On a Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. Sumi Shan’s day of work is not yet over. She speaks to me over the phone while taking a break from finalizing plans for an event for one of her many projects in the tech world, TEx Ventures (see Tamil Culture’s previously published article on this event here).
As a graduate in Political Science and former political staffer, the tech industry did not always provide an obvious career path for Sumi.
Migrating to Canada in the 1980’s, she was raised in a political household influenced by the political climate in Sri Lanka and by her parents’ own struggles to raise her and her brother in a new country. Attending her first political rally for the Liberal Party of Canada at just 14 years old, a passion ignited within Sumi which would influence her involvement and lead her to work for a Member of Provincial Parliament shortly after finishing university.
As a political staffer at Queen’s Park, she gained invaluable professional experience in communications, issues management, policy and stakeholder relations, from working on a diverse and complex range of projects, from a Bill to accredit foreign trained professionals, to marketing provincial tourism and negotiating bilateral agreements. However, while Sumi was realizing a long-held dream of a career in politics, the life of a political aide was beginning to take a toll on her. While balancing the demands of an intense work schedule, in the middle of her political career, Sumi was persuaded into an arranged marriage in her 20’s. After realizing that the marriage was not going to work out, she made the difficult decision to divorce and simultaneously decided to explore opportunities outside of politics.
“After my divorce, I felt like I had not lived up to expectations. As a Tamil woman, there’s so much pressure to succeed in all aspects of life. I’ve learned so much from what I thought at that time was a failure. I know now that it’s not the end of the world when things don’t work out. It provided a valuable lesson in knowing myself and that I needed to a lead a life filled with purpose.”
With the support and encouragement of her family, friends and mentors, Sumi was motivated to move on to the next stage of life and began building a successful career for herself yet again as part of the Public Affairs team at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. She achieved several successes during this time, including her work for a campaign which garnered several prestigious awards and acknowledgements ranging from – the Media Innovation Awards, ADCC, AdWeek and Huffington Post Canada. At the same time, she decided to take a professional risk and start a public affairs and diversity consultation business with some friends, Sangam Consulting. Feeling an unfamiliar and exciting new joy in running a business, Sumi eventually divested the partnership and spearheaded Niche Strategies on her own to help startups in Toronto and San Francisco.
“The passion and energy in the space invigorated me. I also found that in my interactions with startup founders, especially technical ones, that they needed help with go-to-market strategies and simple stakeholder or investor relations; all of which my background in politics, strategic planning and communications could help them with.”
As a result of her work through Niche Strategies, Sumi unexpectedly caught the eye of Microsoft Canada and was taken on as the Public Relations Lead for their Corporate Affairs team. While this has since become her “daytime job”, Sumi has continued running and growing Niche Strategies as her own business.
While many people would be satisfied and even overwhelmed with this level of professional success, Sumi is also an advisor at AVM Equity, a boutique firm that provides consultation on go-to-market strategies for start-ups, in addition to being a co-founder of TEx Ventures, “an integrated, multifaceted platform that aims to provide comprehensive support to the next generation of start-ups.”
What makes TEx Ventures different than her other tech consulting endeavors? Sumi started TEx Ventures with other members of the North American Tamil community after seeing eagerness from many in the community to venture into the start-up world. Leveraging the global networks of the TEx Ventures team, it aims to help mentor, fund and accelerate the formation and growth of startups from the ideation stage to the Series A funding round.
As a self-described “unconventional techie” Sumi admitted to feeling overwhelmed from time-to-time as the face of several tech consulting companies without a “traditional” tech background.
“I’m a minority woman. On top of that, I don’t come from the tech industry. I’ve felt intimidated throughout my career as one of a handful of minority women in Queen’s Park and now in the tech world. But like everything that I have come across in life, I have learned to overcome obstacles and learn to be confident in myself. I’m lucky to have a really great support system. If I allowed self-doubt and fear to overwhelm me, I would have missed out on all the great experiences that have happened to me.”
While Sumi may be an unconventional techie, her career is only growing and her work continues to garner attention in the industry. Her advice to aspiring Tamil entrepreneurs?
“You don’t have to do it all by yourself and don’t be afraid to fail. Whether it is a matter of ego, or just not knowing – many of the Tamil entrepreneurs that I have met feel that they need to prove to others by doing everything on their own. Don’t burn yourself out. There are many resources and professionals out there that can help – you don’t have to be the expert in everything. It’s ok to fail, just learn from it.”