WMNinTECH: Angelique Mannella on taking chances and being open to unexpected opportunities

Angelique Mannella’s resume reads like a student’s post-graduation dream: time spent in the UK, Singapore, Finland, the Caribbean, and South Africa. Jobs in tech startups, at Nokia, consulting for the World Bank, and heading her own mobile gaming company.

Indeed, she is the first to admit that many of the opportunities she has pursued over the years ended up turning into the sort of dream job her younger self would have jumped at. But she’s also upfront about the fact that the turns her career have taken were never part of some big long-term plan; she’s reached the point she is now, as the first Associate Vice Principle of Innovation at McGill, by being open to unexpected opportunities, by taking chances, and by continuing to pursue the topics that have attracted her interest since her university days: technology and social impact.

“During my undergrad, I took six months off, went to Bolivia, and worked in a micro-credit organization. I was looking at technology and how technology and information systems were critical as a tool for poverty alleviation in the context of the organization I was working in, and I was really inspired by that,” Mannella told MTLinTECH. “As I was graduating from undergrad, if there had been a job opportunity that combined social impact and technology, that would have been my dream job. So when I created my company later, in some ways it was an answer to the job I would have loved to have when I was 20 years old.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree at McGill in electrical and computer engineering, Mannella worked for nearly seven years as a hardware engineer at Cisco Systems before pursuing a degree in information systems in the UK. She followed that up with an MBA completed partly in France and partly in Singapore, then stayed in Singapore an additional year working in a mobile money startup focused on developing a mobile couponing application for the Southeast Asian market.

There was no grand plan, there just happened to be interesting opportunities that presented themselves. And the one thing I’ve seen is that by being open to new experiences and new opportunities, they all of a sudden start to come to you.

“Then I decided to move to Finland and lived there for a couple years working for Nokia. I was a senior project manager managing multimedia software and middleware for Nokia phones and also doing business development. So I worked on all the partnerships and deals for music videos and games.”

Her next move, back to Montreal to start her own mobile gaming company, was a natural progression from her work with Nokia. In fact, Nokia gave her the seed funding to start her company, Decode Global, in 2012. Nokia was also the first client.

“Decode Global made games for kids about global issues and climate change and water scarcity. I ran that for a couple years, and at the same time I also started doing consulting work for the World Bank, specifically focused on developing startup and entrepreneurship ecosystems in emerging markets. I spent a lot of time working in the Caribbean and also different regions in Africa.”

Just under a year ago, she started working at McGill in her role as AVP of Innovation. She is the first person to hold the newly created title, and as such there’s still a lot of flexibility and uncertainty as to what the role entails.

“I don’t know if [the job] was created for me, though I’d like to think that, but I am the first person to have it. And it’s a brand new role at McGill; I have a new team, so it’s quite a good move for McGill, an innovative move on their part to create such a position. I would say I’m still defining it and defining what areas we’re going to focus on over the next couple of years. 2017 is just a year of trying things out and experimenting and prototyping.”

One part of her role that is clearly defined, and is fairly standard at most universities, is her responsibility for the technology transfer office. Essentially, it’s the contact point for a researcher who thinks they might have something that’s an invention. At that point, they meet with somebody on Mannella’s team to examine what technology and patents already exist on the market, and if it’s something that looks like it has commercialization potential. If it is decided that it does, they work with the researcher to develop a commercialization plan, patent the technology, then look if the best path to market is through a licensing deal or through creation of a startup. The rest of the role is new and a work in progress.

“The other side of it is I’m focused on developing the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at McGill and connecting all of the initiatives and programs we’re doing with students and researchers to broader ecosystems, both in Canada and internationally. Whatever we’re doing to create innovation we’re doing through a partnership model so that the university becomes more closely connected to startup ecosystems here in Montreal.”

Mannella has had close ties to the startup ecosystem here since she moved back from Finland in 2011. Before launching Decode Global, she started a hackathon in Montreal with funding from Nokia.

“The first one I held at Notman House back in December of 2011, when it was still the early days of Notman House. It was called ‘Random Hacks of Kindness’. I was testing a bit how interested the Montreal scene was in technology and social impact. So I decided I would run a hackathon, and that was sort of the beginning of me getting to know people in the startup ecosystem in Montreal and seeing if there was enough interest in town. Then I worked on the idea [for Decode Montreal] for the next six months to launch the company in June of 2012.”

When asked about her experience in various facets of the male-dominated technology industry over the years, she noted one repeated theme:

“I think the common thread is the shock and disbelief that you’re a woman and you have a strong technical background. Whether it was in my early days and I was a chip designer having to illustrate that I really do know my stuff, or running a company and getting questions to test my understanding of how to launch games. That being said, throughout my career I’ve also had really good mentors or senior engineers that gave me pretty unique opportunities to showcase what I can do.”

In her role as AVP of Innovation she has helped launch the AI for Social Good, a Summer Lab exclusively for women that will focus on machine learning. The month-long program will take place in June, and is accepting applications until April 17th. Based on her own experience, and in fielding questions from interested applicants, she has some sage advice for young female entrepreneurs and women in tech.

“The biggest advice that I would have is don’t question the value you can bring to something. That if you believe you can do something and it interests you, you do have value to bring to it. Don’t question whether or not you’re bringing something to the table, just assume that you are.”

Because the more people that just go out and act on what they believe should happen, we’re going to see great progress in the world. So don’t even question whether you can or you can’t. You can.

Looking at Mannella’s own track record, it’s clear that taking her own advice has worked out for her.

“I didn’t even think I was going to be an entrepreneur. I think the only common thread is that I’m always drawn to something that’s going to challenge me or something that’s a new experience. But other than that, I think I even surprise myself sometimes. I think I learned through being an entrepreneur as well that it’s much easier to envision the worst case scenarios. But it’s much harder for us to envision the unexpected really positive things that can happen just through the act of starting to do something.So for all the worst case scenarios it’s important that people remember that all sorts of positive things can happen too, especially when you’re trying to do something that you passionately believe will bring value to the world. When you develop a human connection with people, that really brings a lot of positive energy.”

Have you read the rest of the WMNinTECH series?

Caterina Rizzi trailblazes a path for women techies in Montreal – March 29

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