Abdullah Snobar is Executive Director of the DMZ. He is responsible for the strategic direction and continued growth of the DMZ, he leads in helping Canada’s most promising startups scale their companies and create innovative technology that changes lives. A sought-after public speaker, his expertise has landed him coverage in both print and broadcast publications including BNN, The Globe and Mail, Financial Post and CBC Radio. Abdullah has played a pivotal role in nurturing up-and-coming Canadian talent and boosting entrepreneurship from coast to coast to coast. He holds a B. Comm and MBA from Ryerson University. Most recently, Abdullah was awarded Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 by Caldwell Partners.
Abdullah Snobar talks about the importance of people first and what we can do to take steps towards mental health. He also shares what his organization, the DMZ, is doing to support the mental health of their founders and why it matters.
First of all, I want to thank you again for participating in this interview. I think the work that you do in the tech industry and at the DMZ is amazing. It is really an honor to be able to feature you.
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Yeah, so I guess I wanted to start off with showcasing and talking more about what you do. A lot of people in Canada know of the amazing work that you do at DMZ as Executive Director. And DMZ is so known in our tech industry as a world-leading accelerator. Can you tell us more about what you do and your role there?
Yes, absolutely. As Executive Director, I overlook the entire operation from what we do here locally in Canada and what we do internationally. My job is to enable entrepreneurs to build and grow a community of successful businesses, which will hopefully become global powerhouses. Definitely no small task, but it’s done with a great team.
Ultimately, the DMZ is an accelerator focusing on supporting startups and putting founders first. The way we support entrepreneurs is by giving them access to coaching, access to customers both locally and globally, and enterprise customers more specifically. We provide access to an international venture capital and angel community and finally, access to a strong community at large with more detail towards government connection, talent, and international market opportunities.
It’s quite the full-service suite in supporting entrepreneurs throughout their journey. The idea is to expedite their potential growth, rather than trying to do it on their own. It is a support unit. It is a place for them to be able to leverage our services, their peers, their network, and really make the journey a little less hectic in a sense.
Thank you for sharing all of that. I know especially in in Toronto, the DMZ’s respected for so much. Being the gathering space where there's such community. There are so many services really available for founders at all sorts of stages. That's amazing to hear the work that you're doing.
Thank you. Yes, absolutely. And obviously, all this kind of evolved over time. I think we all learn as we go. Where the DMZ has gone so far is really thanks to our staff and to our entrepreneurs that have helped us evolve over time as well.
That's so great to hear, especially with so many people coming together. The other thing I was wondering about. You’ve been very active in many different events and publications. And in many business or tech settings, we talk a lot about our organization, or our startup. But I'm curious to learn more about who you are as a person. How would you describe yourself in one word?
First of all, there's a story for every single person that’s in this industry, that's in this space. On my end, I think the one word that probably describes me is passionate. And that really stems from many different things. I personally have a lot of passion towards people, and passion towards the industry that I'm actually in, which allows me to continue doing the thing that I do.
But obviously, I grew up outside of Canada. I came to Canada as a very fortunate young person, and had the chance to really kind of grow and evolve myself through the ranks of the community and the society that we live within.
And it's been a great journey. But I think the one word, more like two word combined, would be purposeful passion. I always talk about the idea of purposeful passion, being a driver of giving you better clarity in your journey of what you do and why you do things. Those two words put together describes me.
Thank you for sharing that. That whole piece about purposeful passion, it's such an important reminder for so many founders at any stage of business. Early or late, trying to reconnect with that. How do you connect with that, your purposeful passion? And where is it leading you now?
When I started off my career, I didn't really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go with things, and what defined me as an individual. But now that I look back at the few careers that I've had, they all had one common denominator: that was really around people.
The purposeful passion that drives me is the ability to have impact on people that I support. And even people that I don't support directly. That's my underlying mandate of my purposeful passion. As long as I have a connection back to supporting and helping people, in one way, shape, or form. As long as it's checked off my box, it reminds me of why I'm here and why I started. It gives me the fuel to continue moving along.
Here's one thing I was wondering about. For many of us who are leading companies, accelerators, and more, we often cover traditional business topics at conferences. It could be investing, scaling. If you had to give, let's say like a TED talk about something that you're not known for, what would it be about?
If I had to give a TED talk, it would probably be around purposeful passion and being able to define that and what it looks like. Making that your driver to be a better entrepreneur or person in general.
And within that, a sub-TED talk on the wisdom of failure. Especially as Canadians, I don't think we actually understood the wisdom of failure and that failure is part of the journey. Failing is actually what helps you become stronger and better. We just go a bit harder on ourselves when we do fail, rather than understanding the wisdom of it. Failure has the ability to make you better, stronger, more capable, and hopefully more successful the next time.
That whole piece about failure. Even just hearing you say that, so many entrepreneurs can really relate because we experience so much failure on a daily basis. Just being able to own that journey is such a powerful thing.
As a segue, you've shared so much about purposeful passion and this different side to entrepreneurship. For you as a person, I'm curious to know: what are your values? How do those values show up in your work?
I would say, I have personal values in life. Again, I spoke about the fact that my purposeful passion comes back to people, which is a component of trust, loyalty and respect.
I believe if you can respect each other, then you can go a long way in being able to achieve the impossible. If you have a level of trust, then you never have to worry about what the next person's going to do it behind you, in front of you, or to the side of you. You're completely and fully dedicated to the cause at hand. And if there's loyalty, then you always know you'd go above and beyond to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
From a value perspective, those are the three values that I hold as an individual. And how that's translated into my organization right now. At DMZ, we keep people first. The values of the DMZ, which are still quite new, we formed as a collective with the team. Value number one is “equity over everything.” If you think about it, it brings in every level of trust, loyalty, and respect that you can imagine because it takes away the obstacle or the idea of color, religion, faith, or ethnicity being a burden. Instead, it’s now part of our success.
The other value that we have at DMZ is “founders first,” which means put the people first before the company. And I think sometimes we mistaken the fact that we're here building great businesses and we're not. We're actually here building great people and great founders. And in turn, they're the ones that ultimately are able to create great businesses.
And finally our last value at DMZ translates from my own personal stuff is “be great.” Just be great. It's the idea of being your best self and stop comparing yourself to others. Compare yourself to your own highest potential. Be able to go above and beyond where you can, while remember why you're doing it. The purpose that you have bestowed upon yourself.
Even just hearing you speak about that, your values are so clear and it really reflects in your organization. I feel like that's something that our industry can learn from. So much of the time, the media and events focus on things like IP or raising money. I love that for yourself as a leader and also for the DMZ, you have such a focus on that human part. That the founders first that you're mentioning. I think that's incredible.
Yeah. And I think that's typically the part that's usually forgotten. It reminds the founders themselves to focus on you as a person, before you're focused on the business.
Exactly. I was so excited to do this interview because we both share a passion around mental health. To give context to readers, the For Founders by Founders movement was created after I experienced the passing of my brother. He was a COO in our city and I had shared the entrepreneurial journey with him for 14 years.
To be frank, this journey has been really hard. It made me realize that we don't have enough of these conversations about mental health. I would really love to ask, what does mental health mean to you?
Let me just say Cherry Rose, from your end, it's obviously never easy. I'm glad that you're getting out there and talking about the reality of mental health, mental illness, and really how it impact. Sometimes, it doesn't show that it's impacting us in some ways.
I think mental health in many different ways, it's the emotional, psychological and social well-being. Well-being affects how we think, how we act, how we feel. And it really does kind of translate back into how we handle stress, how we relate to others, and how we make certain choices. It can be difficult but manageable as long as there is the right groups, the right opportunities, and the right resources in place to support it.
I love how you highlighted that much of mental health is being able to have the support. In our industry, there are a lot of organizations bringing people together to have deeper conversations. We have stuff like EO, YPO, and Founder City.
As a member of many of these groups, a big piece is spending time sharing our story. In your experience, why do you think it's important for someone to share their story?
A big part of it naturally, when you're affected by mental health and you're going through what you're going through, you sometimes imagine that you're the only one going through that kind of stuff. Being able to share and open up allows yourself and others to really believe and realize that you're not alone.
And that this is actually quite common. And it's quite standard. And it's not unusual. It just a matter of finding the right networks and peer groups to support you along the way. The stigma of hiding it and being ashamed is definitely not healthy for the individual, not healthy for the families, and not healthy for society as a whole.
It doesn't support anyone when people start to think it should be a secret away from anyone or that they shouldn't be talking about it. These are not easy problems to solve, but they should be talked about, the way that we talk about everything else. In the exact same way that we support companies in building business, we've got to support companies with mental health and mental illness if need be.
Also, I wanted to commend you for being one of the first interviews for this movement. To talk about mental health requires courage. Why have you chosen to share your story with us?
Naturally, people imagine that when you're in a good position, like doing well in life, that you've got things figured out and that everything's good to go. But we all deal with a certain kind of magnitude of stress, mental health, and everything else.
No matter where you are or what you do, it's important not to be over consumed by how successful others are on the outside. Everybody has a story and everybody is probably dealing with something. Every human being is dealing with something. Every single human that you interact with, that you have in your life around you, beside you, behind you, has a story. To ignore that or not take that into consideration would be ridiculous.
It brings us back to the idea of purposeful passion and my focus on people. If you want a thriving nation, if you want a growing economy, if you want things to be better, it all starts with people. And the positivity that people can actually bring from each other and to each other, is the power of the message.
That is wonderful. Not only that you are sharing with us, but that you're leading by example. To put into context, you have been a contributor for The Globe and Mail, CBC, and Forbes. In these publications, you speak very directly about mental health and entrepreneurs. And you're kind of started leading that dialogue and that charge.
For yourself, how do you address mental health in our industry?
It’s probably one of the most challenging things to actually address in the industry because sometimes, the idea of talking about mental health is equated with weakness. And if you're weak, then you can't build a successful tech company. Which makes it very problematic for people to actually openly speak about the idea of mental health.
You don't want an entrepreneur to be not talking about something. We're really building a business and not getting very far due to stress, means we cannot grow from our failures. Where we all grow, where we all become better, is when people do a bit of a rinse and repeat. You learn from it. They understand what's going on. And they're able to come back and contribute to others who are going through similar challenges.
We won't lie to ourselves. It's still a challenge in the tech space. It's not completely accepted on the basis that people, even the entrepreneurs or the founders themselves, have so much pressure on their shoulders. They're trying to build something and they have so many people relying on their success. Like looking back at their kids and wanting to make sure that they get food on the table. Or whether it's overall societal expectations of being a successful entrepreneur and being able to give back returns to others. It isn't easy.
The way we see it is if we offer our companies access to funding, customers, and talent, we should be able to offer them access to mental health resources and support. And through that, we have executives and residents, and not just entrepreneurs. Executives and residents that are focusing strictly on the person, not the business.
We've also partnered up with an online counseling platform that provides companies and startups with free access to therapy. That's called Inkblot. We've opened it up permanently for our community here to access at any given time that they need it.
A couple months ago, we offered it to any startup across the country, as a message to say that it is not just a Toronto or a DMZ issue. It's a nation-wide thing, and we should be able to open up these resources to everybody who needs therapy to help them become better.
That is an extraordinary initiative to be doing. When I heard that you were offering Inkblot and accessibility, it was such a win for our community. I know that for so many of us, we might get shy to admit, “Hey, I actually need therapy, or maybe a coach or a mentor.”
Thank you for leading that charge in Canada.
My absolute pleasure for sure. Hopefully, people start to realize how much impact it will have in the short term and long term. And more organizations start to jump on-board to really make it their top priority.
100%. Here's a question that I would love for us to end off with. As the Executive Director of DMZ, a lot of leaders and their teams may encounter this article. What is the most important thing that other people in our community can do, to help with mental health?
Founders and non-founders alike, everybody has a role to play in creating a comfortable environment for people to open up and talk. To remove themselves from the stigma of speaking about mental health.
The responsibility that we have on the grassroots level is to create good, strong, comfortable environments to open up and talk. Taking that one step further is being able to prioritize within their plans, within their areas, within their spaces about creating resources and giving opportunities for people to access mental health initiatives, resources, opportunities, and platforms.
A small step is looking at other organizations and their best practices, not just from the DMZ. Make the effort to have quick wins and providing the resources needed. Then taking it one step further and say, “Let’s make it competitive in a way.” Let's try to always up the ante on what we provide, in terms of services and support for people dealing with mental health.
People are looking to get better understanding of how to help others with mental health. It’s kind of a full circle and contagious. But it all starts with the individuals and being able to understand what they can do. By being open to the idea of mental health being a real thing, the thing that impacts a lot, if not most, people. Make sure that it's addressed in the best ways.
Amazing. Thank you so much, for everything that you do in the tech industry. The work that you do is incredible, especially in supporting and championing founders.
Thank you. My pleasure. I really enjoyed talking to you as well!