Hal Niedzviecki, author, culture commentator and editor of brokenpencil.com and Broken Pencil magazine – which review alternative publications, books, CDs, tapes and vinyl published in Canada – just turned 30. A guru of all things cool to youth, he is still suffering mild shock from losing his 20-something social identity.
Niedzviecki worked as a review editor at The Varsity and as an arts editor at University College’s student paper, The Gargoyle. Since graduating with a BA in English and philosophy in “either ’95 or ’96, does it really matter?” he has published three books: Smell It, a collection of short stories; Lurvy: A Farmer’s Almanac, a fictional reinvention of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; and a non-fiction work called We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture. This year brings a new novel, Ditch, which he describes as a “cyber-mystery, murder thriller and poignant coming-of-age story. It’s the search for identity and for events that can be said to be true…I’m interested in how mass culture affects us, and mass culture is computer and high-tech culture.”
Now, Niedzviecki romanticizes the time he spent at U of T reading Jean-Paul Sartre and studying literature, but notes that at the time the value of the work seemed very abstract. “It didn’t seem very important, but, of course, later, it all coalesces into a body of knowledge on which to draw,” he says.
1992 was a bad year to graduate, especially for a young industrial engineer with little work experience. The big firms like IBM and Nortel weren’t hiring, and Eva Lau knew it. Despite her family’s concerns about her getting trapped in a small shop, Lau took a job at a company called Delrina – best known for providing PCs everywhere with the “flying toaster” screen saver – which she found through U of T’s Career Centre. “It turned out to be an amazing opportunity,” she says. “There were only about 60 people in all and I learned many different roles.” She was promoted to quality assurance manager within three years. By 1997 she was working as the senior program manager for ATI Technologies Inc., a leader in 3-D video graphics technology, whose products range from graphics chips to video cards.
Lau, now 31, kept in touch with the Delrina founders and when one of them – Tony Davis – told her he was starting a company to nurture fledgling software development companies, her interest was piqued. She joined the Toronto-based incubation firm called Brightspark in 1999. “I work with multiple start-up companies. It’s extremely exciting, because I get to play different roles in each company,” she says. “In one, I’m the program manager, in another I’m the director of product development. I like turning an idea into a product.…We don’t build dot-coms, but rather enterprise software that uses the Internet structure.” Several start-up companies – including Borderfree, Careclinix and Infotriever – have moved out of the Brightspark offices to become independent, although Brightspark employees continue in the capacity of expert advisers. Borderfree, an online shopping site, was the first to leave, and Lau says it’s doing well.
“I have the luxury of having a ringside seat at a revolution,” says Elliot Noss, 38, president and CEO of Tucows, a distributor of e-business services and applications on the Internet. “We’re right in the midst of all the exciting things that are happening.”
Noss graduated from U of T at Scarborough with a BA in commerce and economics in 1984, picked up a combined MBA and law degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1988 and articled at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Toronto before starting his own law practice. “U of T is a great place to learn economics, commerce and accounting, and the profs stacked up against any I would meet later on,” he says. “The level was deeper than anything I did in my graduate studies.”
In 1994 Noss left law to start a small technology business providing off-site data backup. The business didn’t fly, so he took a job at a local Internet Service Provider (ISP), then moved to an ISP that owned Tucows. In 1997 Tucows employed just four people, but it now has more than 250 employees and a network of more than 5,000 Managed Service Providers (ISPs, Web hosting companies, Domain Name Resellers). “I believe we have the opportunity to truly be a first-tier, billion-dollar company,” says Noss. “I’m certainly staying around for the foreseeable future.”
Twenty-six-year-old Tara Ariano is caustic and opinionated, which is probably why she’s a hit as a Web site pop-culture critic. Since graduating in 1997 with a master’s degree in English, Ariano has helped start three sites that rant and rave about the banality of urban culture, badly written teen television shows and the cult of celebrity. Her first site, Hissyfit, won Web awards from Yahoo! and Netscape, and attracted enough paid advertising to help start Fametracker and Mighty Big TV. Her stream-of-consciousness rants read more like diary entries than journalism. What’s bugging her these days? Judging by recent Hissyfit columns, airport employees with bad attitudes, people who smell strongly of body odour, local 10-digit dialing and excruciatingly slow Internet dial-up service.
Now a full-time writer and editor in Toronto, Ariano says she always felt she was destined for the liberal arts, but knew little about the Internet until she got a job working as a copywriter for a Web development firm shortly after graduation. Her straightforward, malcontent disposition is well-suited to social commentary. “I was a terrible student at U of T. I was very lazy and did only the bare minimum all of the time,” says Ariano. “Despite that, U of T allowed me to hone the writing and critical thinking skills that I started as an undergrad at Brock University. I’m very much in support of people taking humanities degrees.” But it’s a tough market for content providers, and given that she regularly puts in 10-hour days, Ariano knows her slacker days are over.
Bobby John, 28, didn’t need to finish his degree in computer engineering in 1997 to land himself a job, but his mother wouldn’t let him drop out. By the time he reached his final year, his Internet business (then called Caught in the Web), which helps companies establish their online presence, was almost two years old and flourishing. Five years later, the company he co-founded is now called Personus, and he plans on taking it public this year. “I was so stretched that last year of school,” says John. “I remember riding the TTC back and forth between Richmond Street and University Avenue between classes, taking sales calls and managing projects. But I wouldn’t trade that year for anything, because after that, just running the business seemed easy.”
John started Caught in the Web with an $800 credit-card limit and no marketing experience. Last April Personus secured $9 million in financing and landed the former president of Apple Canada, Pete Jones, as its president and CEO. Its clients include Microsoft Canada, TD Bank and Kellogg’s. Not bad for a kid who says he learned most of his leadership skills by heading a teen church group for five years. “My secret to business is to treat employees like paid volunteers,” he says. “Build a company where everyone loves what they’re doing and they’ll be passionate about it. Investors will see the fire in their eyes.”
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre