Artwork by Anna Zhang

Meredith Powell graduated from UBC with a Bachelor of Arts in 1999. An award-winning serial entrepreneur, her impact on Canada’s innovation ecosystem is remarkable. Among many ventures, she founded Powell & Company, an international business and brand management firm serving fashion, CPG and lifestyle companies. Her strategic retail partners included Nordstrom, H&M, Amazon, Urban Outfitters Group, Vice and Vogue. Shortly thereafter, she built eComm marketplace which became the largest online marketplace of its kind (acquired in 2014 by UBM).

In 2013, she co-founded The Next Big Thing - an accelerator empowering Gen Z entrepreneurs. It has supported companies like SmartSweets, Blume, and Spocket, and is known today as the League of Innovators.

Meredith went on to become the Chief Marketing Officer for Microsoft for Startups, a global group dedicated to helping B2B startups successfully scale by leveraging the power of one of the largest tech titans in the world. Today, she serves as a Board Director at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and a Venture Partner at Voyager Capital, a venture capital fund with $520M under management and investing in the Pacific Northwest’s most innovative early stage tech founders.

Meredith is YWCA’s recipient for “Entrepreneurship & Innovation”, Startup Canada’s national award winner for promoting entrepreneurship, a Business in Vancouver Top 40 under 40, BC Business Magazine “Top 35 Most Influential Women in Business”, and one of The Boardlist’s Top Canadian Women in Tech.

We'd love to learn more about your career path, specifically: upon graduating from UBC, how did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always know you wanted to work in tech? What inspired you to build your businesses? 

I knew I wanted to do something creative and fast-paced, something where I could have a voice, flex curiosity muscles, and work collaboratively with inspired people. My Bachelor of Arts was in English Literature and Film Studies—topics I loved. I met incredible friends and memorable teachers throughout my university years.

Entrepreneurship itself wasn’t an area of study at UBC during my time there, nor was applied tech or learning about venture capital. Programs like e@UBC (Entrepreneurship at UBC) didn’t yet exist. What I did have was a family of innovators and inventors with a history of pioneering, and parents and loved ones who supported my goals. It wasn’t unusual for us to talk about company building over dinner or to learn about, say, my uncle’s latest patents.

I was fortunate to land a job directly after graduating as Director’s Assistant to a well-known feature film director. He was in Vancouver shooting a star-studded movie and next thing I knew, I was working 14 hour days in a production office preparing for the shoot. On day one, I was asked to fill out excel sheets, send emails, log into networks… none of which I’d done before!

Immediately, I signed up for an adult education diploma program in Web Design to learn all things digital. I spent late nights and weekends learning about design and databases. I learned to code and to create websites from scratch, met cool hackers who gave me bootlegged copies of Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop so I could practice outside of the class labs. This grounding in tech and UI/UX was the single most impactful move I made in my career. It supplemented my Liberal Arts education. It propelled me forward and gave me skills no one else on job sites had at the time. This combination of skills eventually helped me launch and grow my own companies and brands. 

Truthfully, I never dreamed of working in the startup world, nor do I now. I wasn’t the student who loved sciences, gaming, or tech. I do, however, see technology as a support foundation for realizing your dreams. If you want to be a filmmaker then shooting, editing, distribution, animation/CG, and marketing is all enabled via hardware and software. Can’t wait to start an apparel brand? Open your own eComm store, market on Instagram and TikTok, use dropshipping automation where valuable, and run a crowdfunding campaign to help support early production run costs.

Our world is ever-changing and tech is powering the majority of that innovation. If you had told me back when I was a UBC student that I would work in feature films, launch my own companies in the fashion industry, travel the world and show under the tent at New York Fashion Week, mentor thousands of early stage entrepreneurs, help lead Microsoft’s $500M Global Startups program or act as a Venture Partner with an institutional tech venture capital fund… and that my passion for cutting edge innovation would help me in each of these roles… well, I’m sure you could have knocked me over with a feather.

How has COVID-19 impacted the venture capital landscape?

For many of us in Venture Capital (VC), new investments and deal flow in general went quiet the first few months of COVID-19. Everyone was grappling with a new reality and figuring out the best next steps. Our team dug in with portfolio companies to help them weather the pandemic. We put some additional funding into companies who needed it.

Being unable to attend live events, the lack of “mix and mingle” opportunities— it’s changed how investors connect with founders, how we assess teams, or syndicate rounds. We run all our team meetings virtually—even our Annual General Meeting was fully virtual—and I really miss the in-person community aspect of the tech ecosystem. No amount of virtual webinars can substitute for lunch together or a fun group activity. VCs have learned we can still source and diligence new deals remotely, but my conversations across the industry tell me we’re all looking forward to having “in real life” time again once things open back up.

Today, new deal flow has largely picked back up and—in our case—my team recently has completed eight new investments. In fact, some sectors have experienced massive acceleration during the pandemic, for example eComm, EdTech, TeleHealth, Cloud Infrastructure and CyberSecurity. 

VC has, traditionally, been an industry with extreme imbalance between male and female representation. Studies show that—while everyone is facing unprecedented challenges—women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19 to the tune of 1 in 4 women potentially being forced to leave the workforce.

I’m not sure we can rightly judge the impact of the pandemic on equity in VC today, this may be something better evaluated over time. How many women may fall-out of hardwon roles in venture capital? What percentage of underestimated founders may have to either step away from their startup or perhaps not launch their own tech company to begin with and therefore never be available for funding? Time will tell. But I’m deeply concerned we are moving backward not forward in this area.

As a diversity advocate, do you think the recent increase in funding available to Black founders is short term, and why or why not? 

Black Lives Matter has been a powerful and much needed catalyst for the investment community to take equity and anti-racism seriously. Well beyond black founders, it’s raising big, challenging questions for VCs across all BIPOC entrepreneurs. 

I don’t believe this is—nor will I accept—a short term shift in accountability or awareness but rather a fire under the industry to make lasting change. Those who don’t evolve will die out over time. Equity is, I believe, the path to our best possible future.

The industry is seeing new funds pop up focused on seeding underestimated founders such as Harlem Capital, Backstage Capital, and Plexo Capital. Long standing funds are committing to Diversity Riders that can be inserted directly into term sheets. At Voyager, we not only make financial contributions in support of various organizations focused on BIPOC founders, but also commit to getting hands-on in terms of mentorship, serving on committees and the like. Recently two of us participated in Female Founders Alliance’s office hours—one of the groups we sponsor—for Black Founders and it was fantastic.

The world I’m fighting for has BIPOC and female representation in Board of Director seats, as Partner-level investors, and in C-Suite roles. We must celebrate the individuals who fill those roles and not award the organizations for simply sourcing top talent. It’s just smart business. 

True and lasting change will only come when positions of power are diversely held and opportunity is far more widely available than it is today.

What advice do you have for UBC students, especially women, who want to embark on an entrepreneurial journey?

There’s never been a better time than now to follow your dreams. 

If your dreams are to be a CEO, a founder, an innovator, or even a prime minister, well, I would encourage everyone—regardless of grades, ethnicity, different abilities, age, or gender identity— to be courageous and take the plunge. 

Enjoy the ride (even the hard days, because there will be really really hard days!), don’t forget to make time for fun, build your tribe, make mistakes, shoot your shot. 

I guarantee you, the world has your back.

And quickly you’ll find yourself surrounded by a community of passionate people like myself who are rooting you on.