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‘Small Changes Lead to Big Changes.’ Remembering Janet Baird, The Community Organizer Who Catalyzed Victoria’s Tech Scene

‘Small Changes Lead to Big Changes.’ Remembering Janet Baird, The Community Organizer Who Catalyzed Victoria’s Tech Scene

VIATEC Technology Sector Leadership

The former VIATEC board chair, an early champion of the internet, served her community and helped lay the foundation for Victoria’s current technological success.

In previous years, when Trinity MacRae worked with her colleagues at StarFish Medical to donate record amounts to VIATEC’s annual Food Bank Challenge, she may not have known how much her efforts mimicked those of the woman many call the godmother of Victoria’s tech scene. But MacRae knows now. Last month, the StarFish office coordinator was presented the first-ever Janet Baird Award for Community Champion at the VIATEC Awards—recognition of her efforts to improve her city through charitable contributions, events, and volunteer work.

The award, named after the late Janet Baird, “is about recognizing people who are obviously thinking about community and contribution, and celebrating them and giving them praise and spotlight,” VIATEC CEO Dan Gunn told Victoria Tech Journal. “This hopefully inspires people in the room to follow, in their own way—to do something similar where they can contribute to the community.” Gunn said it’s not up to his organization to tell people how to run their company or engage in the neighbourhood. “But if we can do something that helps encourage really strong supportive behaviour”—like provide a showcase for it—“then that's a positive outcome.” 

MacRae’s extracurricular work includes organizing an annual chicken soup bingo game and chilli cook-off fundraiser, as well as facilitating direct donations to the food bank that have then been matched by StarFish CEO Scott Phillips. Her efforts made her an easy choice for the inaugural Janet Baird Award, Gunn explained. “Her colleagues love her and she truly understands community,” he said.

Baird, who died in 2018, was an educator, a tireless community organizer, and a strong proponent of early iterations of the internet. Her embrace of technology ultimately led her to become a founding member of the Victoria FreeNet Association and chair of Gunn’s not-for-profit, VIATEC, for a decade. But as local leaders like MacRae (and StarFish) continue to carry on Baird’s legacy of public service, it’s worth revisiting who Baird was, so those who never met her might understand her lasting impact on Victoria’s innovation ecosystem and the community at large.

‘Down to earth’

Janet Morton Derby Baird was born on Nov. 9, 1935, in a Great Depression-riddled Saskatchewan. She was one of four daughters who grew up in an economic environment that, according to her obituary, made her “appreciate both thrift and generosity.”

Baird completed a Bachelor of Education at the University of Saskatchewan and completed the requirements for a bachelor of arts in history and economics at United College. She married Dr. Alastair Baird in 1959, and their travels took them across the pond but eventually back to Canada: Victoria, specifically, where she got down to business reshaping the world around her.

Susan Brice, a longtime friend of Baird’s, remembered her for the energy and enthusiasm she gave to everything around her. “She was not only donating money,” Brice told us. “She was sweeping the place out before they had the event, she was selling tickets, she used every chance she could to talk to a person or an organization. She was a kind of mix between a quite sophisticated and cultured individual…but also just down to earth.”

Gunn, who worked with Baird while she was chair of VIATEC, remembered her directness and eagerness to get things done. “Some people kind of couch their feelings or their thoughts,” he explained. “And she was always like, ‘This is what we are trying to accomplish. This is what was best.’ You weren’t going to hurt her feelings if you didn’t like her idea. She was just like, ‘What do you think's best? Let's get this done.’ Brass tacks makes her sound harder, but she was just focused on the outcome. And she was really kind and really intelligent. But you can get to things quickly and efficiently with her, which was always nice.”

'A hub for this sort of business’

Baird ended up at VIATEC decades ago because of her excitement over early versions of the internet. Baird’s daughter, Shauna Salomon, and her husband were particularly surprised that she knew so much more about the internet than they did. Although it was very new to the world, Baird, ever the educator, saw it as “a tremendous way for information to be disseminated,” explained Salomon over the phone from the United Kingdom.

In terms of new tools, she thought it was very practical, a word that comes up often when people describe Baird’s personality.

“She was so hyped up about it,” Salomon reiterated. “We were astonished, but she just chirped on about it, as she always did, cheerfully. I think the part of the free-net that really spoke to Janet was that sort of availability for everybody—that this technology shouldn't be elitist and shouldn't just be for a few. It should be out there and available and at a very, sort of, grassroots level.”

But Baird’s vision went beyond notions of the once popular concept of the information superhighway. She was thinking more about how tech could play a role in the resilience of Victoria’s economy. “She thought it was a very important thing for Victoria to establish—a new industry and a hub,” her daughter explained. “Because, you know, natural resource exploitation was devolving. The fishing, mining, logging—all that was disappearing, but there were very good brains in that part of the world and an extraordinary lifestyle. And I think she just thought we can attract people here if we become a hub for this sort of business.”

It sowed the seeds for what VIATEC is reaping today.

Fifteen years ago, Victoria’s tech sector revenues were celebrated for reaching $1.7 billion. It was on the verge of eclipsing tourism as the city’s largest industry. It was a huge moment, recalled Gunn. But a lot has happened in that time, and Gunn believes tech has likely ballooned to over $5 billion in revenues today. “I think it's an important time to stop and make sure that we recognize the people who helped enable that and made that possible,” he remarked. “You know, there are plenty of leaders in our tech community now that had no interaction with some of those people who really created that foundation. So taking a moment to highlight that is important. I mean, we wouldn't be here without Janet and others.”

What’s transpired in Victoria tech “happened because of some really deliberate community-minded people decades ago, and that's important,” Gunn added. “Community is a word that continues to have shifting meaning thanks to, you know, things like social media. And so it's easy to overlook. It's easy to think, when you're on the rise, that you're at the beginning. It's easy to feel like this is the breakthrough moment. And it's not always easy to see the many steps that came before that made it all viable.”

When you’re looking up, when you’re trying to go higher—as many Victoria startups are—you’re not always taking note of whoever's shoulders you’re standing on.

‘Small changes lead to big changes’

Salomon said her mom raised her to believe that “wherever you live, you have to contribute. And you play the solution and not the problem. And you do it in a practical sense.” It’s an example of the directness that Gunn spoke about. “What can you do practically?” is a question Baird asked. She would consider what simple steps you could take to actually change things for an individual or an organization.

And by all accounts, she would approve of an award named in her honour that would encourage people to do more of what she did— to take care of their neighbours.

From Salomon’s perspective, a trophy established in the name of her mom shows “that a lifetime of work in the right direction can lead to wonderful positive things.”

“In a world that is becoming increasingly selfish,” Salomon said, “I think she would be delighted to know that people might be inspired to work on a community level and make small changes, because small changes lead to big changes.

And while “she didn't go seeking airs or honours,” according to her friend Brice, “when things happened, I think she was very proud and happy that she'd made a difference.”

When Baird stepped down from the VIATEC board, the organization didn't give her a watch or a crystal vase with her name engraved on it—nothing you would expect. They gave her a chainsaw, one that Salomon said she used till the day she died. “Or at least she oversaw my brothers using it til that day with absolute delight,” Salomon added, “because we had all these trees falling down, and she could buck up those trees and have them ready for fire.”

That chainsaw, which included a plaque from VIATEC on it, is symbolic, Salomon bets. It represents Baird’s practical approach to creating change—removing barriers, and making space for what’s necessary. It’s about how the community saw her, Salomon summarized. “She was the person with a chainsaw who was going to cut down some of the old stuff and move in with the new.”

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Media Contact : William Johnson - Vic Tech Journal

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