Mentor Spotlight: Alexandra Conliffe (Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship)

Editor’s Note: Alexandra Conliffe, the Director of the Policy Innovation Platform at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship sat down with us for a short interview during the McGill Dobson Cup 2017 where she was a Judge during the Semi-Finals for the Social Enterprise Track.

Their platform assists policy professionals engage citizens using innovative tools and approaches to generate better policy outcomes and services for Canadians.

Between 2013-16, Alex was VP Operations at Engineers Without Borders Canada, a movement of 40,000 Canadian and African leaders working to end poverty and inequality through innovations in targeted sectors, including Global Engineering Education in Canada, Small and Growing Businesses in Africa, and Responsible Mining globally.

Alex holds a doctorate in Geography and a master’s in Environmental Management from the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s in Engineering from McGill University, where she was a Loran Scholar. She is a member of the McGill Faculty of Engineering Advisory Board, and a Board Director of the Institute on Governance.


What do you think of the teams you saw during the McGill Dobson Cup 2017?

Every team so far has come with an issue that they’re really passionate about, which is what I love about the Social Enterprise track – people seeing that something in the world is not quite right, and then creatively addressing those issues.

On the role of education in building an entrepreneur

Great question! You could be a Bill Gates or a Zuckerberg. But increasingly, universities are developing great ways to support entrepreneurs on campus. It’s not just about the studies, there’s a lot of resources that students can leverage for startups! Universities across Canada and the US are helping students improve their entrepreneurial skills – it’s no surprise that Waterloo and MIT, and now McGill has incredible projects coming out of it, because these schools are helping students leverage their skills. Sure some people might strike out on their own. But more and more, education is becoming a valuable ally for those interested in the unconventional, entrepreneurial route as well.

Work hard enough to be competent, and invest the rest of your time in making the world around you better.

How to get the most out of one’s education

I worked very hard to win the Oxford Scholarship, but I suspect that most of the other winners had GPAs higher than mine.

I worked just hard enough to know that if I was to practice as an Engineer, people would be safe. Sure, I could have put in to increase my grade from 80s to 90s through doubling my study time. Instead, I put that time into side projects that I felt were more important than a marginal increase in my grade. Is that a good strategy? I don’t know if that’s the best approach for everyone, but it paid off for me. The stuff I focused my attention and energy outside the classroom was seen as being valuable, so I hit the jackpot.

Work hard enough to be competent, and invest the rest of your time in making the world around you better.

On lifelong learning

In my generation, lifelong learning is going to be essential in a way that it has never been before. With the digital revolution and automation, I suspect I’ll have to pick up new skills and packets of knowledge on a regular basis.  I also haven’t ruled out the possibility of returning to some form of formal education at some point. Not another degree, but maybe some skill-enhancement stuff.

Right now, I learn really actively from my community – I work hard to nurture my relationships and surround myself with people who challenge me.

In an ideal world, I alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction. I just started a new job so to that end, right now I’m binge-reading stuff related to policy innovation.

On the challenges of being a woman in entrepreneurship 

I think being taken seriously by older men is always challenging, but I’ve worked in environments where people are pretty aware about these types of things. But even in those places where people care deeply and try to make everyone feel comfortable, there are all kinds of small things people say without realizing that are gendered in some way. Even to our allies, we have to sometimes point out these things because there’s so much that’s implicit.

Also, as a woman, noticing one’s own implicit biases is important. All of the research tells me that even though I am one, I’m going to be biased against women too. Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I won’t have implicit biases. If I get two  CVs that exactly the same and one is Nick and one is Nicola, I’m more likely to hire the guy. It’s important that we become aware of that and continue to work on it. Implicit association tests are really a wakeup call – that’s not who I think I am, but I need to know that my subconscious works that way so I can develop tactics to overcome it.

Her new job at the Brookfield Institute 

I’m really excited! I had worked for 3 years in the government in the federal public service, and the role of public service is changing. There are a lot of ways to develop new policies, there are a lot of ways to do it better. The job that I’m doing now is asking important questions like: How can we innovate in how we develop policies? How can we engage citizens differently, and how can we use data to improve the process?

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Mo Akif

The Editor-in-Chief of the Dobson Chronicles, Mo is a U1 Arts student at McGill majoring in Economics and minoring in everything else. Never having started a lemonade stand as a child and tired of reading blog posts about entrepreneurship without actually doing anything, he was on the verge of giving up and joining a pyramid scheme. Luckily the McGill Dobson Centre decided to adopt him, allowing him to get a closer look at what it takes to build something valuable.