Alumni Western Be Extraordinary The Campaign For Western

Time, knowledge and money

For entrepreneur Shafin Tejani, BA’01, engaged philanthropy is a fundamental

by Stephen Ledgley, BA’99 | October 13, 2017

Shafin Tejani, BA’01, was born the son of refugees who had settled in Vancouver after escaping the brutal regime of Ugandan leader Idi Amin. He grew up among a family – uncles, aunts, cousins and other members of his Ismaili community – where nothing was taken for granted.

“I watched my uncles and my dad working two jobs – a job to pay the bills and, on the side, they were setting up an electronics store,” Tejani said. “They were entrepreneurs in Uganda before they had to leave and lost everything. From an early age, I was exposed to a work ethic of working 16-17 hours a day. They didn’t have much, but they grew this electronics store.”

Tejani’s father, a pharmacist in Uganda, worked at the store on weekends while simultaneously completing his pharmacy exams to work in Canada. Tejani spent much of his time with his uncle in the electronics store.

“When a lot of people are walking down the street, they are not paying attention to what’s around them. My uncle would be looking at the buildings and thinking about the real estate and looking at the businesses and seeing what was missing,” Tejani said. “I was programmed to identify opportunity because I spent so much time around him from an early age.”

Tejani identified his first entrepreneurial opportunities by watching other neighbourhood kids.

“I would buy and sell baseball cards,” he said. “I watched people spend dollar after dollar after dollar trying to get a specific card in a pack. So, I would go to The States and buy boxes of them at a discount and sell them. I started to think from an early age how to create opportunities for profit.”
But making profit was only one side as Tejani was also taught the importance of giving back.

“At a young age, even with my allowance or anything I made, I gave some away. My parents were very philanthropic. My dad reinforced the idea that you have to be humble and help others. It was just a natural part of what we did.”

As a teenager in the early 1990s, Tejani began organizing party events, turning a profit while providing a safe place for neighbourhood youth to have fun away from the city’s growing gang problems. Eventually, he partnered with high school students’ councils and sharing profits.

While at Western in 1996, Tejani moved his entrepreneurial pursuits online, leveraging high school contacts to launch an online dating quiz and match service that served as a school fundraiser. Founded in his Huron University College residence, the start-up generated almost $3 million within a few years.
For his next project, helping schools sell merchant discount cards as fundraisers, he recruited more than 60,000 merchants to participate. This led to a new enterprise creating retail loyalty programs, which he eventually sold for profits in the millions.

For the next several years, his business pursuits included an online dating site, Internet gaming and eventually an online tracking and referral tool that compensated the owners of other websites for sending visitors his way.

In a relatively short time, Tejani had amassed a solid track record of entrepreneurial success, launching more than 20 companies around the world, investing in many more and turning $125 million in profits.

These days, Tejani has refocused his entrepreneurial pursuits leading a venture called Victory Square Technologies. He’s not only investing in innovative start-ups, but coaching them.  Not only turning profits, but also giving back.

‘Venture philanthropy,’ as he branded it, is core to Victory Square’s mission.

“In the Ismaili community, we talk about time, knowledge and money. You can give any of these; all can be valuable,” Tejani said. “That philosophy works in our philanthropic model, but also works in our for-profit model.”

In founding Victory Square, he looked at other so-called ‘angel investors’ and saw something missing.

“I would see an angel investor cut a cheque to a small company and hope that company would do good things with those dollars. But they might not be actively involved in the day-to-day business,” Tejani explained. “But the most valuable thing is the combination of time, knowledge and money.

“On the business side, if we are going to fund a company, we want to be actively engaged in that company. Sometimes the expertise we can offer a start-up is more valuable to them than the dollars. It helps a young entrepreneur improve the chances of their business being successful and of our investment being successful.”

“On the not-for-profit side, these organizations are often so focused on ‘doing good’ that sustainability and financial planning gets pushed aside. Treating those grassroots organizations like I would a tech start-up, working with them on capacity building, creating a sustainable fundraising model in the Digital Age, crowd-funding, and increasing their donor base, showed me the biggest benefits I could give to a non-profit were the same as I could give to a for-profit.”

When it comes to philanthropy, Victory Square is “hyper-focused” on helping vulnerable children and youth reach their potential. The company contributes an eighth of its profits to philanthropic endeavours and encourages members of its team to invest 40 hours per month, lending their knowledge and skills to help these organizations.

“My parents came here as immigrants. We didn’t have a lot of money, but I had love and support and education – all the basics. There are a lot of kids that are born into situations here in Canada or abroad who don’t get to choose their environment or situation. If they don’t have the basics, there’s no way for them to break that cycle of poverty.”

For a long time, Tejani’s philanthropy was focused in developing countries in South Asia and Africa, but when he moved back to Vancouver seven years ago, he saw an opportunity to affect change closer to home.

“Our office is in Gastown, a great area where a block away you’ve got one of the highest poverty rates in Canada and some of the highest drug use. You’ve got this dynamic where there’s $12 cold-pressed juice, and then, across the street, you’ve got heroin and fentanyl being sold and used.”

Victory Square has been working closely with KidSafe, an organization that provides essential programs and services, such as meals and recreational activities, to more than 450 referred Vancouver children and youth each year. Tejani also funds athletics programs, literacy programs and coding camps for kids.

“These kids wouldn’t normally have access to these types of things, which I believe can give them a competitive advantage,” he said. “We’ve taken a targeted approach, working with several organizations that will target the same kids. I want to focus on this and show the impact of what can happen if we work with these families from the beginning.

“Most funding these types of organizations receive goes by program and year to year, but there’s nothing currently that says we’re not going to take care of these kids for the next 12 years and make sure they have what they need at home and school.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Alumni Gazette
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