How MaRS Discovery District’s André Allen helps nurture a hub of talent

Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District is a renowned urban innovation hub supporting ventures and startups tackling key challenges in the health, cleantech, fintech and enterprise sectors. And André Allen, MaRS’ VP of IT, chief privacy officer and CISO, is at the center of its growth, ambition, and success.

“I’ve been with MaRS for just over a year and a half and I’m responsible for all aspects of information technology, including business systems, software engineering systems, operations, service, desk information security and privacy,” he says. “We have a fairly complex business and multiple business units within it, and I try to keep up with all the asks and requirements they bring us.”

Amassing lessons learned and experience in different industries over decades, Allen has shaped his career in his own unique way, now at the center of so much innovation and knowledge sharing at MaRS. There’s always some variance with CIOs or senior tech leaders in their individual business journeys, and skills acquired, but away from the technology itself, and its implementation or product investment, is the search for diverse and inclusive talent to build teams. Being in a leadership role, this is central to what motivates Allen in the face of ongoing tech challenges in Canada surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion, or opportunity (DEI and DEO).

“Being able to hire people globally means you need to be able to integrate them and make them happy,” he says. “We’re lucky at MaRS, and from the top, that everyone’s really bought into diversity, equity and inclusion. That’s something we’re continuing to navigate across all industries.”’s Lee Rennick recently spoke with Allen about opportunity, inclusion and putting in the small efforts now to effect big change in the future. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On entrepreneurism: I feel blessed to be at MaRS because there’s so much energy and innovation happening. And you see smart people around you taking small, burgeoning ideas into ongoing businesses. AI, or specifically machine learning (ML), is certainly the leading trend, be it clean tech or environmental technology, or just systems building smart new systems or smart cities. The use of AI and ML is a real catalyst for a whole new set of industries and companies, and there are some bright entrepreneurs thinking up new ways of doing things, looking through large datasets trying to find patterns and anomalies. We love being in the space we’re in. Many of our ecosystem members do great work, harnessing these datasets, so they need access to things like cloud, which has enabled some of those things.

On equal opportunity: DEO and DEI are passions of mine and I think now they’re economic realities in that the pool of people—trying to find skilled technology people or skilled knowledge workers—is shrinking. And for me, if we only hire people that looked or thought like us, that further limits the pool, and the world becomes even smaller. So the advice I give is DEI is more than just something you should do. It’s something that’s going to help your business in thinking through how you get new talent because of the pool of resources. We’re also involved with an organization called CILAR, and they have a good approach. It’s really the power of one, that’s the thinking, in that one individual can reach out to help another get forward. There may not be an immediate payback for you, but there is for that individual and for the pool of resources in total. And once these people integrate into our environment, you get the opportunities. By looking through one lens, you may not pick up the nuances for different cultures or different groups. So it’s important you bring those people in. Doing that, though, is the hard part. It has to be something you believe in and that there’s a direct benefit for your business as well as a social aspect.

On roles: Effective CIOs or leaders need to be more broad based. It can’t just be about the bits and bytes. I think that ship sailed long ago. You need to be close to the business and understand the value providing for that business. Getting involved in diverse points of view comes into play in order to look at the business and its priorities in a different light, and bring it to the table and have a voice there. I certainly think it’s a lot of hats that we juggle, but they’re necessary hats, and the technology and data managing as a discrete function of managing private security all overlaps. When I first joined MaRS, I wondered how I’m going to tackle all of these things together. Some of these functions are held discreetly, but it’s worked out quite well for us because the same things I’m looking at from a data and privacy perspective have implications for security, and how we build and support systems. So while there are multiple hats, having a supportive management team makes all the difference.

On the professional journey: I’ve been in IT for over 30 years. I started in systems operations, then moved through the infrastructure, managing local area networks, and then onto midrange systems from HP and IBM. Over that time, I purposely worked in different verticals and my belief then was as it is now: seeing a breadth of industries and different technologies helps good technology people adapt. So be it consumer packaged goods, banking or telco, I believe they all form the basis of your knowledge as you learn different things from different industries. It also helped being able to challenge what some people may view as sacred cows. Challenging that over the years has brought a broad view of different technologies. It’s important you understand the industry you’re in to service your customers. But challenging some of those holy grails does yield some interesting new outcomes.

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, Innovation, IT Leadership, Startups