Opinion

How Running for Office Is like Building a Technology Startup

A graphic of a politician to represent how politics is like running a tech startup by Phil De Luna

When you think about the fast-paced, exciting, and dynamic world of tech startups, nothing can seem more distant than politics. After all, Parliament is the quintessential institution, existing precisely to provide a stable and secure establishment to keep this beautiful country moving forward.

As a cleantech innovator and research capitalist, the youngest-ever director at the National Research Council, a Carbon XPRIZE finalist, and a current mentor in Creative Destruction Lab, I have seen firsthand how difficult it can be to take an invention to impact. This is especially true in science-based hard tech startups that often compete with large incumbent multinational companies trying to disrupt capital-intensive existing supply chains.

Now, I am running for the Green Party in Toronto to become a Member of Parliament in the next federal election. I am running for a relatively nascent grassroots party with a fraction of the resources, clout, and capital of the established incumbent parties. Sound familiar? 

Whether it’s voter share or market share, canvassing or sales, winning an election, or building a startup—you need to be an entrepreneur. Starting a political campaign as a first-time candidate against an established incumbent is exactly like trying to start a cleantech company to disrupt the established energy industry. The similarities are striking, and it makes me wonder, why aren’t more entrepreneurs making their mark in politics? 

Know your value proposition 

Experience has taught me that technology is not enough to solve wicked problems like climate change. Unless you have the policy to support it, a market to want it, and a customer to adopt it, your invention will remain at the lab bench. Like many, I had a pandemic epiphany, that government must play an important role in handling massive crises, but unfortunately, many of our political leaders were ill-equipped to understand or act on the science. 

Understanding why you want to run and how best you can serve your community is the most important thing you need to know. It is your vision and mission statement, your value proposition. It also differentiates you from the competition and forms the foundation of your political brand. For me, I’m running to bring more diversity to parliament and more science to politics. 

Success starts with building a team

No one successful has risen to where they are purely by themselves, and if they claim so they are either a liar or delusional. The most investible companies are ones that have a great team, and the most effective and fun campaigns are too. 

The roles and activities are strikingly similar too; fundraising, stakeholder outreach, customer/voter discovery, vendor procurement, digital advertising and growth, data and automation. The list goes and on. 

An effective campaign also needs to be scalable with a strong infrastructure in place to onboard new volunteers, put them on important and engaging projects, and then have them become ambassadors for the campaign to further recruit more volunteers. 

You are the product 

The starkest difference between starting a company and starting a campaign is that you are the product you’re selling. It is your ideas and your values that the voters will ultimately judge you on. For me, I’m focused on three things; supporting our frontline workers, housing affordability, and green jobs that leave no one behind. These issues are deeply personal for me. 

My fiancée is an operating room nurse at Sick Kids and a frontline worker. Many of my fellow Filipino-Canadians occupy these often low-paying but essential roles. My generation is increasingly feeling squeezed out of the housing market and is wondering, will we ever afford a home? Cleantech to fight climate change has been my passion. More importantly, I recognize the opportunity in sustainable jobs. I grew up in Windsor and know firsthand what happens when an entire community is dependent on one industry. My father, an autoworker, lost his job when Ford closed their assembly plant. We need to do everything we can to diversify and create a more sustainable economy for Canada, to ensure families have green jobs that will last.

Politics needs innovators too

Times are changing and the digital technologies that have revolutionized commerce, global supply chains, how we process information, and how we socially connect with each other, are poised to disrupt politics as well. 

This is why we need more innovators, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in politics. The world of technology is moving too rapidly for governments to keep up and the pace of advancement is just accelerating. If our political leaders don’t have the expertise or an understanding of new technologies, whether it be artificial intelligence or quantum computing or carbon capture, or synthetic meat, then how can we be sure that they are crafting equitable and effective policies that serve us all?  

Politics needs innovators, regardless of party—will you step up? 

Illustration by Icons 8 from Ouch!

Photo of Phil De Luna smiling at the camera.About the author: Phil De Luna is a scientist and cleantech innovator turned first-time candidate for the Green Party in Toronto-St. Paul’s. He is currently on leave from the National Research Council, where he founded and led a $57M cleantech program. Phil is a Forbes Top 30 Under 30, a Carbon XPRIZE finalist, and a Governor General Gold Medalist.

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