Alumna, Alex Clark talks good policy, giving back—and how she’s bringing opportunity to a new generation of entrepreneurs.
If you spent a good part of the past year seeking small business gems on social, listening for the comforting sound of the delivery truck, or contemplating the items in your virtual cart, you’re in good company. With consumers bereft of their bricks-and-mortar go-tos, online shopping hit an all-time high during the pandemic—and it looks like it’s here to stay.
For alumna Alex Clark ’06, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Canada’s e-commerce powerhouse Shopify, the ability to support retailers beyond your local mall is exactly the kind of diversification the system needs.
“Consumers over the pandemic embraced online shopping, wanted to support local businesses, and cared about the ‘about us’ stories more than ever before. My hope is that this continues. More voices, more power in the hands of the many and not the few … we’ve rediscovered the online version of Main Street and it’s exhilarating.”
“More voices, more power in the hands of the many and not the few—we’ve rediscovered the online version of Main Street and it’s exhilarating,” she explains earlier this summer. “If the government can use the momentum we’ve seen through this pandemic around supporting entrepreneurship, we could have a much more diverse, interesting and stable economy moving forward.”
It seems Alex has always been keen to bring fresh talent to the table—and that means fighting for good policies; finding innovative ways to expand reach; and providing opportunity to those who, historically, were often overlooked.
“If the government can use the momentum we’ve seen through this pandemic around supporting entrepreneurship—bringing them to the table and addressing the real barriers—we could have a much more diverse, interesting and stable economy moving forward.”
“Looking back, I was able to leverage my education, my network and even life experiences to get me through the door,” she shares. “It’s an advantage to have one of those, let alone all three, so I’ve always believed in finding ways to allow more people to participate that otherwise couldn’t.”
It’s a community mindset she comes by honestly. Her grandfather, Old Ridleian Ian Reid ’44 and grandmother, Margot instilled its importance in their family; both received the Order of Canada in recognition of their community service.
Alex is part of a long line of Ridleians: her grandfather, Ian; uncles, Tim ’78 and Ross Reid ’71; aunt, Sarah Cameron ’84; and sister, Jillian Clark ’03 all attended Ridley. When she was 16, Alex decided to turn her focus from competitive tennis and considered where to spend one final, adventurous year—and, having listened to plenty of Ridley stories around the dinner table, Alex knew the school would check the right boxes. She enrolled for the 2005-06 academic year.
“Some of this [service mindset] comes from self-awareness of opportunities I’ve had that are not available to everyone. Looking back, I was able to leverage my education, my network and even life experiences to get me through the door. It’s an advantage to have one of those—let alone all three—as you go through life and your early career, so I’ve always believed in finding ways to allow more people to participate that otherwise couldn’t.”
And from the moment she arrived on campus, she made the most of it, serving as captain of the First Girls Rugby team, House captain of Gooderham West (she’s held on proudly to her House ring), and assistant captain of the then newly formed JV Girls Hockey team, which she helped create. “It was a bunch of us that had never played hockey—most of us had never learned how to stop on skates. The boards absorbed a lot of our momentum!” she remembers. “But by the end of the season, we were a dream team. I was surrounded by these badass women who just wanted to have fun and compete.”
The arts soon came calling, too. Alex played Béline, Aragon’s fortune-hunting second wife in the Upper School production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid (Le Malade Imaginaire). “A special dedication to my grandfather,” Alex wrote in her sunny Acta entry later that year, “without him blazing the Ridley trail, I worry I would have missed this influential year … Thank you, Ridley for opening your doors to me and welcoming me into the family.”
Though Alex left after graduation to pursue a degree in Political Science (first at University of British Columbia and then Carleton University), she kept in touch with her peers in the years that followed—and the Ridley family afforded her some new connections along the way.
These days, Alex lives in Ottawa with her husband, Jarett and their eight-year-old dog, Boomer. When we spoke in June, she and Jarett were expecting their first child and predicting life would soon be busier than ever—and that’s certainly saying something. The proud alumna currently sits on the leadership board of the Women’s Training Camp with the Ottawa REDBLACKS and is on the Board of Directors for Dress for Success, an organization that empowers women and helps them to re-enter the workforce. And as Shopify’s VP of Strategic Initiatives, her day job keeps things hopping as well.
Knocking down barriers to success seems to have always been at the core of her career, which from the start has followed an impressive path. Alex started out in politics, working for the Liberals when they were the official Opposition under Michael Ignatieff. Following that, she took what she learned and applied it to helping businesses navigate the system. She spent the next five years working with global clients across all sectors, developing their strategic communications and stakeholder plans, and lobbying on their behalf.
But in helping these companies, it never did feel quite like her win, and she wanted to have more of a direct impact. Alex transitioned in-house at Microsoft as their Director of Corporate Affairs, dividing her time between Vancouver and the company’s headquarters in Seattle—and ultimately working with the B.C. government to build the Centre of Excellence.
“Failure is part of the journey and will only make you a better entrepreneur if you take the time to learn from it. Never skip over understanding why something failed. As we say at Shopify: Failure is the successful discovery of something that did not work.”
That’s when Shopify came calling. “It was a no brainer for me,” she laughs good-naturedly. “A Canadian company supporting small businesses and they have a slide in the office?!”
Though an admittedly excellent selling feature, the company sure boasts more than a slide. If you’re still unfamiliar with the popular online platform, Shopify provides independent business owners with ecommerce and point of sale features to help them start, run and grow their business. More than two million merchants from over 175 countries use it—and they’ve created 3.6 million jobs and contributed $307+ billion in global economy impact.
In 2016, Alex joined Shopify’s team as Director of Policy and Government Affairs, creating the company’s first Global Affairs team and advocating for policy ensuring governments around the world remove barriers for entrepreneurs to be successful.
“It was a unique time for tech and government,” she recalls. “Government is accustomed to a dynamic with the private sector that’s based around value exchange. But if you were like Shopify five years ago, you historically had never needed government—but quickly they were showing up in your backyard making crucial policy decisions, while not always fully understanding the unintended consequences of those decisions.”
As ‘innovation’ became the new buzz word across the country, with solutions being drawn up around everything from attracting talent to supporting young businesses, it became clear that Shopify needed a seat at the table. “That’s what I came to solve,” Alex explains. “It was less about lobbying and more about education.”
From that role, Alex was asked to become Chief of Staff to CEO, Tobias Lütke. She moved deeper into the business, working alongside the Executive team as Shopify went through an exciting period of hypergrowth. Their workforce doubled each year, global expansion took off and their merchant base now sits at over two million. This past year, Alex took on her current VP role, which covers Shopify’s Corporate Development and the SHOP app; she’s also advisor to the Executive team and CEO.
But her passion for small business doesn’t end at their office door. In recent months, Alex co-launched Backbone Angels, a collective of ten active angel investors who invest in women and non-binary founders. These angels—all women who bring years of experience in everything from legal to UX to marketing—prioritize investments in Black, Indigenous and Women of Colour led companies who deserve the capital and support to build the companies of the future. Alex is a founding partner.
“We realized our collective experience was incredibly powerful and by launching ‘Backbone’ we’ll be able to support more companies. We’ve spent most of our careers on the front line of entrepreneurship,” Alex says. “We know the story of the journey and the individual matters just as much as the final product.”
“The future is for the makers.”
More people are choosing entrepreneurship, she posits—and it’s paying off. In the past months they’ve reviewed hundreds of decks, met with founders and have invested in some exciting companies. But though there’s plenty of hope for a new generation of entrepreneurs, there’s work to be done; the pandemic shone a spotlight on the vulnerabilities we have as an economy.
“Canada can sometimes be referred to as ‘laggards’ when it comes to technological adoption,” explains Alex, “and some of that became painfully obvious when we didn’t have the right systems in place to address the needs of individuals and businesses through this pandemic. Businesses that survived were those that quickly shifted to online because now you could no longer depend on your brick-and-mortar store for foot traffic, and you needed to expand to a larger or global market.”
“The silver lining of this is that we’re seeing small businesses doing really well because they removed the dependency of in-person,” she adds.
Now, it’s all about using that momentum to bring those entrepreneurs to the table to address what are some very real barriers. It’s only through inclusive conversations and good policies that the country will move forward and live up to its potential—and Alex is hopeful. One way to bring about change? People need to get involved.
“Getting involved in politics was once seen as this honourable way to serve your country, and now I think it’s seen as this thankless, dirty job that no one wants. We really need to change that narrative,” she says. “We need people shaping this country that embrace the potential of the future and understand where we’re heading—and we need women.”
As we wrap up our conversation, it seems like the perfect opportunity to ask Alex if she has any advice for Ridley’s young entrepreneurs. “It’s really hard,” she replies. “Expect to fail…a lot. But recognize that failure is part of the journey and will only make you a better entrepreneur if you take the time to learn from it. Never skip over understanding why something failed. As we say at Shopify: Failure is the successful discovery of something that did not work.”
So, good reader, following a year filled with uncertainty but lined with the silvery promise of something new, go forth and find your passion—whatever that may be—and go for it. And while you’re deciding, hit ‘buy’ on that shopping cart.
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from the Fall 2021 issue.