Dax Dasilva, the CEO and Founder of Lightspeed and Montréal’s LGBTQ+ cultural space Never Apart, is a Montréal community builder, activist and trendsetting business thinker who you may recognize from our list of 15 Montréalers changing the world. And as just one part of an exceptionally busy spring and summer for Dasilva, whose Lightspeed empire has grown to over 800 employees with offices in 8 cities and recently went public, we can now add published author to his list of accomplishments with the release of his first book Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker. We caught up with Dasilva after his appearance at the 2019 C2 Montréal, one of the world’s most forward-thinking business conferences, where he appeared as a featured speaker.
For those who may not know you, could you give us a quick overview of your career path from your student days to business leader?
I started programming when I was 13 in Vancouver and built software all through my teens and 20s. I moved to Montréal in 2001 and around 2005 realized that there was a product missing in the market that could help all retailers, and that’s how Lightspeed was born. For the next seven years we bootstrapped the company, building to about 50 people and moving into the office spaces in Mile-Ex, which is now Never Apart. Since then, we’ve raised over $300-million in funding and acquired a number of companies and put our products into the cloud, serving not just stores but restaurants and e-commerce, finally going public in 2019.
What prompted the switch from your artistic pursuits to tech entrepreneurship?
It’s a journey that’s been interwoven. As a child, I was a kid who would draw and paint continuously, and I think that was captured when I started programming because I approached it as a designer, never as an engineer. At University I did a year of engineering but dropped out, and switched into art history and religious studies. 10 years into Lightspeed, we did Never Apart, and the parts of my story have kind of woven in and out but they’ve always been a part of my authentic self – they’re just expressed at the right moment.
With these interwoven interests driving your life, was the creation of Never Apart an eureka moment for you? A way to get back into art and culture after the decade before it?
It was an eureka moment. Before Lightspeed I was involved in music production, cultural projects and writing poetry and all of those projects got sidelined by starting a tech company. As Lightspeed grew, I was able to reinvest into property, which is something unique we can do in this city. I also knew there was no cultural hub in the Mile-Ex, which is a very artistic neighbourhood. I thought back to how myself and others in my circle benefitted so much from LGBTQ youth groups, and we quickly realized that we really wanted to do social good and push the envelope with social change using culture. I think the idea of doing a cultural centre as a force for creating unity and change was the right project.
Have you noticed other tech companies taking inspiration from Never Apart in how they use their spaces?
I do. The thing with the startup scene is that it’s always a cat and mouse game with your spaces, and I’ve encountered startups that are using parts of their office space that they don’t need yet or need anymore as coworking or creative spaces. Everybody’s trying to find ways to give back and to build community in their years of influence as opposed to when they retire. Now is your moment for impact, an idea which replaces the outdated notion that you’re going to do your giving back when you’re out of the workforce. You can make much more of an impact when you’re plugged into your network.
What kind of feedback have you received following the release of your book?
For me, putting out the book was, believe it or not, even more stressful than taking the company public. The response has been really wonderful, and I think everyone enters through one of the four pillars outlined in the book. For people in tech, they may enter through the leadership pillar, while people in the arts enter through culture, and people seeking meaning and purpose enter through spirituality. What I love about the response is that their curiosity spreads to other topics, and it sparks conversations they feel they never would have had. It’s not just the Never Apart story, or the Lightspeed startup story. The response to this has been so multifaceted and the conversations have been everything I could ever imagine.
As one of the leaders of bringing Montréal to the forefront of tech, what do you see as the city’s primary strengths as somewhere to do tech business?
There’s a lot of good reasons why I think Montréal is the best city to do a tech company. I think the first reason is that we invest in culture and we celebrate creativity which fosters innovation, and that’s why we see so such a thriving tech ecosystem. There’s a wealth of incredible schools and more people are staying because we’ve got this incredible tech scene and part of why it’s so vibrant is because of all those people in the schools. It’s a very liveable city and it’s very cost effective to be able to experiment and build things that may potentially fail or succeed here. There’s a very supportive ecosystem and a sense of collaboration between people at tech companies and that’s something that’s very special here.
In your opinion, what makes Montréal a great location for meetings and events?
I think it’s a great place for meetings because there’s so much to enjoy about the setting of the city. Whether cuisine, art or music, you’re surrounded by things other than your meeting that can leave you inspired and are also unique. I think that this is why we do what we do at Lightspeed. We power independent small business because we believe that cities are made unique by the restaurants, stores and music venues. And what’s so great about Montréal is that there’s a lot of original and unique discoveries here. When you mention Montréal to somebody that’s from anywhere else, they’re quick to tell you all of the things that they discovered here.
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