Jenelle Sobey is the Managing Partner at Code + Mortar (formerly Norex) and a local leader in Social Innovation. We recently had the opportunity to sit down and get to know her a little better…


Jenelle, we’ll start off easy, could you tell us about yourself?

I’m originally from Fredericton, and anyone who knows me would agree that I am a very proud New Brunswicker.

I believe in Atlantic Canada, and I want to help create a unified region. Over the years that’s really motivated me in my career. While in grad school at UNB completing my political science degree, I began working with the New Brunswick Business Council. That was really the start of my career. 

It was a great start for me, I got to work with some of the best senior business leaders from across the Atlantic Province and I actually ended up as the Interim Executive Director of the New Brunswick Business Council… twice. My intent had actually been to move to a big city, but when a mentor and Chairman at the time asks you to stay and take on that role – that’s not something you pass up. I was the interim Executive Director until they hired their CEO, Susan Holt. Susan is an impressive leader. I learned a lot from her, and when she left for maternity leave, I found myself, at 23, in my second Interim Executive Director position.

The Executive at the time included David Ganong of Ganong Chocolates, Jim Irving of JDI, Wes Armour of Armour Transport, Gordie Lavoie of Sunny Corner Enterprises Inc., and Francis McGuire of Major Drilling – and they each taught me leadership, management, and business skills in their own unique ways. I was operating as an Independent Consultant at that time, but they inspired me to believe that social change can be driven by resources and leadership from the private sector. I remained an independent for 6 years holding contracts with the Pond-Deshpande Centre, the Wallace McCain Institute, Future New Brunswick and many others.

My focus was economic development projects with a social slant – and I loved it. The projects all received private funding. I am a firm believer in private sector leadership to drive the economy and social economy, recognizing that the economy needs “social” investments to successfully grow. I was surrounded by people who were motivated to do good, to help New Brunswick succeed. I got hooked, I wanted to stay in Atlantic Canada and be a part of its success as an economically and socially progressive region.

This was how I became interested in social innovation and I completed a second graduate degree at the University of Waterloo. Combining what I’d learned through my education, and all I’d learned from my 5 years in the startup community, I realized that when people apply technology to the problems they are solving, they can scale the impact of their solutions

When Norex came along, it was a good fit in terms of bringing a social lens to how we employ technology, and the types of problems we can solve with it. I’ve been at Norex for 2 years now.

 

Now you’re with Norex, what do you love most about the tech company?

It’s so cliché to say the people, but probably the team. We operate like a family (but a really competitive family!)

The team here is always trying to do their best work, be more efficient, more innovative, and bring new resources and tools to the work – because we are motivated by each other. At Norex, you want to be the best you can be, because everyone else around you is doing the same – it’s addictive. I’m not sure many companies would use competitive as a descriptor for their team, but it’s a great culture to have. The team supports one another to be the best we can be and that’s what I think I like best about us. As a result of this, we work very efficiently and the team comes up with some really creative ideas about how we can apply technology to problems.

 

Norex has a unique approach to solving problems; your team has designated time for it, right?

Yes, that’s right – we have a dedicated innovation time for everyone at the company. Innovation projects can look very different; it could be a passion project or interest of someone, it could be a recognized market opportunity that we want to build a tool for or it could be solving a common problem. We’ve had some really amazing things come out of this time, such as EyeRead (now Squiggle Park) which is solving real-world problems using technology.

 

We often hear that you don’t need a background to work in the tech sector, do you have any background in tech?

I do not have a background in Computer Science. What I do have is lots of programmers watching my back – not to mention an Undergraduate Degree in Political Science from St. Francis Xavier University, a Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of New Brunswick, and a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo. Plus many years of experience within the economic development and startup world.

I fell in love with the tech sector was when I realized that technology is a tool. There was not one startup idea that I encountered, whether it was reducing gas emissions or exploring new forestry methods where the impacts couldn’t be magnified many times over by technology

 

Do you think not having a degree or education in technology is a barrier in this sector?

It’s interesting because I actually think that the next tech leaders will be those who understand that it’s not about the technology itself, but it’s about the application. It’s about being able to identify how it can be used. I’ve heard similar messaging from other business leaders, that CEOs do not necessarily need to have subject matter expertise, for example, Francis McGuire at Major Drilling has a Bachelor and Masters of Arts, but he led the telecoms industry in New Brunswick. Francis said something that stuck with me, “as a CEO or the leader of a company, you don’t need to know how, you don’t need to do the metal work or do the drilling yourself, you just need to be able to have a vision for how you can either grow, scale or do it better than your competitors.”

As you know, there are many initiatives taking place at both Digital Nova Scotia, and with some of our partners such as Volta that are working to increase women in tech. Do you have any advice for women who would like to get started in the tech sector?

I am all for more women learning to code! However, if women wanted to get into tech, they don’t need to know how to code, but they do need to understand the market, the language, and the industry well. Technology can be a sector, yes, but it’s so much more than that – it’s a tool.

 

Do you have any advice for anyone looking into breaking into the tech sector?

Startups are one of the most friendly, fun places to work within. I’d recommend networking, find out what startups are doing and if you have a skill fit they need, even in a volunteer capacity if you are simply looking to learn. There is actually a belief that founders of startups or CEO of startups have backgrounds in tech or engineering but often that’s simply not the case. The CEOs are good problem solvers and they know how to employ technologies and sciences in order to come up with a solution and to build a customer base around it.

Other avenues into tech can be through roles in project management, accounts and sales within tech companies – immerse yourself. You’re going to learn what you need to know about the relevant technology really quickly.

 

We know you’ve met some amazing leaders in your career, but is there anyone who has really inspired you along the way?

I’ve been, again, extremely fortunate… there have been many people who have inspired me along the way; Tim Coates, Andy Scott, Susan Holt, Karina LeBlanc, Nancy Mathis, to name just a few. Most notably, a person who has been involved in my career in varying capacities over the past 7 years is Gerry Pond, at different points he has taught me to not accept the status quo and to be vocal and unapologetic when doing so, his commitment to the belief that social innovation is key to economic and social prosperity in the region inspired me to invest time in this space. In 2013 Gerry insisted I talk to the Governor General following a 4Front Atlantic panel, the Governor General Johnson told me I should go to the University of Waterloo to study Social Innovation – I ended up there because of Gerry’s interfering.

 

Since you’ve been in leadership roles since you were 23, what is your outlook on Leadership?

I firmly believe in actionable leadership and clear communication, and re-communicating that over and over and over.  As a leader, you have to believe in your vision and provide context to those around you. I do prefer a collaborative approach to leadership, but I do believe a leader needs to have a vision and trust in it, because without your commitment to it, you can’t expect others to follow. I also firmly believe in execution, I am results driven – deliver commitments because leadership is built on trust.

 

You won Digital Nova Scotia’s Power It Up Next Generation Leadership Award last year, and then went on to win the national Women in Communication’s Emerging Leader Award. How did it feel to be recognized within Nova Scotia, and on a national level?

I feel incredibly honoured. When you look at the other women that are being recognized, the fact that I am able to stand next to them and be considered of similar caliber is awesome. There was so much pride in seeing Norex recognized on a national stage, as well as representing Atlantic Canada on a national stage! I want to grow the company here in Nova Scotia, create jobs and bring business back to our province. The awards felt like a head nod from the community to keep it up. In terms of the award focus on women, I believe it’s incredibly important to continue to recognize and support women. We need to see ourselves in role models. If there’s one thing the Hilary campaign taught me, that I didn’t even realize I needed to see until I’d witnessed it, was that a woman can run for President. It was powerful.

What can women do to move up to leadership roles?

We see this in our own company and other people’s companies as well – but what it takes to move into a leadership position is to be someone who’s willing to do anything. Have a good understanding and overview of the company, and the ability to identify how you can help the company grow or improve. It’s not about you. It’s about how you can help your team and the company get to the next step.

People who get moved into leadership positions quickly are often extremely tenacious, resilient and driven. If you’re asking for advice – I would say figure out what motivates you, figure out if you’re in the right company to be able to make that happen and then always say yes to opportunities.

 

Special thank you to Jenelle for sitting down with us, and congratulations once again on your recent awards!