How a professor of Shakespeare ended up becoming immersed in the world of technology is bit of a mystery to Gerri Sinclair’s friends and colleagues.
And the managing director at Kensington Capital Partners’ Vancouver office admits, with a chuckle, that it’s a bit of a mystery to her as well.
“I’ve spent some time thinking about it and I guess it goes back to my basic personality and childhood,” said Sinclair, the academic-turned-entrepreneur who now serves as the West Coast face of the $100 million BC Tech Fund that Kensington manages.
Growing up in Vancouver at a time when no one would bat an eye if a nine-year-old took a solo bus ride to visit a used-book shop on Pender Street, she would bide her time doing everything from playing with dolls to experimenting with chemistry sets.
“I was really lucky to have parents who basically gave me the freedom to choose what I was interested in,” Sinclair said.
“I didn’t know as a child that there were boundaries between … the liberal arts and the sciences.”
Flash forward to her time at the University of British Columbia, when she found herself bouncing between studies in science and psychology before settling on literature, and earning her PhD in Renaissance drama. She became an English professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU). It was while teaching there that the Shakespeare expert found herself slowly being drawn in to the world of technology.
Her husband had been composing poetry on word processors in the 1980s and her sons, like most kids at the time, were getting into video games.
“I decided my sons could learn how to program rather than just play video games,” Sinclair said.
The family bought a primitive home computer, while Sinclair and her oldest boy learned some of the BASIC coding language to program the classic game Snake onto the device.
“Oh my god – when I saw the first video game that we typed, that was my transformative moment,” recalled the Shakespeare expert, who was inspired to take night school classes for high-school-level computer science afterwards.
“Drama is character in action, and I saw this dramatic event unfolding on the screen and I knew that was going to change everything.”
And after making the jump from SFU’s English department to the faculty of education, Sinclair made a trip to San Francisco to attend one of the first Macworld conferences.
There, she was exposed to early efforts to marry education with interactive digital media.
Upon her return, Sinclair went to the education faculty dean and proposed the launch of a research and development production group focused on interactive education.
She promised to bring in all the funding – all she would need was a half-time salary and a grad student, and the endeavour would grow from there.
The project eventually grew to 45 people – designers, musicians, programmers and writers – as Sinclair drummed up grants and contracts for the ExCITE lab at SFU.
It was there that she was thrust into the corporate world for the first time after partnering with lab workers to develop new browser-based technology at a time when most people weren’t even aware of products like Netscape.
“It was downloaded 1,000 times in 48 hours, which was unheard of at the time,” she said.
“Everybody wanted a part of it.”
The technology, which allowed certain documents to be embedded within a web browser, grabbed the attention of venture capitalists and big corporations, and eventually resulted in NCompass Labs Inc. spinning off from ExCITE.
The new company, which Sinclair led as CEO, took on $1 million during its initial seed round in 1996 to begin developing web content management software.
“This big flood of content was coming but it wasn’t being managed,” she said.
“We grew it for five years and sold it to Microsoft [Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT)] just as the bubble was bursting, which was a very lucky thing.”
Microsoft named Sinclair its country manager for MSN following acquisition. She then served as founding CEO of the Centre for Digital Media, and as the first president of the B.C. Premier’s Technology Council.
“The truth of the matter is I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said, adding that she wasn’t sure if she would have had the courage to pursue the NCompass venture had she known the grit, determination and stress that would be attached to it.
“Would I recommend people jumping headlong into the fire? The answer is: follow your passion.” •
Business in Vancouver celebrates the 21st annual Influential Women in Business Awards, March 6 at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel. For more information, visit www.biv.com/iwib.