Mar 17, 2022
This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series to celebrate women leading in Ottawa for International Women’s Week (IWW 2022) and shine the spotlight on our IWW 2022 featured leaders to unpack their passion and purpose.
Each year, five inspirational leaders are selected to represent International Women’s Week. They are role models achieving a significant impact on our economy, community and society, and embody the spirit, goals and values of IWW.
Data, machine learning and AI augments impact across sectors, creating life changing technologies that transform how we live, work and play.
But to drive meaningful change, we need equitable representation among the leaders driving its evolution.
That’s why Solmaz Shahalizadeh, Shopify’s former Head of Data Science and Engineering, became a Founding Partner of Backbone Angels: investing in women and non-binary founders with a focus on investments in Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour-led companies.
There, she channels over a decade of experience leveraging data to support diverse founders—like bringing Shopify Capital to life and getting $3 billion dollars to founders otherwise neglected by traditional financial institutions.
She joins us to share why great career paths aren’t linear, what you need to know to impress investors, and the difference between sponsors and mentors (and why you should have both).
Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts / Castbox
Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless the format, there is stellar content in store for you!
Naomi Haile: I would love to hear your origin story.
Solmaz Shahalizadeh: One of my earliest memories of tech is my mom feeding punch cards into Fortran machines as a university assignment. I was quite young and asked, “Are you doing crafts?” And she said, “No, this instructs this computer to do something.” I thought that was magical.
I grew up with math and stats and in a culture where it’s common for women to study related fields. In Iran, girls don’t grow up thinking that they can’t do math.
We should impart from an early age that regardless of your gender, or other parts of your background, you can learn and like science, and apply it to other fields. Tech opens doors.
Naomi: How did you first get into tech?
Solmaz: I did my undergrad in computer science at the University of Tehran, in Iran. At McGill University, I did my second masters degree in machine learning, researching how computers and mathematical methods can solve biological problems. I had a minor in bioinformatics.
We used machine learning and data to build outcome predictors for breast cancer. You can tell a patient what their likelihood of recurrence is and provide treatment based on that.
The work was very successful. There is joy in bringing different fields together, and creating something that otherwise couldn’t exist.
Naomi: You were a cancer researcher but upon graduating you moved into the financial services industry as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Tell us about that transition.
Solmaz: I joke that careers are more like a random walk that you try to fit into an overall direction. After my master’s, I did one year in a PhD program. But that wasn’t for me. I wanted to be in a fast-paced environment.
I applied for a bunch of jobs and got accepted to Morgan Stanley’s new grad program. I had fantastic managers and leaders who helped me find my voice and my focus. I got to apply my data, machine learning and tech skills. I got to live in New York City. I’ll always be thankful for the experience.
Naomi: Did you have mentors? Or did you just trust your gut when it came to making your next move?
Solmaz: I always ask for advice and feedback from people I respect. My supervisor from my masters in Sweden, before McGill, is one of my greatest mentors. I thought because he’s a university professor he’s going to tell me to finish my PhD. But he said, “you seem to succeed in the things you take on. Why not follow your curiosity?”
That was great advice. We don’t know what the next 10 steps will be in our career or life, but we can pick the next best one, or something that opens doors.
I have always thought about my career in terms of choices. Will this give me more options, or will it remove them?
That curiosity brought me to Shopify. They were hosting a hackathon called Random Hacks of Kindness in their office one weekend, so I drove from Montreal to Ottawa to attend.
It was the first time I engaged with Shopify. Its people were so passionate about what they were working on. A couple weeks later, I went for interviews and got an offer. That was eight and a half years ago.
Naomi: You’ve worked on some incredible projects at Shopify.
Solmaz: When I joined Shopify, there were around 10 people, and we had around 100,000 merchants. Now my team is over 500 people, and we have millions of merchants. It’s been the ride of a lifetime.
When I joined the data team we were about to go public. When you’re going public, you have to craft a narrative for your company, and a lot of that involves data and analysis. My team built a financial data warehouse for a deeper look into our business.
With my experience from Morgan Stanley it seemed like something I could add a lot of value to. So I raised my hand. It was a lot of hard work, because we did it in such a short time, and we were changing technologies.
We ended up having one of the most successful IPOs in North American history. I take pride in that.
Afterwards, because I showed the executive team that you can use data to make informed decisions, we started building products using data and machine learning in AI, including Shopify Capital. There, we give merchants cash based on probabilistic data models. There’s human oversight but we start with machine learning.
To date, we have extended over $3 billion to merchants.
For the past three and a half years, I’ve led all of Shopify’s data science, platform engineering and merchant facing analytical products. Anything we do to leverage data for our merchants is the work of my team.
Naomi: What was the go-to-market strategy, and what research was involved in making this happen?
Solmaz: By leveraging insights from our platform, we can predict businesses success and give them capital. How committed is a merchant to their business? How often do they check on their products? How are they growing their business?
Financial institutions have nothing close to our model. As a result, we’ve been able to help businesses no one else bet on. When COVID-19 hit, traditional financial institutions took money away from entrepreneurs due to uncertainty.
Thanks to the power of data at Shopify, we saw entrepreneurship growing faster than ever. We offered funding in new countries to new merchants at a speed unmatched by anyone else.
In areas with heavy lockdowns like Italy and Spain, the number of people starting a business went up. We offer a 90-day free trial to anyone wanting to start a business. We use our data to make commerce better for everyone.
Naomi: About a year ago you and your founding team started Backbone Angels. What’s your mission?
Solmaz: Me and my nine co-founders met at Shopify and bonded over our challenges and experiences as women leaders, who were sort of the backbone of Shopify success. We wanted to bring that experience and support to people outside of Shopify.
In the last three years, women-led startups raised just 25% of all the rounds of funding. This is not from an absence of deal flow or lack of ideas, but from a lack of intention. We invest in companies led by women and people of color, because representation in positions of power is fundamental to driving change.
We need women on cap tables, women who have ownership of their money, companies and ideas.
Naomi: When you invest, what interests you when it comes to the problems these founders are solving?
Solmaz: When I talk to founders, I want to know why they’re passionate about an idea. Is it a problem they have faced and want to solve? Do they see an opportunity to disrupt their field?
Each Backbone co-founder brings a wealth of experience in different fields. We want to help founders not just with money, but in getting through their journey and scaling.
There’s not one specific industry or product stage we’re in. It’s wherever we think we can add the most value. Even if one of our angels is investing in something, the others will still offer support. That’s the power of the collective.
Naomi: More emerging tech companies are tapping into data to inform their decisions. What opportunities are you seeing in this space?
Solmaz: For me, that’s how we can bring the power of data, machine learning and AI into the products we use day to day. This technology can be life changing. I’m interested in biotech.
Naomi: What advice do you have for folks who are working on a business idea, or ready to seek funding from investors?
Solmaz: Pre-seed, what comes through is the story you’re telling about your product, and how you envision its growth.
Why do you care about this problem? How do you see it growing? Nail that, and make people excited about what you’re passionate about as a founder.
Naomi: How do you manage your time?
Solmaz: It’s a work in progress. Priorities change. What’s been useful is having a clear idea of my priorities, and dedicating time where I will keep them front and center.
Personal gratification and happiness comes from making sure that what you do aligns with what inspires you.
Be aware of the things you care about. It’s ever changing. But having clear priorities is the first step to figuring out how you can spend your time better.
Naomi: I completely agree.
Solmaz: There are times where I’ll fail and my calendar is insane. I have capable leaders on my team, close to half are women, which I take a lot of pride in for a technical team.
As you grow, learn how to rely on others, work with others, nurture those around you so that they can do things better than you, and support them to get to that stage. When you take chances on people, they often surprise you—in the best way.
I’ve always had excellent leaders, and people who have sponsored me. Sponsors make your careers in the rooms that you’re not in. They talk about you when you’re not there.
It’s on each of us to share with others and open doors. It never takes away from you. If anything, it increases impact.
People often ask, “how can I find a mentor?” and I think you should focus on finding both mentors and sponsors.
Naomi: What can people do to receive that kind of support?
Solmaz: Have clarity around what you need help with. Everyone’s busy. Saying, “I’m doing XYZ, is this something you can help me with?” removes the back-and-forth conversations people might not have the time for.
Clarify what you need help with so that this person, with their limited time, can make the greatest impact.
An intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.
Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.
As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.
Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.
In support of its Women Founders and Owners strategy, Invest Ottawa offers programs and services that enable and accelerate the growth and success of women entrepreneurs from every walk of life. Visit www.investottawa.ca/women to learn more!