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Aliya Ramji (MT Ventures @ McCarthy Tétrault)

July 10, 2020

Aliya Ramji is the co-founder of MT Ventures, a program at Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault which is focused on helping startups scale through leveraging client and partner relationships in tandem with the firm’s wealth of legal perspective.

Podcast Transcript

Qasim Virjee 0:15
Howdy Ramsey, it’s a pleasure to have you on a new normal. Thanks for taking time to join me. How are you doing today?

Aliya Ramji 0:22
Thank you. The pleasure is all mine. It’s a beautiful day, we have entered phase two, which means that people are now moving around in Toronto. And you can just see the activity from our window.

Qasim Virjee 0:34
So what does it it’s funny? So I guess let’s start by kind of introducing McCarthy Tetro the firm that you’re working with, before we jump into talking about the program that you’re in, because I’m really interested to hear about how your lens through that program is shaping and has shaped for the last couple months, through this pandemic. And through, you know, we’ll come back to what phase two means in Toronto and in Ontario. But yeah, so let’s start with McCarty. McCarthy Tetro. So tell me a little bit about the firm.

Aliya Ramji 1:05
So the firm is one of the oldest firms in Canada, if not the oldest firm in Canada, about 650 lawyers across the country offices in Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, and then we have satellite offices in New York and London. So we’ve got a really broad depth and reach across the country and around the world. And the program that I started is, it’s a new division of the firm. It’s called Empty ventures. And it really caters to startups. The idea is that we want to help a number a small number of startups grow and succeed in their industries.

Qasim Virjee 1:56
So when you say a small number, I guess, let’s describe the program. If it is a formal program, or otherwise, the services offered through the kind of catch all the division that is empty ventures.

Aliya Ramji 2:08
Yeah, it’s not a formal program. And that, you know, we think of ourselves as a permanent accelerator, but we don’t have a cohort based program. When I say a small number, I’m looking at about 10 to 20 companies a year. And the idea is that McCarthys wraps itself around these 10 or 20 companies a year. And so we will take the companies on at any point during the year, it doesn’t have to be, you know, a January start and 12 months or anything like that, we think of ourselves more of a permanent accelerator.

Qasim Virjee 2:41
Okay. You want to be there with the lifeline of growth for these companies and help them in a long term sense.

Aliya Ramji 2:48
That’s right. And, and because of the breadth and depth of McCarthy’s connections, McCarthy’s industry knowledge, especially in retail, and fintech and health tech and AI, and in Prop tech, it only makes sense to really take on a few clients, and then embed ourselves into their business, learn about their business, and then figure out what they need to grow and succeed. So you know, a prop tech company, for example, may need connections in the developer space. And we can help foster some of those connections with with a group of 650 lawyers at our fingertips. We have the connections and depth of 650 lawyers.

Qasim Virjee 3:39
So how does McCarthy have a culture of, you know, kind of this interconnectivity or acting as conduits for, you know, customers is this taking some experience at the firm has to reformat it for a certain stage of growth in early stage companies? You know, tell me a little bit about the kind of backstory or perhaps a little bit of that cultural goodwill towards forming this program from within the firm itself.

Aliya Ramji 4:08
I think it’s more than just the culture and the goodwill, I think that McCarthys recognizes that. One of the biggest, you know, see, features of a firm of this size and magnitude is the, you know, industry connections that they have. And so bringing those to the forefront of any business that they work with, and you’ll see you know, a number of new companies have used this model or new incubators have used this model, where they are leaning on really the connections that they have in industry already. So you’ll see someone like in our labs are in Aiko, really focusing in on their depth and breadth in the real estate industry. And similarly McCarthy’s has this depth and breadth in it A number of different areas. And so we want to reignite the economy, given the state of the world right now, we want to help smart, sophisticated entrepreneurs. And and give them a, you know, a step forward or push forward into growing their companies.

Qasim Virjee 5:22
So let’s talk about, you know, not the, let’s talk about the pandemic, okay, let’s, let’s kind of like paint the picture of the foundation of this program, empty ventures, I guess this was just a couple months, you start at the end of 2019, was it just a few months before this situation hit.

Aliya Ramji 5:41
So actually, our formal launch was enacted in May of 2020. So just a few weeks ago, it’s been about six weeks. And you know, launching during the pandemic is an interesting time. Because, as you know, and as most entrepreneurs know, entrepreneurs thrive on crisis and on problems, they want to solve big problems. And we want to hold their hand or help them as they solve these big problems. And, and as you can tell from the world that we’re in today, there are a number of interesting things that we do not just in, you know, crisis management in the in the bringing of PPE or, or contact tracing and things like that. But also, how do we all operate in this new normal? And what are the and ciliary services that people will need as they move forward? Now that we stop, now that we’ve gone through that emergency phase, now it’s a build phase for entrepreneurs and and really thinking through what the world is going to look like I was at an interesting talk at collision yesterday collision from home, which is amazing, by the way, if you haven’t had a chance to attend. And one of the things that was said was that there is no pre and post COVID. It’s pre COVID. And, you know, now and we’re going to be living with the virus or some other superbugs for you know, the rest of our lives. And so thinking through how we’re going to operate in this new normal, is exactly what entrepreneurs thrive at.

Qasim Virjee 7:27
Well, I think that’s where innovation can be born from I don’t know, if entrepreneurs thrive in crisis for the sake of it. But But I get what you’re saying, I get what you’re saying. And I think I think it’s interesting to, to hear a little bit of perspective on your own entrepreneurial story, in launching this program in this crisis. I mean, you you kind of like you said, I think you were working on it from before May, but it’s gone live in May. So it set the tone perhaps, or the context of the pandemic has set the tone for your approach to offering value through the program. What does that mean for you?

Aliya Ramji 8:06
Yeah, the pandemic definitely accelerated, the speed at which we launched and helped us think through what exactly the program should look like, or the or the service offering should look like. And the new division should look like. We wanted to think through, you know, what are the needs of startup founders, and how we can be as founder friendly as possible. We want to work with founders, we want to make sure that their you know, legal needs, obviously, because McCarthy’s is a law firm, first and foremost are taking care of, but with this new division, how can we make sure that their needs and operations management are supported? How can we make sure that their needs in accessing capital are supported, accessing talent, and then, of course, finding the right advisors and mentors to grow in and help their business flourish?

Qasim Virjee 9:03
So tell me a little bit about your legal history. You can go as far back as you’d like. But let’s talk about you coming to McCarthy for this purpose. And and what you came with in terms of expectations. And what’s exciting you about this position and this empty ventures venture?

Aliya Ramji 9:23
Sure. So grew up a lawyer, spent about 12 years outside of a big law firm doing everything from, you know, IP to international trade, and that my last position was at a startup called figure one, a Toronto startup that is still successful and vibrant and has actually been quite instrumental through the pandemic because they are looking at images of COVID Amongst other things, they are Network for healthcare professionals to share medical cases. And I was there for five years. And the the interesting and amazing thing that happened there is we took figure one from six to 196 countries. And so I love this idea of growing startups, not just in Canada, but an internationally and around the world. And this opportunity at McCarthy’s was an opportunity to build more than one startup at a time really help a good number between 10 and 20 a year startups to grow and thrive in the world economy.

Qasim Virjee 10:40
So moving from that kind of like singular focus within a company is in house legal working on the business side as well. And growth to kind of like bringing that experience into an advisory capacity for the companies that you’re going to be including in in the empty ventures portfolio. I guess, how do you see the need for support or the ability to access support within McCarthys it from the network of clients and partners at the firm has, which perhaps or before coming to this program, you always craved for or wanted when you were working at a single company.

Aliya Ramji 11:21
I think you know that one, the network is incredible that that I’ve said this before the depth and breadth of connections, that a firm like McCarthy’s has is is absolutely incredible. And in the opportunities that presents for a startup is actually quite incredible. So for example, we have a company right now that was trying to work with different levels of corporate or private corporate enterprise in in Canada and in North America. And I can send one email at McCarthy’s and say who knows this this top five wish list that they have, can someone introduce us to these five companies or to this particular industry group that they really want to meet? And and how do we how do we bridge that gap that they’re having right now. So I think one, it’s the it’s the depth of the network that is really, really interesting. And then two is that you have really smart people, smart, thoughtful people who can help solve so many different types of problems, whether it’s, you know, something in the manufacturing chain or something in in mergers and acquisitions, they just have really smart people who are very strategic and can come help come up with solutions to the obvious problems or problems that will obviously arise in startups in startups trajectory.

Qasim Virjee 12:57
So I think there’s a couple things that you mentioned there, the core concepts for me, which of course we work on every day. And we help, you know, I guess, develop capacity within for growing teams that start well is community and collaboration. The idea that within an organization, you have to foster a sense of culture and community amongst your team in order to enable their, you know, success trajectory, their ability to work together well in the future as they grow as a team. But at the same time, between teams and that cross team collaboration in larger organizations and in smaller organizations between each other in an environment of course, like our campus where we’ve got it up to 500 people every day here, which is a wealth of opportunity for people to learn from and to develop, you know, even leads and potential sales opportunities or knowledge development through these interactions that they get within an organization like McCarthy with it wasn’t 650 lawyers, did you say? It’s a huge team that’s dispersed and definitely knowledgeable in all these niche areas and experience and working with clients and all of these experience in all these niche areas as well can help give so much value to you know, the portfolio. So how thrilling must it be for you to act as almost like a curator of all of that knowledge and those connections within organization? Have you been spending a lot of time, even though we’re working remotely right now and people are getting their feet wet with figuring out office return office scenarios? How has it been to start this program in Digg at the same time into the Rolodex of McCarthy’s team?

Aliya Ramji 14:37
It’s been absolutely incredible. And like you said that collaboration is so fascinating. And when we take on a startup into our portfolio, we don’t actually think of them as clients. We think of them as our partners. So that there really is that cross collaboration between MT ventures and McCarthy chetro And that particular Startups so that, you know, we live and breathe, the opportunities and the problems that they’re facing every day. And it’s fascinating because we help think through where they should should go next, or who they can reach out to next. Because sometimes we see opportunities that they don’t sometimes they see opportunities that we don’t. And we really want to form this, this partnership with them.

Qasim Virjee 15:29
No, it’s definitely exciting. So let’s talk a little bit about this kind of, you know, phasing of the province in the cities, return to normal, or perhaps return to a new normal, center return, whatever it is, whatever. How are you seeing as a lawyer, you know, the opening up of the economy rolling out over the next few months? What do you anticipate? And how does it impact the companies that you’re working with?

Aliya Ramji 15:59
I think we’re gonna have to, you know, there’s a lot of trial and error, that’s going to happen, and I think we’re going to have to be very agile. And, you know, you’ve probably heard this from as many people as I have, you know, we’ve gone through a technological revolution that should have lasted 10 years, and we’ve done it in 10 weeks. And so I think, you know, the the reopening of the economy is going to be quite interesting, you’re going to have this push and pull with people who want to work from home, for example, or who are very excited about returning to the office, you’re going to have a number of people who, who, you know, are very cautious in their return to to what we call normal. And there will be some people who who will return without flinching without even thinking about, you know, the the effects of the last 10 weeks. So I think it’s going to be a really interesting dynamic between people in different office spaces. And I think that creates a real opportunity to solve the problem of what one of the problems that I think we’ll have is culture is that, you know, this culture of working from home versus working from the office, will, will there be two types of people, ones that do collaborate, and, you know, are ones that that want to be more isolated, or ones that really thrive in this idea of working online, I know that for me, I am so much more productive at home, you know, it takes away the commute, it takes away, you know, the, the the walking to and from meetings, you know, I can I can keep my meetings efficient. And that’s something that I wasn’t able to do at the office. So I think there will be a real there, there will be a real change in the way we do things, and the types of employees that we have. And I think that gives a number of opportunities for startups to solve those problems.

Qasim Virjee 18:08
Yeah, I think there’s definitely been a big mix up of staff or will be a lot of opportunities for staff to reconfigure. Unfortunately, a lot of people, of course, you know, became available through this period because of being furloughed and laid off and all these horrible force changes in their lives, and in the hope is that there is a larger ability for them to reconfigure and people to find work, of course, as soon as they can. So I think there are opportunities, definitely I agree with you. Unfortunately, I think a lot of companies seem from my angle to be wanting to be able to be economically active, as soon as possible. And that’s a big part of this opening up is the anticipation of transacting business, whether people on the back end are able to or not, you know, restructure their overnight organizations to be able to provide services and products to a market. There’s these questions of does the market exist and how long it will take to come back. And I think it’s gonna be a process of discovery for a long time. But coming back to the nature of work in the idea of physical space, you know, of course, something that we’re anticipating is a greater one for hybrid experiences. So this time of people who haven’t lost their their jobs and who have been still working and able to continue working and conduct business through, you know, teleconferencing and video conferencing, I think there’s that greater appetite for digital experience. And at the same time, a lot of critique of current digital experiences on platforms like, you know, zoom, or Hangouts, or whatever we’re using for meetings. I think there’s a lot of learning that’s happened that people have had to experience because they’re spending so much time online now in front of cameras like you and I are doing that like, we kind of are critiquing the user interface of these products. And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the evolution of these products. And we’re gonna see rapid development in the video conferencing sector in the next, you know, forever. And adoption, I hope of artificial intelligence, sorry, not artificial intelligence, but augmented reality and virtual reality experiences, to give people a physical sense of proximity through digital means, in these efficient ways. But also coming back to this, this notion of hybrid, I’m seeing actually demand evolve, as things are opening up, and requests are coming in to us at start well, for office space. And for events, basically, for meeting space, people are looking to mix those functions in a way that uses physicality and, you know, remote teams dialing in. So for us, it’s something we’ve actually invested a lot in in last few months is upgrading our facilities like the event studio, which I’m sitting in right now, to be able to teleconference and conduct sessions like this, for anyone that’s like turnkey, snap your fingers, you’re on stage in your life. And then depending on what the provinces restrictions are, you know, live audiences can go from 10 people to maybe 50 people, we hope in the next few weeks. And those are strong, like intimate experiences. Still, that’s a good group, we actually advocate for smaller groups and professional events. But But I think also on the on the workspace question, I think there’s a need that people are discovering for greater flexibility in where they choose to do their work. And I personally, I despise the dichotomy that is emerged of work at home versus the office, and this kind of like a multi mass media rhetoric. You know, that gets propagated because it’s an easy concept to articulate in a magazine article, but there’s a need for tertiary spaces, and this is about social beings existing peacefully, right, we need that. And in part, depending on your job, the office was that perhaps, and a lot of, you know, digital companies will feel that way, when you go to the office, and there’s fun things to do. In the office, it’s not just about banging through your Tesla’s but that’s something that we hope to provide, you know, a space for, for early stage companies is this idea of the tertiary space. And, you know, if you can’t make it into the office, because there’s a co working facility closer to home, and you need to get out of the house, because you’ve got children at home, or whatever. You know, I think that’s something that at least Canadians and Torontonians will start demanding a bit more is the ability to choose where they want to work.

Aliya Ramji 22:36
I agree and and, you know, one of the things that I like about a space like yours is that I can be confident that I, you and I both know who’s been in that space, whereas I go and work at a coffee shop now, which was would have been my go to, I might not be as confident about has that face, has that space been cleaned? How often is that space being clean? How often are people using that space. And so with something like start well, I can be a little more confident in leaving home or leaving my office to work in some kind of tertiary space.

Qasim Virjee 23:13
Yeah, and it’s interesting, because we’re also seeing, there’s that idea of control, which you totally hit the nail on the head. And, and insecurity in that. And, and also retail experience, like, we have a lot of people who have become members and have existed as corporate members of ours, that see value in a tertiary space that can give them utility that in some cases, like this pandemic experience, you just can’t have. So retail experience right on the streetcar, when you can’t go up to your 50th floor office, because it’ll take too long to wait for an elevator or, you know, whatever the case may be. So walking straight in from the street into a door off the street car is a nice smooth experience. So I think it’s interesting for us because we’re seeing this kind of like awakening of a mindset, where people are saying, I can actually choose how I want to work and where I want to work. And so that’s exciting. I think it’s very exciting.

Aliya Ramji 24:12
I look forward to what you end up doing with your spaces. And and I know that they have been occupied throughout the pandemic, which is which is very interesting. And and I can only imagine how happy you are about that.

Qasim Virjee 24:30
Well, yeah, I mean, as an independent operator, of course has been difficult as any entrepreneur will will attest to, to keep, you know, business open, keep our doors open has been not only just, you know, mentally fatiguing and emotionally fatiguing to work through this pandemic period of saying, you know, what’s safe and how do I ensure that I’m not only guaranteeing my, you know, the people that come in our customers, guests members, a safe environment to do their work and But how do I add value in a way that we’re always used to, when there’s so much fear and anxiety floating around? For me, that’s been the number one goal is to make sure that we’re mitigating the stress that people come through the door with. So as soon as they come here, they can relax into their work. And I think it’s actually, it’s been difficult to work through this period, but it’s, it’s given so much knowledge back into, you know, best practice for us to employ to keep doing that kind of thing, because I think there’ll be a larger need for it. And reasons for forming. You know, there’s two things, in fact that are gonna get officially announced next week. But, you know, we have our Medical Advisory Panel, which is a network that we’ve built of doctors in the city, that all work with virtual medicine and have been before the pandemic, whether they’re testing new platforms, or evolving the OT n, the Ontario Telemedicine Network itself. And so we’re working with them to advance what a co working model for telemedicine looks like. And, you know, evolve a kind of future medicine practice where if doctors just need to, you know, whether it’s just doing triage, work or otherwise, dial in to do their work and interface with patients, they still need community, they still need the value of a comfortable work day, and the security of knowing that they’re conducting business, not in their home, and in a professional environment. And then the second thing that we’re doing, which will get announced soon is the futurist residency. So I’ve created a futurist residency at start well, where we’ve partnered up with a chap named Nick badminton, who’s a speaker, a futurist, researcher, author. And he’s now working from our campus and developing a kind of a program, which is an open door concept for futurists, in general, in Canada, and it’s a first of its kind program where people whose career it is to look into the future by analyzing technological evolution and societal change. You know, and they’re commercially engaged in this every single day, they’ll have a place now for the first time ever in Canada to come together and work together in concert, their visions for the future, which I think is really, really exciting. Because whether it’s a pandemic or anything else that we don’t expect, I think not being able to expect these things is often cases about just tunnel vision, and about doing our thing everyday. So if we can break out of that as an organization, and then feed that back into our community, I think it’s a really exciting concept.

Aliya Ramji 27:40
Yeah, I’m excited to see both of those programs in action. And I look forward to hearing more about their launches next week.

Qasim Virjee 27:47
So tell me a little bit before we wrap, I know we both have to jump on other things. But the Tell me a little bit about the program and how people can kind of interface with it, how they can reach out to what the benefit is of participation, if they’re interested. Let’s just throw something out there to our community who may be watching this.

Aliya Ramji 28:08
Sure. So obviously, you can reach out directly to me, a Ramji at Mt. ventures.ca. I am constantly meeting new companies and, and meeting really exciting entrepreneurs. So I’m happy to chat with anyone from your community as well. I think that the program really just helps startups seed to Series B startups grow and and realize new opportunities and overcome obstacles.

Qasim Virjee 28:40
Now, to that end, it may be worth just touching very quickly on how McCarthy and how you through the the kind of program are adept at helping companies of that growth stage, negotiate the choppy waters ahead, because, you know, it’s a really interesting time if your company was on a, you know, a post seed trajectory to keep raising, raising, raising capital until you go public with the uncertainty in public markets. And and you know, the end goal being questionable these days. I think having expertise of people who’ve been through this and coach teams, and given legal advice to them, would be totally beneficial. And maybe there’s something you can speak to that.

Aliya Ramji 29:25
So our team is not just legal advice, certainly lawyers. It’s both lawyers and business people. So we we actually have a team of advisers, who will come come in and help some of our companies in specific spaces, whether it’s people operations, whether it’s access to capital or raising capital, or really going from idea to commercialization. And so we have, you know, experts in the areas who work with our companies and who think through some of the the chocolate waters, as you say, with our companies, like I said before, we really want to partner and feel like a partner with the organization, not just a service provider.

Qasim Virjee 30:11
Excellent. Well, it was a pleasure taking a little bit of time to hear about this new program, but McCarthy’s kind of embrace, or formal embrace of supporting early stage ventures, I think it’s really, really exciting. And I’m happy to hear that this all came together to kind of like launch during the pandemic, because it’s a good sign to see that, you know, larger organizations who are professional organizations are, are kind of digging into the uncertainty and providing value amidst it. So I’m really, really excited to see what comes out of your program. And I hope to have you on again, you know, in the next few months to see how things have been evolving a little bit.

Aliya Ramji 30:55
I look forward to it, and I wish you much success in the next few weeks and months of start. Well, I see very interesting things happening there.

Qasim Virjee 31:05
Thanks, Ellie. It was a pleasure.

Aliya Ramji 31:07
You as well talk to you soon.