Meet Walid Koleilat. Walid is an exceptional Product leader who's built at some exciting Canadian startups like Element AI, Clearco & Plooto
Here we learn more about drew him to Canada, what inspired his foray into startups & fintech along with insights for newcomers looking to integrate into the Canadian tech ecosystem.
What's your story?
I grew up in the vibrant city of Beirut, Lebanon. My father was a bank manager. I often followed him to work and watched him foster relationships with businesses while providing them with the right set of financial services for their needs, all with a personal touch I found utterly intriguing.
It was during those days that I was first introduced to a computer. In a household where owning a computer was a luxury we couldn’t afford, it was a treasure trove of possibilities. Guided by the bank’s IT expert, I discovered programming languages: BASIC, C++. I was captivated by the notion that through coding, I had the power to create anything I could imagine.
The seeds of my passion for both technology and banking were sown during those formative years. The way my father's work impacted the local businesses resonated with me deeply, and the thrill of coding opened my eyes to the world of endless innovation.
During high school, I knew that coding was something I wanted to pursue. However, software engineering wasn’t an option at any of the local universities. I moved to Canada to attend the Software Engineering program at Concordia University. Then, because I couldn’t get enough, I completed my master’s degree in Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and gained tremendous experience with internships at Microsoft in Redmond as well as IBM.
While I was becoming more proficient and experienced on the tech side, I was drawn to learn more about the nuances of banking and financial services in Canada. I pivoted and joined a prominent management consulting firm, eager to dive into the intricacies of the Canadian financial sector.
Working closely with major Canadian banks exposed me to the diverse landscape of financial services, ranging from lending and payments to core banking functions. I thrived on the challenge of creating new financial products, launching credit cards, and pioneering innovative payment solutions. However, there was a pattern I noticed over and over again: traditional banks struggled to be truly consumer-centric. I also had a line of sight to what was happening in more progressive financial markets, like the U.K., Europe, and Australia. I realized there was an immense opportunity to disrupt and reshape the landscape here in Canada.
I transitioned to startups, beginning with Element AI, where I pushed the boundaries of AI innovation in FinTech. Next up was Clearco, where I led the Product Growth function connecting e-commerce businesses with the capital needed for accelerated growth. Presently, my path has led me to Plooto, where, as the VP of Product, I work with my team to build a product that helps businesses with their payments and cash flow.
My story, originating in the heart of Lebanon, has evolved into a tapestry woven with technology, banking, and a commitment to transformation. I’m excited to be at a point in my career where I’m not only driving innovation but building products that empower businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs on their unique journeys.
What led you to choose Canada as the place that you wanted to build in?
Growing up, Canada had a reputation as a country that was not only accepting of immigrants but also as a place where immigrants could work hard and succeed while maintaining their cultural identity. After two decades here, I still feel that it’s a place where differences are celebrated. Those differences add to the richness of what it means to be Canadian.
I find it exciting that Canada is a place where all cultures can meet and form long-lasting bonds and relationships. Society still cares for those who are early in their journey, for example, the support systems in place for international students.
I also met my partner here, who is half Greek and half Korean, and together we’ve formed a multicultural household where we speak five languages.
What advice do you have for newcomers who are looking to break into the Canadian tech ecosystem?
It depends on where you are on your journey. If you’re coming here from another country with tech experience already under your belt, you’re probably confident in your hard skills. But, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to focus on your soft skills. Immerse yourself in the cultural norms and nuances in Canada. Polish up on the language. Learn how to build rapport, establish trust, and communicate value. These are the qualities companies look for in their employees. Set yourself up for success so that you’re ready when you do get your foot in the door.
Otherwise, my advice is to be ready with an elevator pitch about yourself. Make it punchy and short so people can easily recall it. Nail down what you can do and who you can help. And practise how to sell yourself.
Then, network by going to tech and startup events, which have started to happen more in person these days. Those that are organized by TechTo and OneEleven are some that come to mind. Go to these events with the mindset of learning and making connections.
Also, reach out to like-minded people on LinkedIn. You might be surprised how many are open to talking to you and connecting you to an opportunity. Always end the discussion with a question about who they think you should meet next and if they can make an introduction, so you tee up the next meet-up this way.
Last but not least, find customer and business problems you’re passionate about solving and start building something. Even if it’s just a concept and a project you do on the weekend. Build it and put it out there. This is the best way to show the world what you can do instead of telling them.
Lastly, what's a fun or unique team-building activity or tradition your startup has adopted that reflects its culture?
During lockdown, when teams were dispersed, working from different cities and unable to meet in person, we started to play this game every two weeks called Cityguesser. In this game, we would see a street view video of a random city, and we’d guess where in the world that city is. It was a great way to scratch the travel itch and get us dreaming about our future adventures while we could barely leave our homes.