While developing technical skills is important during a co-op work term, a Japanese software company, founded by University of Waterloo graduates, is looking to give their co-op students a different type of learning experience.
Through extra vacation days, visa arrangements, and reimbursed flights, Waterloo co-op students are given every opportunity to immerse themselves in Japanese culture during their time at Curvegrid Inc.
Curvegrid, established in Tokyo in 2017, looks to empower its student’s integration in the Japanese tech community.
“We want to give them some exposure to Japan, Japanese business culture, as well as time outside of work to really explore the country,” says Jeff Wentworth (BASc '06), co-founder of Curvegrid and University of Waterloo alumnus. “That’s a set of skills and experiences that we hope will take them through the rest of their co-op terms.”
As a result of providing exemplary international co-op experiences, Curvegrid is the first-ever winner of the Impact in International Excellence award as part of Waterloo Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) Employer Impact Awards.
“Curvegrid is exemplar of what UWaterloo stands for: innovation, entrepreneurship, and internationalizing great ideas,” says Bessma Momani, interim assistant vice-president for International Relations. “By employing our great co-op students, they are empowering the next generation of UWaterloo graduates to have the same determination and grit to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams.”
The company, founded by Waterloo alumni Wentworth and William Metcalfe, produces a product called Multi-Baas. This blockchain middleware makes it fast, easy and cost-effective to build on multiple blockchain platforms. They hope to revolutionize the way we think about money, information and relationships.
“One of the things that has been successful for us as a Japanese company is mixing the best of Japanese business culture and international and Western business culture,” says Wentworth.
The soft skills
Curvegrid promotes the development of soft skills like flexibility, resilience, initiative, humour, humility and genuine interest in living and working in Japan. They also provide support for co-op students by reimbursing daily transit, covering accommodation costs, helping open bank accounts, sharing how to buy groceries and SIM cards and encouraging extracurricular activities.
“We give (the students) six or 13 vacation days depending on whether they’re with us for four or eight months, and that’s about making sure they’ve got the time to explore Japan or maybe even other parts of Asia,” Wentworth says. “We've had some students that have certainly seen Japan but also traveled to Thailand,Taiwan or Korea while they've been here in Japan. We've had some of them use that time to have their friends or family come over and tour around with them as well.”
Meanwhile, the organization empowers co-op student integration with the Japanese tech community by sponsoring or participating in external events like the Decrypt Tokyo Hackathon, the AWS summit and a bon-odori outdoor festival.
An overseas work term provided Ishan Chho a chance to work in a place where he grew up while gaining valuable professional experience for the future.
Chho, a Computer Science student at Waterloo, spent 14 years of his life in Japan, and wanted a chance to go back to not only experience working for a startup company like Curvegrid, but also to experience the lifestyle and culture once again.
“You learn a lot at a work, and you get to have this awesome experience outside of work,” says Chho.
Nyugen Pham, fellow Computer Science student at Waterloo, was particularly happy about being able to learn a lot in a smaller start-up setting.
“It’s so cool to be part of such a lively start-up,” says Pham.
Curvegrid and Waterloo
Curvegrid believes that Waterloo co-op students play an integral role in its organization’s ability to stay globally connected because they bring a diversity of perspectives from their personal, academic, and past work experiences.
“They're bringing experience from their past co-op work terms, and so they're able to blend their academic experience with practical experience from different work environments,” Wentworth says. “We’re really learning from the best.”
The organization has been hiring Waterloo co-op students since 2018 from math, computer science and engineering. Their co-op students are both Canadian as well as international students attending Waterloo. A 2019 Waterloo graduate has also signed on at the organization in a full-time role.
“The work environment at Curvegrid is super unique because I think one obvious thing that sets it apart is that they’re in Tokyo, but most of the team, being a startup, most of them are not from Japan,” says Chho. “Because of that, every member on the team has a unique background, especially with the frame of the company in Japan. It’s a very non-traditional company, both from a North American and Japanese perspective.”
Q & A with Jeff Wentworth, co-founder of Curvegrid Inc.
How do Waterloo co-op students make Curvegrid more innovative or future-proof?
Our co-op students bring what they learn from the classroom back into the workplace. Many of us went to school 10, 15, 20 years ago and the academic world is continually moving forward. They're blending their academic experience with that of their past co-op work terms. We're really learning from the best.
What do Waterloo co-op students bring to the table at Curvegrid?
One of the amazing things Waterloo students bring to the table at Curvegrid is the fact that the entire school is kind of built around the co-op program. Not everybody is in co-op, but the staff, the students, the faculty; everybody understands co-op and how it works, so it's a very smooth process. Students have interviewed dozens of times before. They're used to working in an office environment. They arrive on day one and they understand how to schedule meetings and they understand how to respond to business emails. They understand the do's and don'ts in a workplace.
How does Curvegrid enable co-op students to learn and develop their skills?
We set them up with a mentor and set a goal within their first week to contribute to our product and push that code into production right from week one. We want to give our students that confidence boost, in the sense, that “you know, you can do this.”
In terms of enabling our students’ success, we want to set meaningful, measurable, achievable goals. It’s about supporting our students and helping them to learn, but not making it too easy. I think one of the key aspects of a good co-op work term from the feedback we've had from our students and also from our own experience is that balance of challenge and mentoring.
We try to get our students out when possible, talking to real customers. Last summer, for example, we had one of our students join us at a conference, interacting with our partners and prospects in English and Japanese.
What do you hope co-op students take away from their work term at Curvegrid?
We hope that co-op students take away from work at Curvegrid a new set of technical skills. We work in a very specific area of blockchain middleware technology, which is all about helping companies develop their solutions on the blockchain.
We also went to give them some exposure to Japan, Japanese business culture as well as time outside of work to really explore the country. That’s a set of skills as well as experiences that we hope will take them through the rest of their co-op terms.
What has something a Waterloo co-op student has done for Curvegrid that has had a significant impact?
Our co-op student Nguyen last summer built a feature into a product called type conversions, which is a way of changing blockchain data into something that's easy to use. It was a project that he worked on for a few weeks, pushed into production and our customers are using it today. It's been a game-changing feature for us. That just goes to show that it doesn't matter if you're a first-year student or a fourth-year student, or you've got 10 years of experience in the industry, that it's possible to have an impact.
Why is hiring co-op students internationally so important to Curvegrid’s vision?
I think that that diversity of thought in a modern global business environment is so critical to the success of any company and certainly it's been a big part of our success at Curvegrid.
Bringing different perspectives and backgrounds together, there can sometimes be challenges with that. But overall, the overwhelming result is a stronger set of decisions, and a stronger business outcome.
We've had some of our co-op students spend a few hours during the work term translating our product into a language that they know, and nobody on our full-time staff knows. That provides immediate benefit to Curvegrid and our customers.
How does the company aim to mix Japanese work culture with Western culture at Curvegrid? How do you hope this benefits your co-op students?
One of the things that has been successful for us as a Japanese company is mixing the best of Japanese business culture and international and Western business culture.
For example, we give our staff a lot of freedom to make decisions. At the moment we’re all working from home, but even when we were in the office, we provided the flexibility to work from home if they needed to or wanted to and set their own hours within certain bounds. We make our co-op students part of the team and give them that decision-making power. One of the strengths of Japan is an elevated attention to detail, quality, and continuous improvement, and a real focus on customer service.
How does Curvegrid help its co-op students value their international work terms?
Most of them don't speak Japanese or many of them don't speak Japanese, some of them haven't been outside of North America before. We want to make it easy for them, so we’re not only looking at students that have the technical skills that fit. (We’re looking for students) that we think are going not just survive, but thrive, living away from home for four to eight months.
It's not only actually living away from home, it's living away from friends and family and having to make new friends and having to survive in a different culture in a different place. We recognize the challenges of that, and it starts where we put together a comprehensive co-op information package which has everything from where to buy groceries to where to go the movies.
We also arrange to cover the costs of a visa, accommodations and reimburse the cost of flights. We also give (the students) six or 13 vacation days depending on whether they’re with us for four or eight months, and that’s about making sure they’ve got the time to explore Japan or maybe even other parts of Asia. We've had some students that have certainly seen Japan but also traveled to Thailand or traveled to Taiwan while or Korea while they've been here in Japan. We've had some of them use that time to have their friends or family come over and tour around with them as well.
How does Curvegrid allow co-op students to gain experience interacting with the Japanese tech community?
One of the things that we like to do is make sure that our co-op students have a chance to interact and experience the local tech community here. There are regular meetings that we’ve spoken at and sponsored that we bring our students along to. We’ve gone on field trips where you’ve gone as a company and it’s kind of fun. (We spent a) few hours at the Akihabara electronics district, and played arcade games and looked at keyboard repair shops and (did) some soldering and things like that.
We’ve also taken a couple days with sponsoring hackathons and participating in hackathons, and that really brings our co-op students in contact with other Japanese technology students as well as technology professionals.