Element AI’s Omar Dhalla: Toronto can define its own tech identity
Omar Dhalla is the SVP, Strategy and Solutions at Element AI, one of the world’s leading AI consultancies. He comes from a wealth of experience as a founder, VC, and tech community builder. Read on to see his global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
I had an undergrad degree in finance but was not thrilled with the finance career path, so I went into Management Consulting at Accenture. While there, I got exposed to writing some code for some tech clients.
During my time at Accenture, however, we got a billion dollar deal with SAP for outsourcing. I got to be on the front line seeing massive change in a massive organization – going from very little tech to being run entirely on SAP’s platform.
I then had the ‘itch’ to do strategy consulting, so I did my MBA, then joined McKinsey & Company’s Toronto office. I got to work with some of the world’s largest corporate VCs, which gave me the opportunity to interview a lot of VCs and see how large corporates grow all over the world.
I realized, however, that I wanted to go to the tech side myself. I wanted to go build something.
I built two companies – a digital platform for media content, and a gourmet soda company – then joined Real Ventures as a venture partner, helping them establish their presence in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. It was a great experience that allowed me to help entrepreneurs and get major exposure to seed-stage tech in Canada.
Element AI, my current company, was incubated at Real.
I got to know the company at its earliest stages and worked with their CEO. As we talked about large challenges ahead, it made sense for me to join them full-time to help launch their Toronto presence as I did with Real.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
I live in Parkdale and love Trinity Bellwoods, so the Queen West area has a special place in my heart.
During a busy work day, I’d take them to the downtown core to show off that Toronto is a busy financial centre. Then, of course, I’d show off some of the natural beauty we have in Toronto, like the waterfront or out west to High Park.
If I had more time, I’d take them to experience other pockets of town, like the Junction or Leslieville. I think Toronto’s true beauty is our diversity of language, cultures, and styles, and the best way to experience it is to be in it.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
You could make an argument for all of them, but for me it’s #ItsOurTime.
There is a confluence of factors making Toronto and Canada a go-to place for tech and entrepreneurship.
More people are realizing Canada is a great place to start a business, and the interplay we have with Kitchener-Waterloo is getting stronger. We have repeat entrepreneurs starting their next businesses here.
We’re also seeing more funding for early stage innovation with bigger, bolder plays.
If it’s not our time now, I’m not sure when it will be.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea is to step back, think about what’s happening in emerging markets, and see how we can learn from them.
Canada, of course, has a great global reputation, but emerging economies are coming from behind and can get ahead because they don’t have tons of old infrastructure and overhead to leap through. They can teach us a lot about how we should be thinking in terms of innovation and where our technology should go.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
We are not the Silicon Valley of the North – we don’t want to be nor do we need to be. We are starting to define our own identity, starting to get repeat entrepreneurs, and are building an ecosystem that gives back to itself.
In Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, specifically, we have a history in technology. We are earlier than other centres, but that history is starting to pay itself forward.