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EPISODE # 26 Blazing a Trail - Kathryn Lockhart


Increasing the number of women in the tech sector is a huge passion of mine, so this week’s TechTalks was especially near and dear to me. 

I was thrilled to have Kathryn Lockhart, CEO of Propel, join me for episode 26 of the podcast. She shared her story and her advice to women starting and progressing through their careers. We also talked about her vision for Propel and helping to advance tech in the region.  

And all without having written a line of code in her life!

This show is the second instalment in our series on diversity (be sure to check out my fascinating conversation with Keith McIntosh, founder of PLATO, the world’s first Aboriginal-led and staffed software testing company, which kicked it off).

Kathryn and I went way back, tracing her path from picking potatoes as a girl growing up in Bath, N.B., to an international career in tech. Her first stop out of high school was Renaissance College, UNB’s ground-breaking School of Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies.

“It was almost a choice that chose me,” Kathryn says of enrolling in the unconventional program. “I was always drawn to challenges, to different things. I've never seen myself in a mould.”

Through program internships, she got her first taste of business in UNB’s marketing department and international experience in the Dominican Republic, which made her realize how lucky she was to have the opportunities she did in life.

“I said, if I'm going to make an impact in the world, if I'm going to aim for the stars, why not apply to one of the best schools in the world?”

She applied to Harvard’s MBA program and was accepted. She was 21.

“I've been told I'm the youngest person ever to have gone there,” Kathryn says. 

A Pioneering Spirit

Harvard was exciting and overwhelming, the chance to meet fascinating, brilliant people with a range of backgrounds and life experiences. 

While there, Kathryn’s eyes began to open to her aptitudes and skills, including an innately bold attitude.

“I've always had a bit of a, ‘let's just go at it and do what needs to be done’ attitude,” she says. “I just broke down walls without even thinking about it. I didn't think of it as a big deal.” 

Unsure of her exact niche but drawn to leadership, she joined Knightsbridge, a human capital management firm in Toronto, after graduation. She reported to the CEO, who was a great supporter.

“He somehow saw potential in me,” she says. “He gave me all kinds of projects that were way over my head, and he just let me learn.”

By 26, she was running a team and loving it.

Her advice to anyone in their 20s who’s starting out? Say yes to everything.  “Stick your neck out, learn as much as you can, get pushed around in the wind a bit and see what feels right.”

And, she says: “Trust what you're drawn to.”

Dipping a Toe in Tech

At Knightsbridge, Kathryn was tasked with moving its career transition practice online.

“It wasn't necessarily a full-on startup, but it had entrepreneurial flavour to it,” she says.

Working with tech vendors and her team, she loved how quickly they could make an impact.

“A small team can move mountains with technology, and I could not turn back from that. I loved it.”

Kathryn knew that, wherever her path led next, she wanted to work with organizations using technology to solve the world's problems.

Across the Pond–and Back Again

Long before the pandemic made us all remote workers, Kathryn took her job to Europe to join her now-husband in Germany. There, she continued her foray into the tech sector, eventually founding her own startup.

It was, she says, “a spectacular failure” and “probably one of the most educational moments of my career.”

Never one to give up, she moved on to a German startup, where she worked in her second language (again, that baptism by fire), honing her sales and business skills. 

And then, following her husband’s career as a physician, it was time to come back to Canada. The family, now with their first child in tow, moved to Newfoundland. Kathryn had a terrific experience working with Verafin and other startups in that province before finally making it back to New Brunswick after a brief Winnipeg detour.

“Not only is it good to be back, but it feels like a dream come true that I didn't even know was my dream,” Kathryn says. “It's just such an incredible place to live, for your career to thrive, to have access to anything.”

Nurturing Baby Unicorns

In November, Kathryn took the helm of Propel, the online Atlantic Canadian accelerator for technology startups.

“This is where founders become leaders,” she says, describing Propel as a kind of Montessori School where entrepreneurs in a crucial stage of development get the skills and support they need to scale. The results are impressive: on average, by the end of the program, they have raised $1.8 million, drastically reduced their sales cycles, and are earning most of their revenue from outside of Canada. They’ve also doubled their average contract size.

Now, Propel has a three-year goal to nurture 100 “baby unicorns'' which Kathryne roughly defines as a $50-$100 million capitalization. It’s the kind of investment that could have a significant impact on our region’s economy. 

“I want it to be enough volume that unicorn hunting actually becomes a viable sport in the region,” she says. “I'd like it to not be unique one-offs. I’d like it to be a consistent, building trend.”  

Getting to Equity

Along with growing the sector overall, increasing the number of women founders is squarely on her radar. Since she joined Propel, the percentage has increased from 22% to 38%, and she’s keen to push that figure even closer to equity.

She sees more investment and support for and by women, as by Sandpiper Ventures, but it takes a village. She says that encouraging more women to join startups and the tech sector needs to start early.

“I don't ever want a woman coming through the educational system in New Brunswick, or Prince Edward Island, or Nova Scotia, or Newfoundland and Labrador to not see herself as running a tech company someday,” Kathryn says. “I don't want them not to have that dream.”

And that push goes beyond women. In Propel’s new cohort of 16 founders, more than half are new Canadians who moved to the region from China, Iran, Ecuador, Germany, India and Romania.

I love how Kathryn’s story shines a light on different kinds of diversity in tech, including more representation of women but also of people who don’t have technical backgrounds or who are new to Canada. Of course, I loved that she recommended listening to the TechTalks Podcast for inspirational stories. And I endorse her advice to say yes to everything, learn from and listen to others and yourself, and put yourself out there. 

Episode 26.png

Here's a peek at some of the highlights from this episode:

  • [08:22]: I ask Kathryn about Renaissance College and what drew her there.

  • [18:22]: Kathryn describes her first foray into tech.

  • [23:54]: We talk about the struggles of running a startup.

  • [36:22]: Kathryn shares her vision for Propel.

  • [44:22]: We dig into Propel’s goal for 100 “baby unicorns.”


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