Technological Toughness in Uncertain Times

Kootenay folk are a tough bunch. We home-cook meals, chop firewood and kindling, shovel mountains of powdery snow and drive icy swerves every winter. We troubleshoot the plumbing when we can’t find a professional to make the trek our way. Some of us hunt deer, and others hunt mushrooms. We grow gardens, scale the tallest branches of fruit trees, and preserve or freeze what we reap. We work hard at jobs in health care, tourism, business, and resource sectors. We’re no strangers to taking care of ourselves, our families, and our neighbours.

Resilience is our middle name. But how tough are we when it comes to technological resilience? One of the questions asked globally during this pandemic is: how can we make our communities more resilient, self-reliant, and adaptable?

Top photo: Kaslo’s Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre includes a music shop and live stream studio. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

What Doesn’t Break Us Connects Us

Tech resilience is not quite a dinnertime topic, but many would argue that it should be. One thing is undoubtedly true: the pandemic has forced most of us to rely on digital connection more than ever before. The pandemic has shown us the importance of being tech resilient.

The old government building in Kaslo, BC, now houses the Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

To find out how we are doing in the Kootenays in tech resilience, I spoke to a person who lives and breathes all things digital. Jean-Marc La Flamme lives in Kaslo and has been instrumental in creating Kaslo’s Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre (KLIC). This centre is a brand new not for profit organization located in the provincial government building, a former courthouse owned by the village. The centre is a partnership between the Chamber of Commerce, BC Rural Centre, and Kaslo InfoNet (KiN), the local internet service provider. Courtesy of KiN, the centre has a 10 gigabit fibre internet line and its own datacentre.

Jean-Marc spent the last decade building coworking innovation centres across the country, including in Revelstoke, Golden, and Kaslo. Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre is going a step further than other rural tech associations by building digital applications for the region. What does that mean? 

Jean-Marc La Flamme

Here’s an example: A team at Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre recently produced a video app so Kaslo can get off Zoom. “It’s super slick,” says Jean-Marc. Launched before Christmas, the app is hosted on servers in the innovation centre’s basement and connected to the town’s internet, the Kaslo InfoNet. A good portion of the community is using the app already.

Why is this so important? 

Jean-Marc explains: “Largely everything we’re using today has been built by Americans. There is a ton of really great Canadian ingenuity in existing software platforms that we can leverage. We are so dependent on services like Facebook and Amazon, and now people are starting to understand this.” 

For Jean-Marc, “We are trying hard to become a resilient community, as we are already. But on a digital front, we rely too heavily on imported products. We need to be building those. This is just the start,” he says. 

We’re All Techies

Jean-Marc is Managing Director of ReGen Villages Canada. ReGen Villages builds regenerative and resilient communities: rural communities that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and economic opportunities. These are small regenerative villages that are connected to the environment using online platforms. Regenerative describes processes that restore, renew or revitalize the health of individuals, communities, and ecosystems. Meaning they consider the environmental, social, and economic factors in a community. He is creating an experimental zone in the Kootenays.

You might not think what Jean-Marc is discussing applies to you. He would disagree. Everybody is a player in the tech game. 

“Who’s not “techie”? There are different levels of techie. Everybody is using technology right now. The pandemic is a terrible thing, but it kind of kicked Canadians in the butt to become techie and use video apps and use social media and use a smartphone. So everybody is techie to a certain degree.” 

Members in the co-working space at Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

Jean-Marc stresses that many community members are involved in many different ways with the innovation centre, not just meeting and working. There are three sub groups including Civic Engagement (modern communications & marketing), Creative Collective (arts, events & culture) and the Tech Team (building digital applications). There is even a music shop and livestream studio as part of the centre. It’s not just a place for paying members, it was also built for youth programs and intergenerational needs.  

“The cornerstone of the story is not one individual. It’s how people come together to work together. None of this can grow without partners. We think every Kootenay community should have a space like this.” 

High-Tech Wizard Guides Towards a Kinder Future

We spoke to one member of Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre who lives in Kaslo: Pilar Portela. Pilar has been a Kootenay resident for seven years and is on the Extreme Techie end of the techie spectrum. She is a master in the tech sector in this area. Pilar and her husband have lived in the Kootenays for six years, first in Rossland and now in Kaslo. 

Pilar Portella

She is a senior executive and speaker with over 20 years of business operations, project management, and executive roles in the  high-tech sector. She is a highly experienced business owner and identifies as a serial entrepreneur. She won the 2020 B.C. Business Association Women of the Year Award. You might be wondering how someone like Pilar ended up here, and what she can teach us about succeeding in business in rural communities. 

Pilar’s career path wasn’t a traditional one. She faced some unique challenges in her childhood in Costa Rica that set her on her path. 

“My mother became a widow when she was 37, and we were five small children, and she worked really hard and came up with the most creative things to keep the five of us going. Going to good schools, and becoming professionals, all of us. She did it by herself. That entrepreneurial mode that my mother had and that work ethic certainly is one of my biggest inspirations.”

Remarkably, Pilar didn’t start attending post-secondary education until she was in her late thirties. But she always worked in the tech industry in Costa Rica, and in the United States and Canada. And throughout this time, she was always running businesses on the side. She is all about the side hustle. 

Pilar faced hardships working in a male-dominated industry for the last couple of decades. 

“I have overcome many, many challenges, gender-wise. The career that I am in, high tech, women 10-15 years ago, you can see some more women but certainly 20-30 years ago we were very very few.” 

But Pilar didn’t let this slow her down.

“While that was in general a challenge, I never actually thought of it too much. I didn’t see my own limits. I just kept going. So it was a very interesting path that gave me certainly some successes and some failures along the way.” 

Kaslo is showing how small towns can be technological hubs & adapt to new economic and social opportunities. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

Pilar worked for five years in California’s Silicon Valley as a Director of Software Development. She left Silicon Valley to accept a Kelowna job, a city with a growing tech sector. While she loved the Okanagan, she came looking for a life that was closer to nature and the outdoor activities she loves. She found that in the Lower Columbia region of the West Kootenays, where she launched two businesses. 

She chose the Trail/Rossland area because the Lower Columbia region is part of Metal Tech Alley, a developing a high-tech and industrial innovation business corridor across the West Kootenays. The hub of Metal Tech Alley is the greater Trail area, which has traditionally been heavily industrial. Tech companies are transforming this area with a commitment to balancing a growing economy with support for the broader community and making sure the land can help people be healthy and safe.

It was in Rossland, in this town of under 4,000 residents, that Pilar found what she did not find in Silicon Valley, an area with a population nearing four million. It was the beauty of this area that brought her here. Something else entirely has made her stay: community.

For Pilar, living here “allows you to concentrate and come up with bigger ideas if you like, or better ideas. It’s also a place where you’re able to execute them, not just think about them. It gives you that sort of space that you need and lots of wonderful people around you that are always there to help you kind of bounce ideas and come up with other comments that always help improve whatever you’re doing. Very open arms. And just really, really nice.”

Pilar is running two businesses right now. Her latest and ninth business is Astra Smart Systems & i4C Innovation. She really is a serial entrepreneur! i4C is a tech integrator that partners with tech companies to design and put in place complex industrial solutions. Pilar’s company built the i4C Innovation Centre in Trail.  

Her second company, A.P. Tech Solutions, in operation since 2013, assists companies to design and create tech-based solutions also with the hope of solving worldwide issues. 

Pilar felt it was essential to go beyond software development and start a socially conscious business. Her businesses have the look of a social enterprise, but they are not. 

“It is a traditional private enterprise, but I have a very social view to it so what happens is I take commercial ventures and add social aspects. Things that also benefit the world or the community. I don’t just take the project for the money’s sake. I take it because there is a lot more to it.”

Members of Kootenay Lake Innovation Centre also have access to use this Tesla carshare. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

There’s a term for what Pilar is talking about: a circular economy, and it is the same thing Jean-Marc is doing. It is a way of growing the economy to benefit communities and precious resources like clean air and safe drinking water. Another way of looking at a circular economy is to recognize that our resources are finite, making business regenerative by design. 

Inspiring Women in Business

Pilar encourages other digitally inclined women to take the plunge and start their businesses from the Kootenays. Starting a business can be a great option for women who live in small Kootenay towns that often lack economic opportunities. Online businesses, especially, can be a great option for women who live rurally and support themselves and their families.

Pilar is only positive about this option:

“Don’t be afraid. Certainly, the location, especially in tech, makes absolutely no difference. You can do as big a project as you want to, and there are clear examples outside of mine. But even for projects like mine, that are quite successful, I have my teams all over the world, and that doesn’t stop you from being super successful and dealing with large global challenges, too. So don’t limit yourself to just local because you’re local, as far as your clientele, your customer base.”

“We need to encourage young girls and boys to look at girls in a very different way.” She believes that young girls need to start out having the same access to tech tools and games that boys have. And young boys need to be taught to be supportive of young girls’ engagement with tech. 

Pilar at an opening event for i4C Innovation.

Pilar supports Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and hopes to inspire women in the region who identify as such and are hoping to start businesses of their own.

“It’s critical that they have something to look up to. So that they know that they can do it. I am a believer that immigrants who are very resilient and also have different ways of doing things are a great way of getting some new innovation.”

Pilar has some advice for women just starting or considering starting a business: 

“Just keep doing it. You’re not going to always succeed, and some of your ideas are not going to be great, but don’t spend ten years just writing a business plan. Jump in, get going. It’s great that we have a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, unless it’s transformed into action, it’s nothing. Don’t think about it so long that the opportunity is gone.”

A KLIC member at work in the co-working space. Photo courtesy of KLIC.

Jean-Marc La Flamme of Kaslo would agree. He sees techies like Pilar as the economic development driver in our small rural communities. According to Jean-Marc, “It’s up to the citizens to come together and really explore what that means, and it means a lot more than just money. It means social and environmental benefit.”

Everything Pilar does pivots on her belief that business success requires collaboration. The solutions to our most significant issues lie within coming together to find answers. 

Pilar has lived and worked all over the map. And yet she found a true home here in the Kootenays. Being active outdoors is very important to her. She loves enjoying the nature our area has to offer. 

“Wherever I am, I need to have a good internet connection. That’s the one thing. So whether it is wi-fi or landline, you still need to get that fiberoptic or good strong connection. Other than that, nothing else stops me, precludes me from doing the type of work I do.”

She continues to seek inspiration from living here. 

She says, “The West Kootenays inspires you and challenges you at the same time in a good positive way, so you’re able to figure out things, as you’re solving issues that are not critical but important here, you are literally solving issues that are critical, not just important elsewhere, right. So this makes it a very interesting place to be able to do that.”