As Invest Ottawa’s new vice-president of global expansion, Jens-Michael Schaal is on a mission to sell companies from around the world on the merits of doing business in the capital.
One look at his impressive CV suggests he’s tailor-made for the role. And if the story of how Schaal himself ended up calling Ottawa home doesn’t sway prospective entrepreneurs and investors to establish a presence here, it’s doubtful anything will.
The native of Germany spent the early part of his career in the banking industry, working his way up to a position as a credit risk manager at ING in the country’s financial capital of Frankfurt. The thought of moving to Canada never entered his mind.
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Then, 15 years ago, he met a French-Canadian woman while both were on English-as-a-second-language training in, of all places, South Africa. The couple fell in love, and Schaal soon found himself moving across the pond.
“Usually a guy leaves his country only for two reasons: it’s either money or it’s love,” he says with a chuckle. “In my case, it wasn’t the money.”
Schaal, who also speaks French, settled with his now-wife Danielle in Montreal, where he earned a degree in public policy and history at Concordia University. He followed that up with a master’s degree in public administration at Queen’s before embarking on a varied career that included stints at NGOs in Ottawa and London.
“I would recommend everybody to consider another degree at a later stage in life because it was really an eye-opener for me,” the 45-year-old says. “It opened up an entirely new career path.”
A job with Colleges and Universities Canada eventually landed him in New Delhi, where he helped launch a program to prepare skilled workers to emigrate to Canada. Schaal then shifted to a role with the government of Ontario’s Trade and Investment Office in the Indian capital, acting as a liaison for Canadian firms looking to invest in India while helping companies there find economic opportunities in Canada.
In early 2017, he transferred to New York City to take on a similar role. Schaal and his family were loving life in the Big Apple and had no intention of pulling up stakes – until he spotted a job opening at Invest Ottawa while perusing LinkedIn last fall.
“I was really happy with what I was doing,” he says. “I would have not (left New York) for any other opportunity, for any other city in Ontario.”
But the lure of the IO post was too much to resist. Schaal was already familiar with the organization through his work with the Ontario trade office and liked what he saw. And he also had a very personal connection to Ottawa, where his first and only child, Klara, was born in 2012.
“If you were to ask me where home in Canada is, it’s clearly Ottawa,” he says. “It’s really like a homecoming for us. And on top of that, there’s an awful lot of cool stuff going on in this city.”
Schaal, who officially took the reins as IO’s global ambassador on Aug. 12, says he plans to spend his first few months on the job getting the lay of the land. That will involve many hours of meetings with entrepreneurs and executives in the private sector as well as economic development officials from all three levels of government.
He believes Ottawa has a great story to tell, and he’s eager to get it out there. Schaal says IO-sponsored initiatives such as the new L5 autonomous vehicle test track in the city’s south end – the only facility of its kind in Canada – are capturing the imagination of foreign tech leaders, and it’s time for the city to capitalize on more of those opportunities.
“We have so much to offer,” Schaal says. “What we need to do is we need to raise the awareness level of all the great things happening here internationally so that companies come here with an open mind and are excited about our ecosystem.”
It’s a challenge he’s embracing with open arms.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me to actually work on growing Ottawa’s ecosystem and adding companies and people to it and actually see the impact as the city transforms,” Schaal says. “This is what really motivates me a lot.”