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6 Hours, 10 Times As Much Value: My Experience at Illuminate X Markham's Conference

Hey there! My name is Aneka, I’m a Grade 9 student at Westmount Secondary, and today was an exciting day - because I got to attend my first-ever virtual conference + case competition, hosted by Illuminate X Markham. I had a great time listening in on the keynotes, Q/A’s, and presentations and I’m glad to have the chance to share my key highlights and takeaways on this blog!


Firstly, I’d like to talk about Alina Huang, the founder of Illuminate Universe herself, and the amazing woman that I had the pleasure of speaking to at yesterday's conference.


Hearing her words as she shared her personal experiences and stories, from having the courage to overcome exclusion on a high school volleyball team to building connections abroad and scaling a project she didn’t foresee taking forward, I learned an incredible amount about real-world truths. Her words truly left me inspired and I’m so grateful to have gotten the opportunity to participate in this conference thanks to her initiative. I'm really that there are social entrepreneurs like Alina around, providing youth with the opportunities they need to reach their full potential.



Moving from my little shout-out, I’ll now talk about the guest keynote speakers: Christal Wang and Mash Chowdhury.


Having pursued two different career paths with equally interesting stories and insights, Christal and Mash’s presentations surely gave me a lot to think about. Here are my key learnings:


Christal

Christal (or Chris!) Wang is an Ivey Business graduate, consultant, and the founder of Shimmer.com - a San-Fransisco-based startup focused on bringing mental health services and awareness through peer-to-peer support for young adults. With various turns and adventures she’s taken in the past, Chris had a lot of lessons to share with us.


Chris explaining the Theory of Change


1. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, don’t do it

Chris starting out studying for a career in finance and ended up consulting for companies like Deloitte and l’Oreal, and she’s really happy about where she’s at. If it wasn’t for her realization, that she wasn’t enjoying what she was learning, she wouldn’t have made the switch, which she was sure she’d have regretted. One thing she emphasized was that it’s never too late to switch paths, and the earlier you do, the better.


2. Try new things - don’t restrict yourself

In a world where we’re constantly asked “what do you want to be when you’re older?”, it’s fair to say that a lot of us can feel obliged to tie ourselves down to one goal, one career path, and one interest. But, if there’s one thing that Christal’s story really taught me, it’s that life doesn’t work like that - and that’s good. Taking the time and risk to simply explore things that are out of your comfort zone can turn out to be really rewarding and you should never feel like you should always have a definite answer for everything in your career.


3. Have fun

I LOVE this point and I really don’t think people talk about it enough. With the sheer abundance of things you could do in life, one of the most important things to factor in is happiness, contentment, fulfillment, or any other word you might call it.


4. Let your values guide you

Even though her career might’ve taken a lot of turns, one thing that stayed constant was her values. And this helped to ensure that the decisions she was making aligned with her true goals and values - one of them being to give back through positive change. I really liked learning about the importance of having these “north stars” because now that I realize it, I don't think I’ve spent enough time giving a good thought to my values, and I think that it could really serve a good purpose in guiding what you pursue, both in the short and long term.


Mash

Moving to North America from South Asia, a whole switch in worlds, Mash started from ground zero and worked his way up to where he is now: a cybersecurity consultant at Deloitte - and his story was nothing short of movie-worthy! My key takeaways:


1. Passion, commitment, determination, time.

A true recipe for success. Mash is a living example of how anybody with these 4 things can make it to amazing places, no matter what their starting point.

Mash's inspiring story


With social anxiety, a new environment, and a whole other language, Mash taught me that no matter the obstacles in your way, there’s always a way up - as long as you have drive and the right mindset.


2. Discomfort = Growth

Going off of the last point, Mash had to get comfortable being uncomfortable in order to make progress when he was starting off. In fact, he even said that “80% of what he knows was learnt on the job”, which goes to show how he embraced the unknown and kept moving forward - and I think that’s a really important skill to build. As they say, “The only time you’re actually growing is when you are uncomfortable".


3. EQ is as important as IQ

Working in a customer-centric industry where trust is key, Mash spoke about how connecting with your customer is key in order to help them and make them feel understood. I think is so important, because the workplace isn’t the only place that people skills are important. Building relationships with others can really help you get ahead!


From both of them, I understood the importance of letting your passion drive you, both in and out of your career. Especially for social entrepreneurship, having a deep desire to help other people, whether it be in mental health or cybersecurity, can get you to great places. I loved learning about their insights and experiences and I too hope to pursue such an inspiring and interesting career - not only in the future but now!


Before I move on, I'd like to quickly talk about Joshua Liu, another social entrepreneur we were introduced to. He is the founder of Seamless MD, a digital patient platform used by health systems to elevate the patient experience, improve outcomes, and lower costs. Though I didn't get to hear from him as much as I would've liked to, I found his work and story to be really memorable. It was very motivating to hear him speak about the power of grit and determination when getting your company off the ground and I especially enjoyed hearing about his experience attracting investors through cold emailing. It definitely does take persistence to keep at the process of reaching out to people and selling your idea, but Joshua showed us that once you put the work in initially, it only gets easier as you go on. He also talked about his evolving roles as his business continues to grow, and I loved the analogy he used about first being a player, then becoming a coach, and proceeding to be the manager. I'm really glad I got to hear about Seamless MD and I hope to see the great things they do in the future!


Key Takeaways: Case Competition

One of the most exciting parts of the conference was the case competition(s), where in teams of 5, we got to prepare a pitch deck to solve social issues. Though my team was down a team member, we definitely had a great time grinding it out and answering the many questions swarming around our heads during the short amount of time.


Here's my team! Check Sora, Raiana, Nathan, and me out here!


  • When choosing what problem to solve, pick a focus and then narrow down

With the sky being the limit as to what problem we could solve, one of the toughest parts for my team was deciding on which issue we choose to tackle. The sheer number of possibilities was in a way both positive and negative because without any limits, it took us a lot of time to choose just what to do. In future scenarios, I would definitely start by choosing a theme (maybe guided by the SDGs, for example) and then go on to brainstorm from there. That way, we have some structure.

  • Divide tasks

Even under a time constraint, it's best to take a minute or two delegating tasks so that a) everyone knows what they're doing and can plan accordingly, b) two people aren't doing the same thing, and c) no task gets left behind. The worst thing that can happen is your team realizing that you're missing part of the requirements - and that can easily be solved through planning and delegation.

  • Go above and beyond (aka, do mockups!)

When time permits, going above and beyond really can put you ahead of other teams in a competition, and that definitely happened with the winners of the first case competition, who pulled out a whole working AI model and UI. This not only gave them a competitive advantage but also made it easier to visualize their idea, which is always great for the viewers.

  • Professionalism can go a long way, but authenticity is important too

As we had to pretend to be pitching to a group of seed investors, many teams reflected the scenario in the way they spoke - using good greetings, vocabulary, and body language. But what I realized is that the most successful and attention-grabbing teams were those that demonstrated professionalism and a little bit of their own personality as well, because it's then that you feel like listening. I definitely think that a balance of both is key.

  • Creativity is everything

For the second case competition, we only had 75 minutes to come up with a solution. And to say the least, time felt like it was going as fast as a bullet train. After completing our pitch, none of us had any hope that we would win - but somehow we placed 3rd!! I think a lot of that was due to the fact that our solution was creative and ambitious. So when coming up with a solution, don't restrict yourself.. get out there and think up things that you think are crazy, but could actually work. Because after all, that's how innovation is born!