We had the pleasure of connecting with Afraj Gill – immigrant, community activist, and Co-Founder of Drop Mobility – this month and were blown away by his story. Everything from his upbringing in Vancouver, to where he finds inspiration, to the surprising parts of his journey and beyond. We hope you enjoy this passionate and candid exploration of one of the amazing humans in our Canadian tech ecosystem.
What is your story?
I immigrated to the Vancouver area when I was 8 years old. Growing up in a family of teachers and social workers meant most dinner table conversations were about social justice, equity, public education. Something else was added to the mix when we arrived, though.
I witnessed a lot of inequity around myself—my parents were highly qualified and educated folks who, despite their best efforts, weren’t able to add the value they could’ve to our community. I was surrounded by PhDs and well-educated people who drove cabs, worked as janitors and did odd jobs to pay the bills.
My parents were fortunate—they eventually did find deserving jobs that fit their backgrounds, but for years my mom and dad were working cleaning motels and doing backbreaking work at lumber mills. I was furious. My dad was working with Nobel Laureates early in his career, and he was now working at a lumber mill? This made no sense to me. But my brother and I embraced a can-do attitude—we didn’t complain… we pitched in with all our might—by working for years delivering over 4 paper routes every day of the week, picking blueberries every summer, and working at a landscaping company, where my brother almost busted his back permanently.
Anyways, fast forward from my years growing up in the Vancouver area, I started a couple of software startups and earned enough money from one to help pay for university. I continued my journey in tech by doing a short stint at Google’s HQ in Mountain View, then started at a Toronto-based startup in the publishing space after graduating. And just over a year ago, I joined two friends in starting Dropbike, where we’re focused on democratizing multimodality across North America, especially by bringing accessible/affordable mobility options to communities who’ve never had access.
What is your philosophy around Technology?
I’m a deep believer in the idea that technology can serve as an incredibly effective social equalizer. This was what got me excited about the tech world in my teenage years. But I feel as though our technology community can be doing a lot better in finding solutions that help elevate those in our society who need the most help. If the view is technology is a powerful equalizer, then I’m not sure our best entrepreneurs are working on problems that get to the crux of that.
I’m often asked who my role models in Canadian tech are. But all of the people I look up to live in parts of the country that barely make ends meet—they are not in the tech community. They are the real teachers of courage and resilience—our First Nations communities to new Canadians to the homeless.
The best technology entrepreneurs in Canada are no match to the resilience my parents showed adjusting to a completely new life here. I’m serious about this. Many of my friends who have parents who struggled like mine did will feel the same way. The strength of my mom’s spirit is no less than Elon Musk’s.
What is your greatest internal motivator?
Fundamentally, helping improve access to opportunity and quality of life for those who need it most in our communities, is what makes me tick. This is probably my chief internal motivator. This is also why I feel so excited and energized about our work at Dropbike. I’ve worked on startups and many projects before that I gave up on quite quickly because the problems I was trying to solve had absolutely no connection to this theme.
What are you most proud of professionally?
The scorching hot summers in elementary and high school when my brother and I chose to pick blueberries, do landscaping and deliver a few paper routes. In retrospect, I am most proud of those years. We easily worked 13+ hours every day, on average. I am proud of those years specifically because they taught me the value of embracing optimism amidst adversity and marching on with absolute resilience. My father always used to remind us before we went out for the day, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” That quote used to fire me up. I often catch myself forgetting about those years, but it’s nice to look back and know where the first paycheques came from.
What’s been the most surprising part of your journey?
I hear too many people (mostly people who spend less time doing and more time talking on panels) say that Canadian entrepreneurs lack ambition, and that is probably as false a statement as anyone can make. In my entrepreneurial journey, the commonality of this message alone has been pretty surprising. But I think what we actually lack is ambition, boldness, independence of thought on the capital side. The absence of the realization of this reality also blows my mind.
Raising money domestically in Canada is a bit of a mess (all of Dropbike’s investors are international and we have top investors from Silicon Valley supporting us, too). There are so many technical reasons people will give you around why this is the case in Canada, but most of that is BS. The sad part is a lot of founders don’t talk about this reality openly or in public, but almost all founders I have met who have raised any meaningful amount in capital (including eventually from Canadian VCs) almost all give this piece of advice in private.
I think it’s time we stop worrying about entrepreneurial ambition and start worrying about ensuring that the ambition we have isn’t starved out of the country.
Working in the tech industry can be very demanding, what do you do outside work to maintain energy?
Meditation and sleeping. I try to sleep everyday at the office at around 1 or 2 pm for 20-25 minutes. I also meditate at night before bed or in the morning right after my shower. These are daily rituals I only break when absolutely necessary, but I’m generally quite shameless about following them. I’ve had interview candidates come into the office and notice there’s a co-founder sleeping… I always wonder what might be going through their head.
What’s the most exciting aspect of the Toronto tech ecosystem, in your opinion?
I think Toronto is, at least for now, relatively grounded as an ecosystem. We have an opportunity to build something unique. Silicon Valley is not an example to follow. We should carve out our ecosystem in our own unique way. It really gets me going when I hear people talking about Canadians lacking ambition. Are you serious?! Read your Canadian history…
For more stories like Afraj’s, check out our Humans of Tech page.