Catalyzing Innovation


September 8, 2021

Words by: Jelena Bojic

Photography by: Trevor Tsoi

Meet one of the most sought-after keynote speakers, Shawn Kanungo

It’s no secret that many large organizations are not the most innovative. As much as we’d all like to think we are, we often go back to the way things have always been done. Innovation requires strategy, practice, and dedication, and when global companies like Microsoft and Dell look for motivational keynote speakers, they turn to Edmontonian Shawn Kanungo. Exceptionally passionate and expressive, Shawn is all about business strategy and embracing innovation. Called the ‘best virtual keynote speaker’ by Forbes, Shawn produces hundreds of keynote videos annually from a local theatre, with a full production team, and works with companies all over the world.

Who is Shawn Kanungo? 

I would describe myself as an innovation strategist. I spent 12 years at Deloitte, and in the latter half of that time, really diving into strategy and innovation, helping organizations create innovation strategies and navigate disruption. After leaving that job, I started my own company, advising organizations on the same thing, keynote speaking on innovation and digital transformation, navigating disruption, as well as starting some other new ventures myself, and investing in a few as well. The catalyst for me was building my own brand – my personal brand equity, largely through keynotes and video content. That has served me well for the last decade-plus and continues to do so today. My wife, Deepa Maisuria and I have started a company called DMSK, a men’s wellness company. I’m passionate about creating, innovation, and new ways of doing things. 

How does an organization go about becoming innovative? 

I’ll start with where people make mistakes when it comes to innovation. Many people think of innovation as just technology or a product, a new thing that can be introduced to the market. I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Innovation can be so many different things – about your business model, your processes, how you manage your talent, about your customer experience, and how you deliver your products and services. Many people think about innovation as theatrics, I call it the ‘innovation theatre’ as you hear about innovation labs, accelerators, hubs, hiring Chief Innovation Officers, and a lot of it is just theatre. The easiest way to introduce innovation is to remove the red tape and bureaucracy to allow people to develop new ideas, and empower them to go and execute them. It’s a muscle you build over time. It should be permissionless, it should be about creating value, and you should be empowered to make it happen. 

How did the pandemic impact the business world when it comes to innovation specifically? 

Despite all the negatives around covid, it’s the greatest thing that happened to business when it comes to disruption and innovation. As a person who’s been preaching about disruption and innovation for years, trying to get people to move forward and adopt new ways of doing things, this was a big bubble that burst, and we saw people experimenting, trying to do new things, and introducing new business models. You see new industries being created, you see crypto and NFTs, remote work, utilizing remote and global workforce, so it’s been remarkable seeing these changes in both organizations and individuals.

When it comes to technology taking away jobs, how do we prepare for the jobs of the future? 

I think technology should take away our jobs, specifically those jobs that we should not be doing as human beings. Artificial Intelligence and machine learning can remove things we don’t want to do at work, the manual and repetitive tasks. Let AI replace our jobs, and allow us to do things that are more human, more creative, imaginative and intuitive. Time and time again, our world evolves and changes, and that’s been the story of technology throughout history, and as individuals, we need to recognize we’re constantly learning and unlearning things. We learn new ways of doing things, and as they become irrelevant, we unlearn them and learn new things again. 

Elon just introduced the Tesla Bot, which will eliminate all the boring, mundane tasks, and I think it’s great – let the Bot prepare the boxes, package things, and do manual Excel entries. It’s fantastic.

Location: Mandolin Books & Coffee Company

What are some of the most memorable conferences you’ve done? 

I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of keynotes, and the value to me, whether they’re live or virtual, is when I hear from someone six months after they heard me speak, tell me they’ve made some changes, transformed their business, and want to thank me. That to me means more than anything else. When you’re able to change the trajectory of an organization by impacting one person in the thousands of people listening – that’s most important to me. Doing conferences for companies I truly admire are always memorable: Microsoft, Dell, Pfizer. I look up to them and it means a lot. I see myself not only as a strategist but also as an artist and educator, especially when we do these big-scale productions – you feel like a rockstar. You’re there for an hour, ninety minutes sometimes, so you truly have to be a master of your craft to hold people’s attention for that long. 

Conferences like Zero in San Diego, and Intuit from Brazil are such an honour to be a part of, but it’s also a lot of pressure to keep people entertained. The content has to be spicy and engaging, so people don’t think of checking emails or social media.

What does the process look like for putting together a virtual keynote? 

Most of our virtual keynotes have been shooting out of Horowitz Theatre at the University of Alberta, as well as others throughout the city. I have a great production team, with everything from multiple cameras and lighting to create a world-class experience. We are basically creating a Netflix special almost every week. It’s treated as an event, as a show, and we work hard to create a great experience for the client. In the keynotes we try to engage the audience as much as possible with polling, Q&A, chat, and getting the audience involved which is the most important piece. Multiple cameras, graphics, pianos and musicians, SNL-type pre-recorded digital shorts, and so much more. All of it is done to increase people’s attention towards the screen.

What’s next for you? 

I’d love to take one of the companies I’m vested in like or DMSK and just take it to the moon, create a billion-dollar entity. From a personal brand perspective, I’d love to continue building my brand equity. Next year, I’ll be coming out with a book. I love storytelling, so there will be more projects, documentaries, maybe even a movie, while also trying more things in the content space. That’s how people know me – I believe in high production quality content. I look at myself as a builder, creator – I’m on the ground floor, trying to understand how things work and where the world is going in terms of attention.

Just this morning I was looking at NFT space, blockchain, and trying to think how I could experiment more in that space. Sometimes I wake up thinking there are too many exciting projects to dip into.

With a young family and many businesses you’re involved in, how do you manage your time? 

You know what? I don’t know. I think I’ve been lucky during my entire career to do things I am passionate about, and spend time with family. 98% of my day is filled with things I love to do. It’s easy to prioritize your life based on things you love to do. My wife is way more productive. I need to carve out a lot more time to think – that’s the barometer for success – when your calendar is empty and you have time to think. 

Shawn’s Top Three Luxuries:

  • Time and convenience.
  • NFTs and digital artwork; as we move into this digital world, I value digital collectibles.
  • A nice suit – I’m really into custom vests, which allow you to move around and be free while looking distinguished. The vest game is really important. 

Virtual or live, which one do you prefer when it comes to keynote speaking? 

I love doing virtual conferences. I have two kids, aged four and two, and I’ve traveled a lot over the past decade for work. It can be taxing on your body and mental health, so obviously staying in town is amazing from the family aspect. But in-person is always better. You can’t replace the energy of people in the room or the connections you make. With that being said, there’s so much value in virtual, even though it’s fundamentally different. I couldn’t even compare the two, and I’d love for both to continue. For example, in-person, I’d make a joke and people would laugh, and virtually, you can’t really test the room, can’t see the energy, smiles, etc. And it’s not about me – people are coming to connect, to experience; they come for the magic and collision at events. 

If you had to pick one person today, that’s leading the way in innovation, who would that be? 

There are a lot of people that are doing some really exciting things. There’s a company in Vancouver, Dapper Labs, that created an NBA Topshop. The CEO Roham Gharegozlou has done a remarkable thing in creating the next generation of blockchain products. They are a digital collectible site and that project is a catalyst of the next revolution and operating system, which is blockchain. Roham understands the connection between culture and technology, and it’s so clear that he understands where the world is going. The fact that he’s in Canada and is building one of the most disruptive companies in the world is really inspiring. Elon Musk is definitely someone who is able to challenge slow-moving industries like energy, automotive, space…he’s been able to push the boundaries of those traditional industries, push the narrative – it’s remarkable.

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