Spark Centre has experienced immense growth over the years, thanks to the leadership of its President and CEO, Sherry Colbourne. However it’s not only the organization that’s experienced growth, but Durham Region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as well — something that Sherry is quite passionate about. From her experiences in Oman to her current leadership at Spark Centre, Sherry Colbourne’s dedication to supporting the growth and success of entrepreneurs — both local and those with their sights set on Eastern Ontario — truly knows no bounds.
We caught up with Sherry to talk about the passion behind her entrepreneurial career, what led her to her current role at Spark Centre, her advice for entrepreneurs and more.
Q: You’ve been a full-time entrepreneur since 2004 with numerous “side hustles” on the go since 1988. What inspired you to become an entrepreneur? Was it something that you were always drawn to?
SHERRY: In the early years, I restricted my entrepreneurial ventures to side hustles while I developed myself in the Canadian tech sector. Corporate Canada moved too slow for me and the excitement of creating something of my own drew me to try my hand at “other” ventures. Eventually, when I tripped across a need that was near and dear to my heart, I jumped in with both feet and have never looked back.
Q: You were the co-founder of StartupOman — Oman’s only entrepreneurial community founded by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, focused on increasing innovation and entrepreneurship within an all-inclusive ecosystem. What made you want to create StartupOman and why did you exit?
SHERRY: When I moved to Muscat in 2012, I did so to assist my husband and the company he was running. True to my nature, after a few months of assisting him, I got bored and started poking around the Omani entrepreneurial ecosystem. It was just coming to life and there were a lot of gaps. Startup Oman endeavoured to close those gaps and provide a one-stop shop for all things entrepreneurial in Oman. I exited because I was in year four of what was supposed to be a 2-year stint. I turned it over to my business partner and returned home to Canada.
Q: Did your experience in Oman influence your career here in Canada in any way?
SHERRY: It influenced my career in Canada immensely as I had taken the opportunity in those four years abroad to travel throughout the Middle East and Europe and was keenly aware of how much talent was percolating in foreign geographies. I knew if I could attract that talent to Canada, we could seed another innovation corridor in Ontario and replicate the Toronto – Waterloo success except here in Durham Region and eastward. The momentum this would provide our local ecosystem was simply too enticing to step away from.
Q: What led you to join Spark Centre as President and CEO?
SHERRY: Joining Spark Centre was a natural step in that, as CEO of Spark, I was replicating my role as CEO of Startup Oman. I understood the requirements of building a thriving ecosystem and wanted to try it again in a more scaled fashion. Durham Region has the ideal make-up of urban and rural as well as connectedness to Toronto and Eastern Ontario to make it a model environment for seeding innovation. We have academic institutions focused on innovation, we have industry partners, we have talent, we have a welcoming and diverse population and we have a spirit of collaboration….all the right ingredients!
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you had seen startups facing that you wanted to solve?
SHERRY: I think the problems that startups face in Ontario are very similar to those faced in other areas of the world: funding, customers, industry connections, talent and global networks.
Q: What inspired the Pioneer Program and the subsequent launch of Synergy Lab Inc?
SHERRY: It was my own experience that inspired the creation of the Pioneer Program. I’ve built businesses here in Canada and abroad and it is infinitely more difficult to build a business in a foreign country where the rules, both spoken and unspoken, have to be learned. The Pioneer Program gives international entrepreneurs a leg up on hitting the ground.
Q: Spark Centre has experienced great growth during your time with the organization — from the size of the team and the organization’s programming and services, to its number of clients and successful initiatives like the Eastern Ontario Innovation Corridor. What do you feel has been the biggest attribute to this success and growth?
SHERRY: The same spirit needed by every entrepreneur…HUSTLE! And also surrounding myself with extremely talented people who share my vision for what the future could be.
Q: Tell me about your most recent initiative: the Eastern Ontario Innovation Corridor (EOIC).
SHERRY: The Eastern Ontario Innovation Corridor (EOIC) is, in its simplest form, a collaboration of like-minded incubators and accelerators, academic partners and stakeholders who wish to drive momentum along the corridor for the attraction and scaling of innovative businesses and the resulting economic impact they create.
Q: What do you hope to see in the near future for Durham Region’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem?
SHERRY: In a word…SCALE.
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of being the President and CEO of Spark Centre?
SHERRY: The most rewarding part of my role with Spark Centre has been working with my growing team of extremely talented individuals and the impact that we make on our community.
Q: What would be your biggest piece of advice for startups, whether here in Canada or for those planning to move their business to Canada?
SHERRY: Stay focused and hustle your butts off!