that filmmakers could access government money to make their movies. That hadn’t been the case in India, and she found the entire concept very “luxurious.” She also discovered types of cinema she’s never encountered before: everything from Buñuel (who remains her hero) and Kurosawa to the French New Wave masters and the great Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray.

Soon after her arrival, she, her husband, and her brother Dilip set up Sunrise Pictures on the third floor of a house in the Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. They didn’t really know why. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

“Paul had made a number of films and I had worked on my own documentary,” Mehta says, “so we just decided to make a go of it together. Everyone did everything. I did sound, I thought up projects and I wrote them. We didn’t really think about where it was going. We were simply working on a project-to-project basis, and dealing with a deteriorating marriage.”

At 99

After arriving in Canada, Mehta had been fascinated by the way North Americans treated the elderly. As soon as parents got old, they were shipped off to special care facilities. In India no one sent older people away. They were seen as occupying a vital role in the home.

One day, she ran across an article in the Toronto Star about a 99 year-old woman who practiced yoga. Her name was Louise Tandy Murch, and Deepa instantly knew she had to meet her.

“I just knocked on her door and said, “I’d really like to talk to you” ” Mehta recalls. “We became friends right away. I never planned to make a documentary about her, but the notion gradually dawned on me and she accepted. I got a grant from the Canada Council and made the film for $5,000. Paul was working at Global at the time and a friend of his shot and produced the film.”

That film was a short called At 99: A Portrait of Louise Tandy Murch. After stepping away from the world of film for two years following the birth of her daughter, Devyani, Mehta slowly phased herself back into the world of Sunrise, working on Spread your Wings, a documentary series about traditional crafts, and Travelling Light, an “artist at work” documentary about her brother Dilip. Later, she produced and co-directed Martha, Ruth and Edie, her first foray into fiction: a film based on works by Alice Munro, Cynthia Flood and Betty Lambert. When it screened at Cannes and won some awards, Mehta felt she had begun to find her feet and was perhaps ready to take on a feature.

Sam and Me

She thought she wanted to make a film about an Indian immigrant coming to Canada and living amongst Jewish people. She was still mulling it over when an old friend from India told her that her son, Rajit Chowdry, was moving to Toronto. Mehta knew that Rajit had written scripts for Indian TV and thought that they might be able to help each other out.

“One day, the doorbell rang and I found Ranjit shivering in his sneakers, ” Mehta recalls. “It was 20 below zero. He looked wild and fun and when I invited him in, we started to talk about the film I wanted to do. Ranjit said he would write it and he set to work right away.”

That movie ended up being Sam and Me – a film about the friendship between a young Indian man named Nikhil, who comes to Canada to stay with his uncle, and Sam, an ageing Jewish man who yearns to return to Israel.

Getting money was virtually impossible. The funding bodies were nervous about giving money to a recent immigrant. But they persevered, got it made (with Ranjit playing Nikhil and Mehta behind the camera), and went back to Cannes and won a Honourable Mention in the Camera D’or category.

The next thing she knew, Mehta went from being someone who had to struggle to fund projects to being courted by Hollywood. Though making films would continue to be a grind – especially as her subject matter became more engaged, Deepa Mehta had emerged onto the world stage.

“Through my twenties,” she says, “I never worried about the direction of my career. I only concerned myself with being able to make my next project. I still function the same way today. To a filmmaker, “success” is when you don’t have to suffer the pain of running around to raise money. When and if that moment ever comes, you are successful. Otherwise, you just worry about getting the next film made.”

Back in the Metro

June 23, 2008

More good news: this piece on Kickstart just ran in the Metro in Vancouver. It should be greeting bleary-eyed commuters in Toronto and other markets in the next week. Metro ran a piece on us way back in 2006, when we were still shopping the book around and largely unsure of how we’d put it together. Their continued support and interest is much appreciated.

A great little profile of Kickstart participants Phil White and Gerard Vroomen on Cervélo Cycles, the duo who somehow managed to make a Toronto-run operation a major player in the previously Euro-centred bike game.

How’d they do it?

Apart from devoting themselves to R&D innovation, putting their heads down, and living on $50 a week for a few years, the company’s breakthrough came when Vroomen took a relationship-establishing meeting back in 2002.

In its early years, Cervélo was a cult-secret, a company that made ugly but slippery quick time trial bikes. They knew they wanted to break into the Tour, but assumed they wouldn’t be ready to make a serious go of it until 2005. Still, for practice as much as anything else, Vroomen set up a meeting with Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour de France champion who had taken over Team CSC in 2000. Vroomen had no expectations, but he left a Cervélo bike behind after their meeting. A few days later, the phone rang. It turned out Riis didn’t care that the company had only two European distributors at the time. He looked their commitment to cutting edge engineering. He just wanted to win.

The cycling world was shocked and the company wasn’t really ready. They had only just cracked $1 million in revenues the year before. Now they had to provide roughly 200 frames to varying specifications to picky, world-class riders. The stress and pressure were immense. If they screwed up, the whole world would be watching and the company would be dead on arrival.

But Cervélo didn’t fail. Their first year as suppliers to CSC was the team’s most successful ever. They won three stages of the Tour. CSC was #1 in the world in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Sales sky-rocketed. They were on top of the world.

Then things came crashing down. A doping scandal derailed the Tour and the CSC team. Suddenly, the public attributed those three years of victories to drugs rather than design innovation.

Cervélo could have chosen to back away from CSC, but they haven’t. They’ve stood by their team – the team that took a chance on them in the first place. In the end, the scandal hasn’t hurt them so much. They’ve remained diversified, focussed just as squarely on the triathlon and time-trials markets. The company is now relying on monied baby-boomers to fuel its growth – that, and a return tot he winner’s circle.

Here’s an interesting article from yesterday’s New York Times about Kickstart contributor Patricia Rozema’s new film Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. The piece suggests that Rozema’s movie (set to drop) could well be to young girls what the uber-hyped Sex in the City flic was to the heels and martini set. Rozema herself is cautious about discussing such a possibility, but won’t deny she’d like to see young women’s interests more attended to by Hollywood higher-ups.

The following segment aired on News at Noon on May 15, 2008. We think she may have been making fun of us by the end of this. How do you like them apples?


A Review in [Here]

June 6, 2008

Check er’ out. A very nice review (it calls us “great guys”) from the urban voice of New Brunswick. We loved that province and we love Here.

Things with the woman David Pecaut had come to Toronto for never really worked out. But he didn’t leave. Things were starting to go well, and Pecaut was falling on love with his new city.

After four years at Canada Consulting, Pecaut got a call from Ira Magaziner. They had worked together on a Ottawa task force. Ira told David that he was starting a new consulting group, Telesis. 75% of business would be large corporations and 25% would be government economic strategy.

“I had become really interested in economic strategy over the past four years…Ira was very close to the Democratic leadership in the United States, and I had always been very intrigued by questions of government policy. So, when he said he needed someone to come to Rhode Island to run the business with him while it expanded into Europe and Asia, I jumped at the chance.

I loved Toronto. But I felt like it had never been my plan to stay. I was at a juncture in my life where I could go. I felt it was a fantastic opportunity.”

So he went to Rhode Island and during his three years with Magaziner, Pecaut got to work with RCA, General Electric, and Jack Welsh. Plus, he got to develop a 20 year high tech economic strategy for the Israeli government.

“It was 1985,” Pecaut recalls, “and the Jerusalem Institute of Management sponsored a program that brought both parties – Likud and Labour – together. Simon Peres and Ariel Sharon were both on the steering committee. It was a time of peace and, for roughly a year, I led the group as it developed an economic strategy that focussed on developing technology and scientific research sites in the surrounding areas. I was the only one in the room who wasn’t Jewish, so I learned an immense amount.”

Ultimately though, Pecaut found himself missing Toronto. One day, he got a call from Premier David Peterson’s Minister of Industry. Peterson’s Liberals had never expected to be elected, so they didn’t have a fully developed economic plan. They were looking for Pecaut’s expertise. The drew up a model for a Premier’s council, which would consist of leaders of industry, the universities, and labour, along with Peterson and his four key economic advisors. The party loved the idea and handed the job to Pecaut’s old firm: Canada Consulting. As a result, Pecaut came back to Toronto.

With Magaziner preparing to devote himself more dominantly to Washington politics, Pecaut didn’t want to run Telesis by himself. Ultimately, the company was sold to Towers Perrin Inc., which turned it into a global strategy business. Later, Pecaut would buy some of the business back and run it as a boutique operation.

In 1992, the Boston Consulting Group approached approached Pecaut, saying they were looking to buy a Canadian business. They were familiar with him threw several of their partners. Pecaut jumped at the chance.

“I knew that I would only work at a place where I could have some fun,” Pecaut says. “And I knew that BCG would be a leader. Even though it was a little ahead of my timetable, I knew we should expand.”

With that, they merged the two businesses and Pecaut ran BCG in Toronto for a decade. Their E-Commerce work in the late 1990s made it into a $250-300 million business.

“Through it all, I’ve always remained committed to public policy and the engagement of civil society,” Pecaut explained at the end of our interview. “It’s always been there. We’ve stayed committed to ensuring it represents roughly 15-20% of our work. In the 1990s, we decided we could do one or two major pro bono policy projects a year, and it’s worked out well.”

And does he ever regret taking philosophy and sociology rather than economics and business management?

“I remember during the first months at Canada consulting, someone came to me and said, “You gotta calculate the cash flow on this,” and I said, “Okay, sure.” But I didn’t have a clue, and these were the days before calculators. So I went over to the guy next to me, and he was like, “you don’t know how to do that?” And I had to say, “no.” And he was like, “you really don’t know how to do that?” And all I could say was, “I’m sure I can learn.” So he gave me a textbook and I learned.

My feeling was that everything in consulting was stuff you could learn in a few hours. For me, and I don’t want to be critical or anything, going to get a business degree felt a little more like going to get a degree in plumbing. It’s stuff you know you can learn if you sit there and learn it. But it’s not like you couldn’t learn any given thing in a few hours if you needed to. It wasn’t like going and becoming a doctor, where you had to spend three or four years in a clinic and apprentice and practice. It seemed to me that you learned by doing.”

Okay, so we’ve gotten quite a few questions about participants in the book who didn’t get full chapter treatment. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, Kickstart features both extended first-person stories and what we call ‘sidebars’: short quotes (nuggets of knowledge and insight) from other successful Canadians we had the great privilege of interviewing as well.

A lot of readers are asking to know more about these sidebar participants. So here we go. Over the next little while, we’ll be providing short profiles of our sidebar participants – people who could (and hopefully will) fill the pages of the next installment of Kickstart.

Today’s profile: David Pecaut, Toronto’s ultimate man of many hats. He’s a senior partner in the Toronto office of the Boston Consulting Group, the Chair of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, and co-founder of the city’s remarkably ambitious Luminato festival. He’s the man Toronto Life calls the “Shadow Mayor“, one of the most committed voices in the civic arena – and one with a fairly intense Bay Street day job. Though Pecaut still manages to fly under some people’s radar where we live, that’s soon to change. He’s kind of a big deal.

So, how did he get started?

Glad you asked.

Pecaut grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, a city of about 90,000 on the Missouri River.

“My great-great grandfather was the third person of European descent to settle in Nebraska,” Pecaut told us. “He was a Swiss-French fur trader and whose raft got stuck bringing furs down the Missouri river in the 1840’s. He had to winter over and he met a Frenchmen who milked cows and they hit it off. When the thaw cleared, he said to his buddies, “I’m staying here.” So I have these incredibly deep roots in the community, which go back about 100 years from when I was born.”

These deep roots endowed the Pecaut family with a deep sense of civic responsibility in a tight knit mid-western town where virtually everyone was active in one way or another. As a kid, Pecaut was the chair of the city’s “youth commission,” which held concerts and initiated a study into juvenile delinquency. You get the idea. He was a bit of a keener.

Though his father owned his own business, Pecaut didn’t see that many opportunities in Sioux City, so he set his sights on one of the two coasts. He knew he had a natural entrepreneurial streak. But beyond that, he held no clear ideas of where precisely he would go. He just knew he wanted to get as wide a perspective of existence as possible. He wanted the great Liberal Arts education.

He got into Harvard and the world opened up. As a kid who had only really traveled around the mid-west with his debating team, Pecaut was eager to soak up other people’s experiences. Even though he sensed he wanted to go into business eventually, he ultimately stopped attending his economics classes. Instead, he gravitated to the sociology department. Pecaut loved it because the teacher to student ratio was so low (he claims it was virtually 1:1) and because “classes all felt like graduate chat rooms”.

“I’m probably the only person in the Boston Consulting Group who never took a business or economics course in university,” he says.

“I’ve always done things in an unconventional way. Ultimately, people are more interested in you if you do that. It actually gives you power… For a while, it is risky, but pursuing an unconventional tack, but it ultimately makes you more confident and impressive.”

Because he wanted to do an honours degree, Pecaut needed to write a thesis. For a few years, he had taken a keen interest in the community in East Boston. When they had begun desegregating schools years before, a judge ruled that every institution needed a certain proportion of black and white students. That meant lots of busing, as the poor Italian population had to be bused into black ghettoes and vice versa. The communities rose up against the ruling. It did the same thing when Logan airport was talking about expanding its runways into their backyard. This interested Pecaut, because his textbooks told him that they wouldn’t. Poor people weren’t supposed to be able to organize in a sophisticated and effective way.

Pecaut decided to move into the community and study it for an entire summer. He applied to the National Science Foundation, got himself a grant, and hired five friends to live in East Boston and help him survey the community. What they discovered has helped shape his thinking ever since.

“We learned a lot about how networks works,” Pecaut explains. “‘Strong ties’ are the people you know well. ‘Weak ties’ are the people you meet at the market or at your place of employment – and it’s through weak ties that political organizations thrive. The job market works the same way.”

When the research was done, the team decided that they would write a joint thesis. Problem: Harvard wasn’t into it. They begged, pleaded, and explained their case, but the school would only budge in a way that ultimately meant Pecaut and his friends had to write two theses each. The experienced turned him off of academia, but didn’t lessen his love of learning.

After working on a jazz show for the campus radio station, Pecaut wanted to pursue a master’s in the philosophy of music. He received a fellowship and entrance into an interdisciplinary program at the University of Sussex. But he was nervous about remaining in academia. He decided to take a year off and try something new. After barreling down the west coast of the states with his buddies, he returned to Sioux City.

“I had three ideas that I thought would be fun,” Pecaut recalls, “being a cross-country truck driver, running an all-jazz radio station, and just working closely with the CEO of a company. It turns out that you actually need a lot of education to be a truck driver -it’s a 12 week course and you have to pass a lot of tests. The local radio station was interested in my ideas but really couldn’t devote much time to me – I ended up doing it for free in my spare time because it was only like 8 hours a week.

Meanwhile, there were only 3 or 4 big companies around, and most of the CEO’s just didn’t understand what I was talking about. I wanted to work with them in a creative capacity on special programs. Luckily, one guy thought it was a great idea and created a special position for me at his chemical fertilizer company: I was the special projects administrator. I remember I arrived the first day and he said, “I just realized we haven’t talked about salary yet, how about $1000 a month?” I really didn’t care about the money; I just wanted the experience so that was fine with me, but later he told me what a steal that was and that he felt so bad about it.”

As a “special projects administrator,” Pecaut was a designated problem solver. The company gave him a problem and he tried to solve it. As part of his job, Pecaut even got to go to Washington and work with then-senator Bob Dole on a class action suit about fertilizer dumping.

“When I got back the boss called me in and I said, “Aren’t you happy with the work I did?” Of course he was, but what he wanted to talk to me about was my expense account. He showed me a bill from McDonalds for 8 bucks – he told me it was hilarious that I had gone to Washington on business and not spent any money. I had stayed at a friend’s house. He was like, “you can eat a proper meal at a restaurant. You can stay in a hotel.” It was really funny.”

The best part about the job was that it enabled Pecaut to discover management consulting. One day, in the bathroom, he struck up a conversation with a consultant who his boss had brought in. Pecaut couldn’t understand how the man could have no experience with chemical engineering.

“He said the last thing they had worked on were colour tvs,” Pecaut exclaims. “I couldn’t believe it. This guy got to learns something completely new from scratch and then do it all again. Your job was always fresh.”

Pecaut went off to Sussex at the end of the year to do his masters in the philosophy of music, but returned determined to launch himself in business in Boston or New York. But then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. All plans were de-railed. He immediately went to be at her bedside in Wisconsin. For five months, he sat itching to get into the game. Pecaut even started up a small consultancy there, working with three small companies and a political campaign.

While at the University of Sussex, Pecaut had met a woman from Toronto. Things had got serious and, ultimately, it came down to an issue of geography. If the relationship was to work, Pecaut needed to be in Toronto. So, after leaving home, he came to Canada rather than New York. He arrived with no contacts, no papers, no education in economics, but determined to crack the local consulting industry.

All he could do was shop himself around.

“It occurred to me that I had never really interviewed for a job before,” Pecaut admits. “I thought it might be good to practice a little bit. So I started with this smaller firm and the interview was going really well until he asked me what I thought about this guy’s economic theory. I had to tell him that I had never heard of the guy. He was surprised because the guy was from Harvard too and his theory was really important.

When he left the office to take a phone call, I wrote down all the names from the books on his shelf, and when I found out that he was going to have me back for a second interview, I went to the U of T library and read the books that he had been talking about. I totally blew them away when I was able to talk about the stuff I had already done in the context of these new theories I had just learned, especially because they knew I just picked them up overnight. They offered me a spot right then and there, but they were really nice and suggested a couple of other places I should talk to.”

Pecaut wanted to work at McKinsey, because they were a big firm and he had worked with them on the fertilizer suit in Washington years before. But, when he met with them, the firm made it clear that he was an inexperienced rookie. They wouldn’t let him run his own projects. When Canada Consulting did the opposite, and let Pecaut keep his existing clients, he knew he had found a home.

“It was great for me to come here because of a girl and find out that I really belonged here,” Pecaut explains. “Coming to Toronto seemed crazy at the time. My Dad was really negative about my decision to come here instead of going to New York or Boston. Toronto was the big city I never heard of – when I first came I thought I was coming to Cleveland but I soon discovered it was not anything like that at all.”

We’ve always believed there’s a huge gap between what criteria people use to hire us and the skills actually required to do the jobs we do. Malcolm Gladwell agrees. And he’s very smart (the size of his hair tells us so). Listen to this lecture he gave at the recent New Yorker Conference. The case he makes here isn’t as steel trap tight as is typical, but it still provides much food for though. We imagine he goes far deeper into the issue in his forthcoming book Outliers, due in November, 2008.

Here are some other interesting pieces from Gladwell on similar topics over the years.