New B.C. minister reveals her vision for the tech sector
Brenda Bailey believes her background as a tech exec and business leader will help her weather the challenges of a tough portfolio.
Since her appointment last week as the B.C. government’s new Minister for Jobs, Economic Development, and Innovation, Brenda Bailey is wasting no time. Days into the new role, she’s already set up calls to communicate her ideas and vision with the province’s press, as well as started a dialogue with key industry groups such as BC Tech – a pace that Jill Tipping, CEO of the organization, called “a record for a new minister.”
Bailey is no stranger to the legislature. Her selection by new premier David Eby as one of the 23 ministers for his cabinet is a natural promotion rather than a surprise appointment: for the past two years she served as the Parliamentary Secretary for Technology and Innovation. Now in charge of a wider mandate, Bailey hopes to bring her experience from the Vancouver tech industry – including founding Canada’s first women-owned and operated video game studio and serving as the executive director of DigiBC – to British Columbia’s economy at large.
“To have the broader portfolio of jobs, economic development, and innovation – I'm honoured,” she told the Vancouver Tech Journal about her appointment. “And I think also it's a testament to the fact that this government cares about business. To elevate someone who comes from that business background, and give me the opportunity to lead in this way, is greatly appreciated.”
Despite her deep relationships with the province’s industries, her term is unlikely to be an easy one. On the eve of her appointment, the local economy has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and will likely be hindered further by global economic headwinds and supply chain disruptions. Financial uncertainty tends to dampen funding deployments: a move that has the potential to strangle innovation. At the same time, demand for talent in the province still outweighs supply. All three challenges fall under Bailey’s new portfolio.
Nevertheless, the new minister points out that she’s weathered these issues before – albeit as a private sector exec. “I know what it's like to put everything you have on the line for your business,” she said. “There are many conflating global occurrences right now that are impacting business. I remember what that feels like. In [the ‘00s] we went through it all. I think my empathy and understanding for what businesses are experiencing is actually going to be a real benefit in this role.”
Bailey’s vision for the ministry
On the topic of jobs – the first responsibility on her slate – Bailey points to the work the B.C. government has already begun, which she aims to continue and develop. She highlights the StrongerBC Economic Plan, which launched last year and focuses on clean and inclusive growth: two pillars which Bailey suggests are personal concerns to her. The Provincial Nominee Program, too, is another initiative the new minister wishes to celebrate. The program helps employers recruit and retain international talent to address the province’s labour needs, and was made permanent during Bailey’s tenure as Parliamentary Secretary for Technology and Innovation.
“Talent is our greatest strength,” she said. “We’ve got extraordinary people in our province – you know this from your work in the tech sector; it's amazing the quality of people we have here. But we can't have continued growth if we don't solve for the labour shortages that we're faced with. So we've got to really look at it from both sides. Domestically, it's very important that we grow high-quality talent internally. And we're doing that in a multitude of different ways – supporting the expansion of tech seats [at universities], for example. But also, we need to really continue to ensure that we can bring in talent that we're missing.”
Economic development, the second priority in her trio of responsibilities, is also a key concern for the minister. Less than a week into the job, Bailey is – understandably – yet to unveil her plans of how to push B.C.’s industries forward. Nevertheless, she hopes to build on the robust relationships held by the minister of trade, and remains optimistic about weathering the economic storms on the global horizon.
“I will share with you that we just want to ensure that our businesses can remain competitive in these really difficult headwinds,” she said. “We've got a bit of an advantage in that British Columbia came through the pandemic, relatively speaking, quite well. And our economy's leading the country. So not to say we're not paying attention to the forces at play, but we do know that we do have some strength to build on.”
The final component of her portfolio – innovation – could be challenged by those forces. In Bailey’s mandate letter from the premier, much emphasis is placed on cleantech and green-adjacent technologies: a focus that is reinforced by the B.C. government’s recent investments, including $11.5 million into the Integrated Marketplace Initiative; $2 million in this year’s Fast Pilot program; and $500 million for the InBC fund, which is set to prioritize the CleanBC strategy. Although the government is doubling down on funding climate solutions, Bailey says that money will still be available for innovation outside of that vertical.
“Cleantech is a priority, but it's not certainly the only priority,” she suggested. “So, that said, [InBC is] an opportunity that exists for companies that are scaling. But I think also [that] innovation runs the spectrum. And we've got a multitude of sectors that are doing extraordinary work and innovation. Hydrogen, biotech, agritech – there are a lot of areas where innovation is a priority. So cleantech is very, very important, but not our only priority.”
Development, not recovery
Interestingly, at a time when the economy still needs to climb a steep curve, the title of the ministry has changed. Bailey’s predecessor – Ravi Kahlon – presided over jobs, economic recovery, and innovation; Bailey, however, will helm economic development. The start of her tenure may be sluggish, with economic growth projected to slow to 0.4 percent next year.
“Economic recovery was a good title for that timeframe, but economic development is our focus,” she said of the shift in the title. “And, of course, the acronym [JEDI] is a delight. It's a side benefit, I think. We're having a lot of fun with it. And you know, there's a lot of really important work ahead for us. And the ministry is broad, and it has a big mandate, and we're going to be working at a gallop. And so to have a little bit of fun with the name JEDI I think is good for us all.”
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