Dhirendra Shukla: Making New Brunswick the go-to Place for Startups

Dhirendra Shukla (Image: Daniel St Louis)

FREDERICTON – When choosing to move to Fredericton over six years ago, Dhirendra Shukla saw potential in the area and refused to listen to those who said there were no opportunities in Atlantic Canada.

Born in India, raised in Zambia and educated in the UK and Canada, Dhirendra Shukla knows what he wants in a place to settle. Shukla first visited Canada at 12 years of age and fell in love with the country. Years later, as a graduation present, he travelled back to Canada and met up with some friends in Ottawa who convinced him to attend a job fair.

From there, Shukla scored an ideal job with Nortel Networks commercializing new technologies. The company promised Shukla that he would never go back to the UK and nearly twenty years later, he’s still in the country he calls a dream come true.

While working at Nortel, Shukla looked for new, novel ideas. He would work with customers to launch products and ideas within the company. In 2009, Nortel was divided and sold for close to $1-billion a piece. Shukla still sees the company as having been highly successful and maintains that he hasn’t seen a similar company in Canada since.

After deciding not to work for Sienna, the company that acquired the division he worked in at Nortel, Shukla began searching for a new opportunity. He felt strongly about keeping his work experience in Canada and for Canadian organizations so when he came across an opportunity at the University of New Brunswick as the Dr. J. Herbert Smith ACOA Chair, he took the leap and applied.

“There was something about UNB,” he said. “They didn’t want to change me as a human being. They saw what I had to offer. I thought to myself, looking back ‘I think I want to be working with people like this, people that are accepting, people that want to help, people that want to listen, people that are supportive and I can be myself rather than try and join an organization where I have to mimic their structure, their way of doing things.’”

Shukla turned down a major offer from Sienna in order to take a chance at UNB in 2009 because of the potential he saw in Fredericton. Since accepting the position at UNB, Shukla has become an integral part of the area’s entrepreneurial community.

Shukla said he was unaware of the common belief in Canada that there are few opportunities in Atlantic Canada and that no one comes here to succeed. Many in his network discouraged him from coming East but he says he does not regret making the move.

When Shukla started at the J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME) at UNB, the centre was struggling with a small enrolment. By the end of 2010, going into 2011, the centre was recognized by Industry Canada as the top university for entrepreneurship. In 2014, Startup Canada named them the most entrepreneurial university in Canada.

Shukla says that the enrolment at TME has doubled approximately every two years. They’ve grown from an enrolment of 20-25 to nearly 540 students in the program. He explains that it’s not the numbers or the acclaim they receive that inspires him to continue, but rather the experiences he has teaching and supporting students.

“What is so powerful is that I work day-to-day with students. Giving them the opportunities is the most important contribution I can make,” he says. “I value working with the students, working with their projects, with their ideas, whether they’re successful or not.”

Shukla hopes, through his efforts, to help people see New Brunswick in a more positive light.

“I (get no) other reward but satisfaction that I’ve contributed to a society and a community in a meaningful and a positive way. I’m confident that by just working with students we’ll be able to change New Brunswick,” he says. “We need people here to begin to believe and I think the youth begin to believe to just change our whole society.”

Shukla believes in New Brunswick as the perfect place for new ideas to be developed and implemented because of how easy it is for people to get around and connect with others in this smaller community.

“New Brunswick is that place where we can connect dots and make wonderful things happen and be sort of the place for Canada for people to think and do interesting, novel things that are not happening in the rest of Canada,” he says. “I think that’s what makes this place unique and special.”

TME is connecting people and making things happen in the community through not only the education they provide students, but also through programs such as their Lunch and Learn sessions, Summer Institute and funding they provide to startups in the area. Shukla believes that with efforts such as these, the centre will continue to help entrepreneurs and the community grow their ideas and succeed.