VMS of Alberta
University of Alberta
“High-quality mentorship is a critical feature of a strong and collaborative innovation community, and the VMSA is proving itself as a much-needed and valuable program. I am thrilled to celebrate Chris as a colleague and partner in our efforts to accelerate our innovation ecosystem. Moreover, I look forward to what we will continue to do together to diversify our economy, create new businesses and jobs, and grow prosperity for all Calgarians.”
—Dr. Terry Rock, President and CEO, Platform Calgary
“When the pandemic hit, we were one of the businesses that was closed down for months. Trying to balance bills and the wellbeing of employees all while uncertain if your business would survive was an impossible task. Lazina and the VMS community rallied to support everyone with resources, video chats, Q&As.
One of the biggest impacts was a custom online series on leading through times of crisis. Lazina saw the need for something more to support the members of VMS, and worked quickly to put this together. It was immensely helpful for me as a business owner.
Lazina has also been an amazing friend to me through all of this, reaching out to check in on me and offering to help in any way. I am so glad to have her as part of my circle.”
— Brittany Anderson, cofounder, Laser City Laser Tag
& ThresholdImpact VMS board member
Trustworthy, credible, flexible and constructive are just a few words to describe Lazina Mckenzie and Chris Doble. Each currently acting as the program manager for their respective VMSs (Lazina with ThresholdImpact VMS in Edmonton and Chris with VMSA in Calgary), the pair used to roll as a team back in their Edmonton days, with Chris riding shotgun as senior lead while Lazina managed the program. Each is noted for their dedication and commitment to the power of mentorship to build leadership capacity in venture. Known for “living the brand” through their ethics, integrity and commitment to nurturing excellence within their respective entrepreneurial communities, Lazina and Chris set a high bar for mastery of the practices of leadership. Their ability to build strong and fruitful relationships with both the Mentors and the entrepreneurs within their ecosystems invites others along on the path of discipline, practice and growth—creating a loop of continuous improvement that drives the ongoing success of each Venture Mentoring Service. Committed to inspiring, organizing, enriching and developing the communities they serve, Lazina and Chris exemplify the MacGregor Cup ethos of ‘making one’s finest contribution from one’s finest self’.
Established in 2013 with the University of Alberta (Alumni & Advancement) as its primary sponsor, ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service helps entrepreneurs establish meaningful, deep connections with Mentors who want to give back and volunteer their time to help the next generation of entrepreneurship coming out of the University of Alberta ecosystem. A licensed program based on the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Venture Mentoring Service, the ThresholdImpact VMS is one of the most highly regarded among the many MIT-affiliated VMS programs worldwide.
The “Why” Behind It
Having been an entrepreneur himself, Founding Chair Ray Muzyka (MD and cofounder of BioWare) experienced a paucity of mentorship as he was developing his own technology company. In his startup days, Ray and his cofounder had to travel to Silicon Valley, England and Vancouver to find peers in his industry that he could learn from. He didn’t want other entrepreneurs to experience the same challenges in finding Mentors locally, so he decided to give back to his alma mater by advancing the next generation of entrepreneurs at the University of Alberta. Today, entrepreneurs from the U of A ecosystem (alumni, students, faculty or staff) benefit from coaching, advising and the sharing of experiences to help them navigate the challenges of their entrepreneurial journey.
How ThresholdImpact VMS Came To Be
Ray stopped in at (former) U of A President Indira Samarasekera’s office one afternoon in 2013 and announced he wanted to volunteer more with University of Alberta. From that conversation, Ray found his way to (former) VP of Advancement O’Neil Outar, who had previously held an advancement role at MIT. Outar wondered if maybe an entrepreneurial mentorship program might be a good fit, and the two built a small team to explore the idea. They travelled to MIT for training, then established a program in Edmonton modelled on the same core principles, with a similarly tight focus on the satisfaction of both entrepreneurs and Mentors in the program.
Ray and the current ThresholdImpact VMS Board Chair Kristina Milke (and early Mentor in VMS) acknowledge the VMS’s first manager, Ashlyn Bernier, for fledging the program, and second manager Arden Tse for continuing to build the offering into the powerful mentorship program that our 2021 MacGregor Cup recipient, Lazina McKenzie, leads today.
How The U of A ThresholdImpact VMS Works
With its key success metric being the development of the entrepreneur versus solely the development of any given company, the VMS focuses on the growth of leaders. The rationale here is that even if a given leader’s current venture doesn’t succeed, hopefully they’ll succeed in future endeavours and continue to grow, contribute to the world, and continue to build the VMS ecosystem.
A generous, genuine and humble community that holds respect and care of peers as its foundation, the U of A ThresholdImpact VMS has grown from about 10 companies in the beginning to now having had 90 companies pass through, of which 43 are currently in the program.
Mentor satisfaction is important, too, and forms a secondary metric for success. With an initial pool of about 20 Mentors, the ThresholdImpact VMS now rolls with about 115, and continues to seek growth. Mentors can come from outside the university ecosystem but must be referred into the program by an existing Mentor (with rare exceptions). About 80% of VMS Mentors are alumni of the U of A.
Intake is quite rigorous on both sides, with the goal of maintaining quality and entrepreneur / Mentor satisfaction even as the program scales. The founders/entrepreneurs must prove coachable, and must “win” the interest of a Mentor or series of Mentors at a pitch rally. The Mentor interview process is similarly rigorous.
This Is One Of The World’s Most Highly Regarded VMS Groups
The VMS in Edmonton is regarded as “best in class” — the gold standard for mentorship. A recent ecosystem survey released by Innovate Edmonton (previously Tech Edmonton) singled out the U of A ThresholdImpact VMS as the highest-regarded program in Edmonton in terms of entrepreneurial support.
Adding punch to the punch, MIT concludes that ThresholdImpact VMS is one of the closest in terms of execution, structures, systems and processes to what they do at MIT. High praise, as MIT has been at it for over 20 years, with hundreds of Mentors and hundreds of teams in their program, plus licensees across the world in many different countries. “It’s a great honour to be part of this ecosystem,” says Muzyka, “and to be able to build on the learnings and the foundations that they have learned over the decades that they’ve been operation.”
About Ray Muzyka
Ray is a founding chair of the University of Alberta ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service. Ray and his wife Leona De Boer’s substantial donation to the program has been key in enabling the program to scale. In his day-to-day work, Ray acts as a VMS Mentor and an angel investor focused on impact and social enterprise in health and medical technology companies at www.thresholdimpact.com. He’s also interested in funding broader social enterprise, including energy, climate change mitigation, agtech and edtech. He also commits time as a Mentor for entrepreneurs building massive things in the Creative Destruction Labs, at multiple CDL locations. Adding to his existing recognitions, in 2018 Ray was inducted into the Order of Canada.
About Kristina Milke
Kristina is the chair of the board at U of A ThresholdImpact VMS. She has worked with the VMS since its inception, volunteering as a Mentor and helping to establish committees. Kristina coaches and serves as a Mentor in the ThresholdImpact VMS ecosystem, and was recently named Mentor of the Year by the Edmonton Startup Community Awards. In addition, she was recently named a 2021 Service Award recipient by the University of Alberta Alumni Association. Kristina is a partner in Sprout Fund, which invests in seed-stage and pre-seed-stage SAAS companies in the B2B space.
Established in 2015 in partnership with Platform Calgary, and funded by Alberta Innovates (through Calgary Innovation Coalition and Platform Calgary), the Venture Mentoring Service of Alberta seeks to “build better entrepreneurs who build better companies”. Similar to the University of Alberta ThresholdImpact VMS, the focus at VMSA is on the entrepreneur rather than the business. Mentors support individual entrepreneurs through a coaching approach, posing insightful questions that challenge, inspire and liberate the entrepreneur. VMSA is an MIT-licensed program and as such, joins the worldwide network of Venture Mentoring Services.
How VMSA Came To Be
The Venture Mentoring Service of Alberta started off as a test of sorts, to see whether the MIT program would be something suitable for the Calgary area. As part of the early investigation into the program’s viability, three stakeholders—the City of Calgary, the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the University of Calgary—arranged for a team to go down to Boston to investigate MIT’s program. The team returned with all thumbs up, and the work began to create a Venture Mentoring Service in Calgary.
In the early stages, eight people, including current program director Pierre Doyon, were invited to test the concept and determine whether the program would be suitable to the needs of the Calgary region.
How VMSA Works
Currently with 35 mentees and 47 Mentors, the VMSA has more than doubled its numbers since Chris Dobletook over as program manager from Sarah Morrill, who helped in building the foundation and framework that led to the growth of the program in Calgary. With high standards for the conduct and contributions of participants on both sides, Chris is eager to grow the program but is careful to ensure excellent quality control.
A key difference between the VMSA in Calgary and its sister program in Edmonton (University of Alberta ThresholdImpact VMS) is that the Calgary program is institutionally agnostic. Mentors and mentees alike can originate from outside the university ecosystem. Often candidates are referred from other incubators and accelerators, or by Mentors who have a personal connection to an individual who might benefit from taking part in the program.
VMSA also is not sector-specific, embracing people from the food sector to tech.
About Pierre Doyon
Pierre has been associated with Venture Mentoring Service of Alberta for over seven years now, since the program’s inception. He started off as a Mentor-at-large, working with several ventures, but around 2016, when the VMSA’s then-leader departed the program, the Mentors who were enrolled at the time asked Pierre to take over as program director.
Formerly the owner of a marketing and communication firm in the agribusiness sector, Pierre also shares his expertise with Alberta Yield and other startup ventures, as well as initiatives in the emissions-reduction space. He considers it an honour to serve as “first among equals” as the VMSA program director.
In establishing the University of Alberta ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service, Ray Muzyka knew he wanted to be able to give back to the program’s Mentors by advancing the quality of the mentorship that they provide. “We were looking for best-in-class coaching resources,” he says.
After attending The Leader’s Discipline™ at the suggestion of the program’s first manager, Ashlyn Bernier, Ray knew he’d found the perfect fit to deepen the philosophical frameworks of the ThresholdImpact VMS. His team brought Roy Group on board to help develop VMS Mentors—a relationship that continues to grow and flourish to this day.
For many Mentors in the program, the Roy Group sessions are their first exposure to coaching. “It really sets the bar for consistency with the Mentors,” says VMS Advisory Board Chair Kristina Milke. “It’s a good true North for us. When we’re in the middle of a Mentor session and we’re struggling with something, it helps give us some grounding on how to approach a scenario, and how to get the best and give the best that we can to the founder that we’re working with.”
Ray agrees, noting that common frameworks and shared language are key to a team of Mentors working together to impact entrepreneurs through instruction, advice and coaching. “An analogy that sometimes expresses [the efficacy] for me is that it gives me another gear,” he says. “As you drive around as a Mentor, you’re very used to giving advice. We’re all very good at that; we’re used to giving experiences. But for me, it was a new shift to learn how to ask thoughtful questions and not always have the first move be to give advice, or immediately leap to share experiences.”
Similarly, Roy Group methodologies form a significant part of the Mentor training in the Venture Mentoring Service of Alberta. In fact, Pierre Doyon and his team extend the invitation to attend Roy Group sessions beyond just members of the VMSA, calling in people from different incubators and services across the southern Alberta community who also support entrepreneurs. “One of our objectives is to demystify the word Mentor and to make sure that more people know it,” he says. It is useful for Mentors and leaders regardless of sector or role. “If you want to become a good leader,” Pierre says, “you need to understand what it is, what it takes to build leadership capacity.”