As I walked off the plane and landed on a typical February day in Toronto, -21C, my first thought was that sunny, hot and humid Singapore was very far away now.

Nevertheless, here I was ‘back’ in my hometown which I had not lived in for the past 12 years. And ready to start my new role in a new-ish city. I worked in the tech world in the United Kingdom and Singapore but had not been involved in the Toronto tech scene since my university days.

After 3 years of endless sun in Singapore and 6 years at a large organisation I was ready for a new challenge, new city and to find new ways to grow. I am now 6 months into Toronto living and the questions I get asked most are: What is your actual job? How are you really finding being ‘back’ after so long? And why did you move?

All fair, valid and loving questions by numerous friends, family and even strangers at networking events; but my response to the last question especially has always been ‘why not?!’. If we have learnt anything from the past 3 years, didn’t we learn that nothing is certain and there is never a perfect time for big change. Prepare as much as you can, cross your fingers and toes and jump in feet first. This might be a bit more of a reflection about me as a person than the most sound career advice, but the truth is there were a lot of things that seemed to just come together that pushed me towards another big change.

I am a person who constantly seeks out challenge or change in my environment (aka moving to London from Toronto when I was 21 years old, not knowing a soul), my work, always asking for projects internationally and with the biggest, hardest clients possible and personally, running 8 marathons in 5 years isn’t exactly something you dip in and out of.

But what kind of challenge was I really looking for?

Spending 6 years in a large management consultancy, this time taught me a lot about corporate business, personal responsibility, stakeholder management and the importance of following your passion. Within such a large organisation there is always a kindred spirit or a VP willing to sponsor a crazy, out of the box project…as long as it is sellable to a client afterwards. I appreciated when my creativity was given space but often felt stuck ‘in a box’ when my interests or passions were not immediately monetizable or quantifiable.

I wanted to build something- build a team, build a culture, build a product that makes a difference.

But I truly did not know how and where to start. I thought about building my own business and my friends often hear me say ‘my $1million dollar idea is…’ but I struggled to narrow things down. So I thought back to my career where I felt the most happy, challenged, successful and that was usually during innovation portfolio programs or working directly with startups during multi day facilitated workshops.

Surely there isn’t an organisation that builds businesses, has the immense variety my not so mildly ADHD brain craves, or an organisation with space and opportunity to challenge myself, make mistakes, and grow. Enter stage left, Benji Fisher calls me out of the blue, “Hey Jackie, you are Canadian right? Ever fancy moving back?”

Fast forward a year, the tail end of the pandemic and many lovely conversations later (where I often remarked to my partner “I don’t know if it’s a real job? It feels like we are just talking, not that I am being interviewed?!” And I am on a 36-hour flight from Singapore to Toronto via a 10-hour layover in the UAE.

I was really excited to join a smaller organisation (100 people in total) from my nearly 7k consultant team, but also nervous that the buck well and truly stopped with me. MOHARA had been operating in North America for some time with American based clients but no one had set up a satellite office in Toronto or Canada. I was instantly thankful for our Mexican team being on a similar time zone for all my silly questions and getting the chance to meet our amazing Bangkok team in person prior to my flight (shout out to BKK peeps!).

However, being the first to set up a new hub can get lonely post lunch time, when Asia and Europe are enjoying their evenings or sleeping.

I think this actually forced me to more consciously seek out connection and introductions within the team. I made an effort to meet at least 5-8 new people in the organisation every week and ask them who else I should speak with? What would they expect of me as a Product Owner and Partner?

Outside of MOHARA my professional network was largely Europe and Asia based. Although I was born in Toronto, I left just after university and my last job was as a waitress in the GTA, not exactly a technological hub. So what next? I used some of my carefully honed consulting skills and started googling ‘tech Toronto’ and talking to every person I met about what MOHARA does and how I was trying to set up the office here.

The more I physically inserted myself into the tech ecosystem, the more traction I got.

Speaking to old friends from high school, friends of family members and attending all events in Toronto with the word ‘tech’, ‘entrepreneur’, or ‘start up’ really helped me to get a sense of not only the landscape in Toronto but also how business works here. People I met were generous with their network and time, even willing to meet after only a few short LinkedIn exchanges.

After a few short weeks, with help from my global MOHARA team making numerous introductions I felt part of the Toronto network and opened our office at Richmond and Duncan, just south of super trendy Queen Street West.

Over the last 6 months I have attended over 30 events, spoken with 50+ founders, watched hundreds of pitches, attended the Collision conference with thousands of attendees and spoken to more new people in a short few months than the last 10 years of my life.

And what’s the verdict? What did I learn? Is MOHARA Canada a raving success?

I don’t know if we are raving just yet but we are dancing and on beat! We have made some excellent partnerships with accelerators, networks and universities in the tech ecosystem and are looking forward to making our first Canadian venture partnerships any day now.

I learnt to reflect often on how I approach things, not just on what I did. Changing strategy to adapt to the market has been key to meeting founders and partners where they are in their journey, building an authentic and mutually beneficial partnership.

Accepting that I will not immediately be great at everything, is also a difficult learning. When setting up a new hub you wear a lot of different hats and some might not always suit. But I am learning to lean on my strengths, push myself when I am in uncertain territory and ask for help. Building teams and rich relationships almost solely digitally is not only possible but super fun!

It is also true what they say, Rome was not built in a day and nor is a new city hub. Relationships take time and so do sales, as important as it is to adapt and pivot strategies it is also important to allow time for things to develop. Sometimes a founder isn’t ready today or tomorrow, but a few months later a simple interaction might spark a conversation.

And be kind to myself, I have always been a very goal oriented person so not immediately making a sale or hiring 10 people can sometimes make me feel like I’ve been unsuccessful. But speaking with my peers and MOHARA leadership team, I do realise, with a new appreciation, building a hub is difficult and takes time. I will take everything as a learning opportunity and celebrate wins often!

In conclusion, I am here still attending events, still talking to new people and learning new things. I plan to stay on track, remind myself of the end goal and have fun! How many times in your life do you get to start a new hub in a new city?

Quick reminder, making a big change can be scary, but what is the worst that could happen?

– Written by Jackie LaRocca

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