See More… in Maclean’s

August 15, 2008

We’re not exactly featured in Maclean’s magazine, but we have started writing a blog for their website… So, if you’re missing your daily fix of Kickstart and find these pages a little bare, please visit:

We don’t like to do this, but, well, we’re just going to do it anyway.

Today, a little film called Amalopens in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Amal is the debut feature of Mississauga-born director Richie Mehta, a prodigious talent who worked from his brother’s short story. Yes, we know Richie. And yes, Paul has worked with the editor of Amal, Stuart McIntyre. But that ultimately means nothing.

You remember that scene in The Grinch Stole Christmas when the Grinche’s hear grew three sizes and burst its frame? Amal is the kind of movie where that happens. It’s about goodness. When was the last time you could say that about something you were going to see in a theatre?

The story: An autorickshaw driver named Amal (Rupinder Nagra) works his butt off on the streets of Delhi among the hucksters and crooks. But he’s a good man. He doesn’t rip people off. He lives by a strict moral code. One day a curmudgeonly millionaire is so overwhelmed by his goodness that he goes home and changes his will, making Amal his primary beneficiary. As you can imagine, this pisses off the man’s children. Further, Amal has no idea, going about his life, trying to help out a beggar girl.

There. That’s the set-up. You want more? Read Jason Anderson’s three-star review in today’s Globe and Mail. Or just go see it yourself.

As we say, it’s a little film, made on the fly, when Richie and his skeleton crew went to Delhi and had to navigate its chaotic streets. Richie and his producers had to fight for this one – it’s a testament to their endurance and the power of Amal‘s fable-like story.

Here’s the trailer

Canadian films that don’t find an audience in their opening weekend vanish. That’s a fact. A sad one, but a fact. You’re not going to be able to see this film on a big screen unless enough people go out and see it in now.

So why not? You’ve seen the Dark Knight twice. It’s gonna be a rainy weekend. Why not take a flight to India without paying the hefty fare and fretting about your carbon footprint.

Because we love anything that allows us to experience some shred of what the country’s business, scientific, cultural, and political leaders were like back in the day, you can imagine my glee when I discovered this amazing clip of vintage David Suzuki from 1972. Suzuki was too busy to participate in our book, but this clip, originally airing on the CBC, gives a very clear idea of who he was back in his early days as a popular zoology prof at UBC. Not only is his fruitfly/maggot analogy hilarious, but his reflection on the year he left scientific study to wrestle with the ethics of the discipline is remarkably interesting.

Best of all though is the image of a blissed out Suzuki reclining in his office hammock. I gotta get me one a those.

The CBC Digital Archives allow you to map Suzuki’s career through his TV appearances – an interesting vantage point on the professional development of the man leading the charge for a greener Canada.

Monday’s Globe and Mail ran a story that officially confirmed something that we and most young people have known for ages: fewer and fewer of us are finishing off at the academic institution where we first enroll, graduating before the five year mark, or avoiding time off from school to get some thinking done.

Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Project has been tracking a group of young canadians since 2000 (the year the three of us entered university). That research has been brought together in a paper by StatsCan’s Theresa Qiu and University of Ottawa economist Ross Finnie which will be officially released later in the month.

It’s findings:

– Roughly one quarter of college students take time off, take more than five years to graduate, or change their minds about their school or area of study.

– About 10% leave school without graduating.

– 2.8% are moving from university to college (not shocking at all – in fact, we assumed this might be higher)

– 1.4% do the opposite and switch from college to university.

Before anyone starts freaking out and pointing at today’s commitment-phobic, chronically ADD “Twixters” who have been spoiled to the point that they’ll never know what they want, let’s slow down a second.

Young people have always been restless. That’s what they do. And though their parents weren’t necessarily as prone to bounce and stop and ponder and bounce again, there’s a good reason why. Not to sound whiny, but we’ve grown up watching our parents and friend’s parents divorce, suffer mid-life breakdowns, and look back on past mistakes with great regret. As we approach an uncertain future, the way of life that so many have taken for granted for so long suddenly seems in dire need of an overhaul (remember that boomers?), but few have put forward viable new paradigms for living in the 21st century.

Furthermore, the education system we’ve emerged from subscribes to an antiquated 19th model that has refused to adapt to the rate and nature of societal change. One of the most pressing but least discussed issues facing Canadian society today is how to adapt our education system to new ways of working and living. We need to abandon the industrial model and develop something more participatory that encourages free-thinking and innovation. This new model must help the students passing through it test their interests and desires against the realities of the world into which they’ll soon be living.

The Bachelors degree has become today’s high school. That needs to be reversed.

And yes, of course, the phenomenon noted in the research has to do with the students themselves as well. We are a bit coddled (in general). We are hyper-programmed, to the point where few high school students Paul has taught are really capable of discussing what it is that theylike or think.

Further, our consumer society has had a huge spill-over effect on the educational sphere, making it yet another mall, where we can shop for a future. “Do I like environmental science? Hmm. I’ll try it on. Do I look fat in this? Maybe. Yeah, I think my butt looked better in business.”

In the end though, all this shopping isn’t such a bad thing. As we discovered while putting together Kickstart, some of the most successful people in the country did their share of shopping too.

Margot Franssen, the head of Accessorize Canada and former head of Body Shop Canada, tried out business at university, got bored, switched to philosophy, graduated with a “worthless” degree, and still managed to set up a hugely successful company.

Syndicated cartoonist Lynn Johnston, designer Bruce Mau, and artist Christopher Pratt all dropped out of art school or switched schools.

Jim Pattison left university to sell cars. His boss let him finish up his courses at night, but that meant he took longer than necessary.

Edward Burtynsky took a year off from Ryerson in order to get work experience and earn extra money.

Shopping around and taking time to think about what you want and need from a career is not a bad thing, provided that your shopping is active rather than idle.

Dignitas International’s James Orbinski bounced around quite a bit as a young man. Her left CEGEP twice, took time to figure out his university major, thought he might want to be a psychologist, and then changed his mind. Throughout, though, he says he was “searching with intent,” actively looking for what sparked his particular passion.

In tough economic times, there is no doubt more pressure on young people to pick a career path and power through post-secondary education. Fair enough. It costs a lot of money to hang around into your fifth or sixth year of a university program or take time off to clear your head.

That said, parents, educators, and politicians should be aware that, for many, the search is essential. If they’re not able to engage in it in high school, then they’ll need to do it at university. And if not there, then at some time thereafter.

If we’re going to freak out. Let’s at least freak out in the right direction – a constructive one.

An intriguing little piece from Marcus Gee in today’s Globe about natural gas engine-maker Westport Innovations Inc., one of the few Canadian companies to take advantage of the huge money to be made helping China green itself before the Olympics.

Westport and its US-based partner, Cummins Inc., have equipped 3,500 Beijing buses with natural gas engines, as the Chinese government scrambles to clean its air before the international media descends in August.

But where are the other Canadian companies? It turns out the Australians and Europeans are doing boffo business, while Canadian producers of green technology are sitting on the sidelines. Seems odd, no? We’re an international leader in clean coal technologies, among other things green and innovative, right?

According to David Fung, Chariman of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, it’s partly because we’re being so gosh darn ‘Canadian’ about it (my words, not his).

Of Canada’s predominantly small, independent environment technology companies, Fung says “They have the technology and the capabilities, but they refuse to set themselves up in a way that would allow them to succeed.”

Westport’s David Demers agrees, saying “a lot of Canadian companies go with a naive view that they’ll go over and spend a couple of days in a hotel in Beijing and get a big purchase order and then they’ll send a container of the stuff,” he says. “It takes a lot more sophisticated approach than that.”

The key, according to both men, is commitment and perseverance. Doing business in China requires time: months, maybe more, before serious agreements can be made.

It’s time, Gee argues, that we start pushing and stop waiting our turn.

Canada Day Musings

July 1, 2008

There’s nothing worse than the idle, self-indulgent musings of a over-caffeinated procrastinator, but it’s Canada Day and I (Paul) am stuck in Toronto, trying (unsuccessfully) to work in a Queen St. coffee shop, and I can’t help but wonder why the heck I’m not at a cottage, or at least by the water, with friends, engaging in the most ‘Canadian’ of pass-times (if you believe that Molson pitchman at least): drinking and lighting things on fire.

An odd thing, after the wave of multi-nationalistic furor that enveloped this city during the European Cup, to step outside my door and see no flag-waving drunks chanting wildly about the ‘True North Strong and Free’. Odd to think that, despite all of the thinking the three of us have done about “Canada’ and “Canadianness” of late, that this day leaves me feeling little more than an almost torpid calm.

It doesn’t make me think about how few Canadians know their own history any more. Or how too many of us off-handedly dismiss our nation’s potential. Or engage with our own politics. No, those thoughts tend to percolate the ole brain on other days, but not today.

Today, I just want to escape this coffee shop, unshackle myself from this laptop, throw off all thoughts about what needs to be done tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.

Yes, I need to escape this place. What on earth am I doing?

I’m off.

Happy Canada Day everyone.

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.”

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.

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.”