Welcome to the latest installment of Q&A, our regular series of one-to-ones with some of Greater Vancouver's leading business figures.
Our subject this week is Sophia Cote, Head of Public Affairs - Canada, REEF Technology
What was your first job?
My very first job was teaching dance to children between the ages of 5-10 when I was around 15. I was very seriously into dance, particularly ballet when I was a teenager, and so being able to spread the joy and discipline of the art to young kids was an absolute honour and privilege.
What inspires you?
Challenges can be very hard in life. Some see challenges as an obstacle, but for me, being challenged and going out of my way to push to the next level is inspiring. Sometimes life needs changes because things have become stale or too predictable. Challenges break that mould, and the ideas and excitement that come with it create inspiration.
How do you balance work and maintaining a personal life?I won't lie, this has been a difficult thing for me throughout my academic and professional career. I have always had this attitude that rest is for the wicked, and that I must keep sprinting. This is of course wrong, and I am noticing more and more that your mental and physical health is like a garden and needs to be tended to. The person who has supported me the most in this transformation is my incredible husband. He has helped me identify those small things in life that spark joy whether that is going for a walk, exercising, cooking a new meal, or just sitting outside in the sun with a cup of coffee. I try very hard now to sign off work in the evening, take time for myself, or be in the moment with family and friends so I can truly recharge for the next day.
What is the biggest challenge facing Greater Vancouver?
As a millennial, it's clear that the biggest challenge facing Greater Vancouver is housing and affordability. My friends and I all grew up in single-family homes, and that dream for most of us is now unattainable. Even with a high household income, it's difficult for our generation to live the life of our parents, and raising taxes and inflation are making it even more difficult for us to save for the long term.
When it comes to housing, I find policymakers talk a lot about demand-side solutions (which sometimes counterintuitively raise costs even more), but we are neglecting that the supply-side of the issue is just as important. Zoning that bans apartments, and townhomes on most residential land, constantly escalating fees, red tape delays, and planning approval processes that undervalue the under-housed, have put us decades behind in building housing stock that is proportionate to demand.
These top-down planning regulations are not letting cities like Vancouver evolve as living organisms and have kept us in the 20th century. We need to be more creative in our policymaking if we want to solve this huge challenge and not limit it to demand-side solutions.
What do you like most about doing business in Greater Vancouver?
I was born and raised in Vancouver (the North Shore) but moved to Nova Scotia for university when I was 18 years old. During my early 20s, I lived in Berlin, Germany for four years. When I was living in Europe, I thought I would never move back to Vancouver, but it pulled me back in 2016. When I grew up in Vancouver, it was still a "small" city. It was not as diverse as it is now, and it was still not on the world map. Today, Vancouver is incredibly multicultural, and it is fast becoming a major global city, especially with our proximity to Asia. I love being part of this transformation and seeing the city mature and innovate. This makes me feel good about my decision to move back to this incredible region.
I have worked for a few different US tech companies, and all of them have their eyes set on Vancouver. It is becoming an increasingly important market for international companies, and I absolutely love working with the various municipalities, policymakers, and regulators throughout the region to allow disruptive companies to enter. When people think of Vancouver, they think of one city, but we actually are a patchwork of 23 municipalities that have come together to create an incredibly vibrant and dynamic region by offering unique perspectives. That comes with challenges, but also with opportunities that I think strengthen the region.
What is your most prized possession and why?
I know this sounds cliché, but I really don't care too much about material things. My husband always makes fun of me that I never want a new phone, watch etc. But I have realized that for me, the most important prize is travelling the world and experiencing different cultures. I am most at peace with myself and happy when I am in a new city, exploring the streets and alleyways by foot, and tasting new flavours and dishes. I find travel is also what makes me a better-rounded person and professional because it forces you to shift your worldview and question the status quo in your own country or city.
Where do you see untapped potential in Greater Vancouver?
Greater Vancouver has a growing tech scene, but I think we have only scratched the surface. Our proximity to cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles puts us in an advantageous position and the fact that we are such a desired global destination to live in means that we can continue attracting the talent we need to build out the sector further. I really do believe that if we continue fostering talent (and make sure that salaries keep up with demand) and create business-friendly policies for home-grown tech companies to grow and expand, the region can become one of North America's top tech hubs.
What is the most important lesson, business or otherwise, life has taught you?
When faced with a crisis or adversity, it can be difficult in the moment to imagine the experience will eventually lead to some type of growth. The most important lesson that life has taught me is to be resilient and to have the strength to bounce back from adversity and grow from the challenge. It's helped me feel like I have a little more mastery in my life and taught me to have more compassion and sensitivity for those around me.
What keeps you awake at night?
The current geopolitical crisis with Russia and Ukraine. My mother's side of the family all lives in Germany, and my time living in Berlin made me very aware of how fragile peace in Europe really is, but also how much we take global peace for granted. The current crisis not only challenges western democracy and the rule of law, and destabilizes the current world order, but it also comes at a time when the whole world is vying to find out ways and means of reviving the economy and normalizing the growth trajectory post-COVID-19.
What do you think makes a great leader?
Ultimately, a great leader creates and nurtures others. I believe that the best leaders are passionate about developing the emerging leaders around them, they constantly work to improve their emotional intelligence and know that a strong team culture is the foundation for accomplishing the mission.
Where is your favourite place in Vancouver?
My happy place is a small, local Italian bakery, restaurant and wine bar on Commercial Drive called Livia. Every weekend, I go there for breakfast, and their incredible coffee and breakfast sandwiches just put me in the right mindset to enjoy some time off from a busy work week.
What do you think Greater Vancouver needs more of?
Let's be more like Europe and have more outdoor patios on sidewalks! After living in Berlin, I still don't understand why putting tables and chairs on sidewalks is so controversial and mired in red tape in this region. You don't see more alcohol abuse or chaos in Europe because of their lax rules and regulations around outdoor dining and drinking, so why do we make it so complicated here? I was glad during the pandemic to see the region allow more restaurateurs and cafes to open pop-up patios for paying customers, but let's work on making this easier for businesses long-term so that it becomes a permanent trend.
Who has helped you most in your career?
My dad has been one of my biggest cheerleaders and inspirations. He fully believed in my potential, and always reminded me that with hard work and perseverance, I could forge a successful path for myself. He was there every time I needed a shoulder to cry on or counsel on my next step professional step. Every career change I have made since I was 23, I have made with his advice in mind. I still call him when I need a second opinion.
My dad also taught me an incredibly important lesson that I carry with me everywhere, and that is to treat everyone with respect, whether they were a janitor or managing director, and to never demand or expect special treatment. He also always tells me that what makes you stand out in life, is how you react when things are hard. It's easy to shine when things are going well, but those who are truly the best do their best when the going is the toughest. These are lessons I carry with me daily.
What do you do when you aren't working?
When I'm not working, I like to explore the region, go for nature walks and hikes, exercise, cook new dishes, and spend time with family and friends. Prior to COVID, I also did at least two big trips per year to explore a totally new city or country. My last big trips were to Portugal and Colombia.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I mentioned it briefly earlier, but until I was 17, I was dedicated to becoming a professional ballet dancer. During high school, I was part of a special program, where I only attended classes in the morning and then danced in the afternoon. I probably danced close to 7-8 hours per day (or 56 hours per week), and I had the privilege of going to Mexico to perform and attend different ballet training programs across the country. At 16, I hurt my meniscus in a jump, and I needed surgery. I tried to continue the intense training thereafter, but my knee never felt the same, and so at 18, I decided to quit ballet and focus on getting into a good university and exploring my academic passions.
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