Ashif Mawji and his family had the opportunity to make a choice in 1987: move to Canada, the United States, or Great Britain. After touring all three countries in the summer of 1986, they fell in love with Alberta, and as Mawji recalls with a chill, “we went from +30°C to -30°C! It was quite a shock, but I’m glad we picked Canada.”
Canada, and Edmonton in particular, should be glad, too. The young man would grow to be one of the city’s strongest supporters, investing in and promoting important technologies, sitting on several boards and giving back to numerous causes in the Capital City. It’s a lot, but for Mawji, it’s just par for the course. He’s always been a hard worker with a mandate to better the communities he lives in.
“My first official business was when I was 12 and selling watches in Kenya at trade shows,” says Mawji. “Since then, I have been involved in several IT/software related ventures and have real estate investments around the world. I am also invested in various venture capital funds, which are focused on healthcare, technology, real-estate and other industries.”
His love of tech started early and set his life’s course.
“In Kenya, I was exposed to computers and loved programming. When I moved to Canada and completed high school, I knew that the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) was the right choice for me, and I completed the computer systems technology program in 1992.
“While my friends went to work for some amazing companies, I decided to go the entrepreneur route and started my first consulting company. In just three years, I built my reputation and credibility and was able to jointly win a $60+ million outsourcing contract with a large multi-national company. After building that company, I started a product company with a great team. We had customers in about 180 countries.
“Throughout my career, I’ve believed in diversification as that not only helps reduce risk, but it also allowed me to learn about other industries. As such, I invested in various industries around the world and learned about real-estate, healthcare, and technology. I firmly believe that technology will be the driver in every industry.”
Mawji’s commitment to furthering tech-based innovation is seen in the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Fund (AI/ML Fund) he is creating.
“The private sector has a responsibility to provide capital and to fuel the economy,” he explains. “We [Edmonton] did not do that well with nanotechnology, but now we have another chance with companies like Google Deep Mind taking notice of our city. Years later, we don’t want to look back and say we blew our chance [to be a tech-forward city]. I decided I’d rather take this on now than to wait for someone to take action.”
The AI/ML Fund, which is further explained at www.aimlfund.com, is being created to ensure that any Edmonton-based entrepreneur that has a passion for leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning has an opportunity for, and access to, local funding. Projects outside of Edmonton will also be considered in the hopes that those company leaders will relocate to the Capital City.
The AI/ML Fund is in the early stages and looks very promising. Mawji is currently deciding between continuing the fund on its own, or partnering with another fund. To this end, he’s invited several venture capitalist firms and investor groups to come to Edmonton to see what the city, and the AI/ML Fund can offer.
But why? Mawji has already been very successful in business. Why not just take it easy, retire and enjoy the good life? Actually, he is. To Mawji and his family, giving back is the good life–and the only way to be truly successful.
“I was taught very early by my parents that we are all one people and that we have to help when we can,” he explains. “This means not just giving money, but also sharing your knowledge and time. I’ve learned so much from everyone around me, and through that, I’ve been able to build my career. As a result, I see it as an obligation to give back as much as I can and to help my community get stronger. As a family, we give back to the arts, healthcare, education, sports and children’s initiatives. If we all give back, we help lift everyone up and build and grow a better world. We all need to contribute.
“Seeing others achieve amazing progress, be it from science, technology, healthcare, education, sports – it really inspires me. When I see philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates make it their life’s mission to eradicate diseases like polio and malaria, and see Elon Musk focussed on getting to Mars, and people all over the world doing incredible things, it makes me proud of humanity and proud to know that we just need to continue with positive reinforcement and do great things. Positivity and progress is infectious!”
Mawji is proud to call Edmonton home and will never stop believing in the city’s potential to diversify into a tech-industry leader, but he knows there is still a long way to go.
“Canada has amazing talent, a great culture, and very inclusive and supportive people,” he points out. “However, if we don’t continue to invest in entrepreneurs and businesses and implement the right economic strategies and tax policies, we don’t look as attractive to investors and new business. My challenge is to help politicians see this and have the courage to make the right decisions for Canada and our province, not just for their political futures. Our education system, when it comes to methods of teaching–and also our curriculum, when it comes to entrepreneurship and creative thinking–definitely needs a huge revamp. We also need to embrace and include artificial intelligence and machine learning in everything we do. This can be a huge differentiator.”
He encourages other entrepreneurs to “Follow your passion and focus on ideas around that. Entrepreneurship is hard, and the only thing that will see you through is your passion. Surround yourselves with a team that’s also passionate and that shares in your beliefs and values. If you have common values, you are all driving in the same direction and will make the right decisions.”
He’s not joking about entrepreneurship being difficult. Mawji cautions, “In the initial stages of a venture, frankly, there’s no balance. It’s pretty much all work. As you mature and learn from others, you definitely understand the need for a balance, and you find that it’s actually better and more productive to have a work/life balance.”
Your team, he notes, can help you find that much needed balance. “Finding the right team–people who are smarter than you, share the same values, and who believe in the mission–is the toughest part. But once you have the right team, it’s magical. Keeping them motivated and engaged is also very challenging, so you do need to do everything you can to ensure that. Take the time to explain the why. They may not always agree with your direction, but when you explain the why, they will at least understand and buy in.”
It’s common to encourage entrepreneurs to just jump into a venture and take a huge risk, but Mawji has a different take on that. “Risk really varies depending on your risk appetite. As you get more traction and success, you tend to take bigger risks. It’s a journey, and you do need to feel comfortable with yourself, your abilities and your weaknesses. That will guide you as to how much risk you should take.”
Mawji’s days are intense and busy, but he’s learned how much he’s willing to risk, and he’s learned how to value the things that promote his work/life balance.
“My family is my #1 priority,” he says with pride. “My wife and I want to ensure we do as great a job of raising our children with the right values and approach to life as our parents did with us. As such, we love to travel with them, show them the world and help them understand that we are a big community, that we are all equal and that we can do a lot together to help everyone rise.”
However, that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to life in the fast lane!
“I love fast cars! Driving them gives me the same thrill and excitement that entrepreneurship does!” He gave up dirt bike racing when he got married, and he traded fast motorcycles for fast cars, which he cheekily deems as “safer.” When he’s not in the fast lane, he also enjoys playing poker, collecting watches and making waves as a fashion icon.”
“I have 60 pairs of shoes in every colour,” he laughs. “People that know me say ‘that’s the guy always wearing colorful ties, shirts, jackets and shoes.’ I never have trouble matching the colours of an event to my wardrobe.”
As for his watch collection, “I have always been fascinated by how things work. The bad part is, I disable a lot of things and can’t put them back together. My parents didn’t like that! I’d open up the VCR or TV and see how it worked. Watches are similar. I like complications in a watch, like a moon phase or mechanical movement that powers the watch with no battery.”
So far, he has about 40 watches, and each one has a special aspect that never fails to fascinate him.
Although Alberta and Kenya couldn’t be further apart in terms of culture, industry and (especially) weather, Mawji is happy to call the Capital City home.
“Edmonton has been a great home for us. We have been to so many countries, and while there are amazing places to visit, we believe Edmonton is the best to call home. Edmonton has great potential and I see that. As such, I want to do everything that I can to help its entrepreneurs, students, community and citizens get the best opportunities to grow and succeed.”
Mawji feels humble and fortunate to have received numerous awards over the years for his businesses, innovations, and community work, awards that include being named Hon. Colonel for the 20th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, being named a Fellow in the Henry Crown Fellowship (Part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network) and receiving an honorary Bachelor of Business Administration from NAIT.
He says with gratitude, “There have been so many mentors, businesses and family members that have helped me grow and have supported me in tough times. On a personal note, my wife, kids, brother and parents, as well as my in-laws and my uncle and aunt from England, have always been there for me, and I know will always be there for me. On a business front, so many incredible role models, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, my classmates from the Henry Crown Fellowship Class of 2015 – Dare, Greatly, Young Presidents Organization (YPO), and others – are a continued source of inspiration and knowledge.”
Where does he go from here? “I will continue on our family’s mission to help the community grow and prosper. That means giving our time, knowledge, expertise and money to causes pertaining to arts, sports, health and education, locally, nationally and internationally. I’m especially looking to see how we can bolster the investment in artificial intelligence and machine learning in Edmonton, help our entrepreneurs here launch businesses and help them grow and become better.
“It’s definitely very rewarding to see progress and to know that you have done your part in helping achieve that. I believe that, to instill change, you need to lead and be an example and role model, and once you do that, you can then ask others to help.”
He sums up his life and success in one powerful realization. “I have always believed in myself and have never thought anything to be impossible.”