“Across sectors, whether you work in government, industry or academia, we need to rethink how we work,” said the University of Waterloo’s Chancellor Dominic Barton in his opening remarks at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on April 25.

The former head of McKinsey & Company elaborated that, “as I get older, I’m convinced that the changes we are seeing in the world today are truly historic.” Barton pointed to the economic power shifts playing out globally, as well as technological transformations and climate change that are fundamentally shaping the way we will live and work.

The theme of this year’s Summit examined these transformations and elevated conversations between senior leaders and Gen Z talent entering the workforce. Panels and keynotes touched on leadership and workforce planning through increasingly uncertain economic, technological and societal challenges. The younger speakers also provided insight into the ways businesses and post-secondary institutions can evolve to develop and nurture these highly skilled future leaders.  

“The post-secondary sector and businesses have an incredible opportunity to work together to ensure we are equipping this generation with the skills and tools they need to address the challenges of an increasingly uncertain future,” said Vivek Goel, President and Vice-chancellor at Waterloo.

The setting for the Summit at McKinsey & Company’s downtown Toronto office was a perfect match to facilitate this discussion and bring together senior leaders from businesses, governments and academic institutions.

Harnessing an entrepreneurial mindset with work-integrated learning

Barton noted that one of the strengths of the University is its focus on fundamental research and co-op education. Waterloo is a leading research-intensive university with the largest co-op program in the world and is renowned for entrepreneurship and innovation. It’s this unique setting that attracts aspiring entrepreneurs and researchers alike to the University, and why more than 8,000 employers partner with Waterloo.

Norah McRae, associate provost of Co-operative and Experiential Education at Waterloo led a discussion with two co-op students, Darren Harry Baine and Stephanie Davis, on what factors are driving them when selecting an employer and career path. For both students, that answer came down to two main factors: work that aligns to their values and an opportunity for meaningful mentorship.

“The mentorship from baby boomers and anyone one older is invaluable … Especially from anyone [in the workforce] for a very long time, is an invaluable perspective. They’ve seen immense workforce changes,” said Davis, a Master of Public Service student. She added, “Gen Z wants to work with purpose. There is a lot of motivation [in this generation] and when they have work that fulfills them, they can really take it to another level.”

back of the WIS audeince facing the stage

Entrepreneurial mentorship was also another big topic at the Summit. We heard from Adrien Côté, executive director of Velocity, about the impact that Waterloo’s largest entrepreneurship program is having on supporting student founders. Velocity’s new publication, Momentum, shows how entrepreneurship is stronger than ever with 157 student teams actively building early-stage startups through the program. 

One of those startups is Safi, who has partnered with governments to is provide African farmers with a portable milk pasteurization device. One of the founders, Miraal Kabir, joined Barton in a panel discussion alongside other Velocity founders on how next-gen talent are channelling an entrepreneurial mindset to address real, social and economic challenges across the globe.

All the panelists had a drive to make a difference but needed support and guidance on where to focus their efforts. “I always knew I wanted to start a company, but I didn’t know what problem to solve,” said Kabir, a fifth year Computer Science student. “The ecosystem [at Waterloo] provides an opportunity for students to be creative and come with ideas to solve big challenges.”

Hear more from Barton and some of the Summit guests

During the Summit, Barton announced the launch of a new podcast Global Futures in Focus. Barton hosts a five-part series examining the transformational forces shaping our future. Listeners will hear perspectives from students, faculty and alumni — sharing insights and research on the challenges and solutions that cut across health, the economy, technology, society and the environment. 

Banner photo features Waterloo alumni Helen Huang and Sefunmi Osinaike, co-founders of Co.Lab