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EPISODE # 29 Introducing the McKenna Institute


Today’s show is a special one. New Brunswick legend Frank McKenna is here to talk about the new institute for digital transformation at UNB bearing his name, along with Adrienne O’Pray, the executive director he hand-picked to lead this bold initiative.

I was thrilled to sit down with Frank and Adrienne for episode 29 of the TechTalks Podcast to talk about the McKenna Institute which launched on Sept. 7.  Our wide-ranging talk explores their vision for the institute as a catalyst of economic growth, their love of the province, New Brunswick’s unique advantages, and why they believe digital holds the key to our province’s future.

This conversation clearly demonstrated for me the love that Frank and Adrienne have for this province.  When you can see a better path forward, you understand the possibilities, and you have a deep passion for the province that you live in and the people it will benefit, it’s easy to get going every day with a greater purpose and end in mind.

Deep Roots

Most of our listeners know Frank McKenna, but if you’re new to the province, let me give you some background. In 1987, Frank, who grew up in a big farming family outside of Sussex, became New Brunswick’s 27th premier in a landslide victory. He held that office until 1997, a decade in which his government seized upon emerging internet and digital tools and championed innovation and state-of-the-art technology to create jobs, a sense of possibility and pride.

“I've been a huge believer that knowledge enhanced by the use of technology was going to be the single biggest factor in determining the success of our province, quite frankly,” Frank says. “And so I dove into that pond with a lot of enthusiasm.”

A lawyer by training, Frank isn’t highly technical but was visionary in understanding how digital could transform everything from public services to the private sector. Playing to the province’s strengths, including a bilingual population, and, in NBTel, a world-class phone company, his government grew New Brunswick’s contact centre industry to create tens of thousands of jobs and lay the foundation for a tech sector that could move up the value chain.

After his time in office, Frank went on to several high-profile roles, serving as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. and serving as deputy chair of TD Bank, where he’s seen AI, cybersecurity, data management, and other technologies transform the banking industry.

Throughout his career, his passion for New Brunswick and belief in the power of digital have never wavered.

Change as a Constant

Around the time Frank was leading New Brunswick’s first-wave digital charge, Adrienne was starting her career. Recruited right out of UNB’s MBA program by NBTel, she learned about the ingredients for success in the thriving company, “that combination of entrepreneurship, innovation, technology and people that was really instilled in us,” she says.  Adrienne and I got to know each other from our early days at NBTel together when we were both working in customer service.

At NBTel, and later, as an executive at Atlantic Lottery Corporation, Adrienne got a front-row seat on how technology enabled transformational change as these two industries deregulated.

More recently, as executive director of the New Brunswick Business Council, she saw how our province’s largest companies, including those in more traditional, resource-based industries such as forestry, agriculture, and aquaculture, brought in new tools and technology to compete globally and address challenges such as labour shortages.

“We talk about the tech sector, but every industry today is a technology industry,” Adrienne says. “There's no way that it isn't if that industry is going to thrive.”

Cathy Frank Adrienne.png

Sweet Serendipity

Frank calls the McKenna Institute “a bit of a pandemic baby.”

Confined to New Brunswick by COVID travel restrictions, he picked up the book Unicorn in the Woods, Gordon Pitt’s gripping narrative about New Brunswick’s two biggest tech successes. It sparked some long-smouldering interests.

“I realized that we have a lot of bonfires burning around New Brunswick that I hadn't really thought about for some years,” Frank says. “It led me to believe that the technology revolution that was started some decades ago was still alive and quite strong.”

When UNB President Paul Mazerolle and retired VP Bob Skillen came calling with an idea to take the university “off the hill and into the community,” he was all ears.

The pandemic was quickly opening a whole new world of possibility, accelerating digital adoption by years. And New Brunswick was emerging as something of a haven during COVID-19, attracting newcomers with its responsible public health measures, relaxed lifestyle, affordable (relatively) housing, and strong sense of community. It all adds up, Frank says, to “a wonderful place in a world that has shrunk.”

The idea for a centre that could capitalize on New Brunswick’s advantages and play to UNB’s strengths began to emerge.

Frank McKenna was ready to do something truly transformative for his beloved home province, pay forward his success, and perpetuate and expand upon the work he’d begun as premier. 

“I just profoundly believe that we can make life better for every citizen in some meaningful way if we can make sure they've got the best tools available in the world at this moment,” he says. “And that's what we're about to embark upon.”

Going Further

The McKenna Institute all started, like so many things in New Brunswick do, with a conversation. Actually, make that dozens of conversations. Bob and Frank and Adrienne have spoken to a broad and diverse range of stakeholders in the tech sector, the business community, academia, and beyond to understand the opportunities and the context and frame-up the most important projects and priorities for the McKenna Institute.  When Bob came knocking for input from TechImpact back in January, you know we had lots of ideas to share. 

From these discussions, economic development emerged as a guiding mandate to support both new and existing companies within and beyond the tech sector to harness digital to compete globally and, ultimately, create opportunities for New Brunswickers.

“It's taking those foundational elements that we have in New Brunswick to be a digital powerhouse in Canada and globally, and really building from there,” Frank says. “We need to create new companies. We need to plant all the seeds in the ground that will see other Q1 Labs and Radian6s and Introhives being created, creating hundreds and even thousands of new jobs.”

Adrienne explained that three key areas of focus have emerged for the McKenna Institute to support this big aim: accelerate talent, accelerate ideas, and “find ways for every community to really see themselves in this digital world,” she says. 

“If we do this right, we will help break down the urban-rural divide,” Frank says. The institute will work to advance opportunities for underrepresented groups, including women, Indigenous people and minorities. “I think it's going to be a great leveler.”

A Catalyst and Convenor

The McKenna Institute will not work alone. Its M.O. will largely be convening a wide range of stakeholders to devise real-world solutions for New Brunswick–and beyond.

Frank and Adrienne are looking for partners, donors and collaborations.

“We need everybody to get their hands on the oars if we're going to be successful with this initiative,” Frank says. 

Just as he believes in paying forward his success by giving back, he’s calling on other organizations and individuals to get involved, both for the sake of New Brunswick and for their own benefit.

“Not only is it selfless work, but it's selfish work,” he says. “Because if we're successful, all of us who are participating are going to be part of a province that’s more prosperous, with a better quality of life and more opportunity.”

He says the institute has reignited the same sense of excitement and optimism he felt as premier.

“I couldn't wait to go to work and I felt that I was doing something profoundly important that was making life better for communities,” he says. “That might be a little presumptuous, but I have that feeling back again.”

To hear the whole conversation, which is guaranteed to get you excited about New Brunswick’s potential, click here to listen.

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

  • [05:00]: Frank on growing up poor but well-nurtured on his family farm.

  • [15:40]: Adrienne talks about how every company needs to be thinking about technology.

  • [21:00]: Frank on how the pandemic made him appreciate New Brunswick’s digital potential.

  • [25:33]: Adrienne describes the McKenna Institute’s three areas of focus: talent, ideas and communities.   

  • [39:00]: Frank describes digital’s positive levelling effects for communities and people.

  • [42:44]: Frank and Adrienne on the opportunity to be part of such a meaningful project.


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