June 10, 2024

Finding Balance: Empowering Innovation and Redefining Success

Danielle Gifford, MBA’20 is trailblazing a path in tech and innovation but never forgetting to stop to see where she is and where she is going next.
Danielle Gifford, MBA'20

Danielle Gifford, MBA’20, has embraced challenges and established a unique presence in the dynamic world of startups and AI. Her fast-rising career in the technology and innovation sectors is marked by her steadfast advocacy for inclusion and women in tech.  

In just over a decade, Gifford has accomplished and impacted more than some people do in their entire career. She has even been brought in to moderate and lead conversations at some of Canada's top national technology conferences such as Elevate Festival, Collision Conference and SaaS North.  

Her story is one of resilience, continuous learning, and a profound commitment to making business accessible and inclusive. Her experiences span from working in cloud computing startups to leading AI initiatives, all while championing the cause of women in tech. 

Start Something 

"I was the black sheep of my family," Gifford begins with smile and a sarcastic tone, reflecting on her unconventional path. "My entire family, three generations, actually worked at the bank — RBC. But I somehow managed to fall into the startup life after my undergrad."  

One of her professors at the University of Windsor had a connection to a startup called Pareto Business Group, a company developing cloud-based technologies for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). At the time in 2015, cloud computing was still in many ways a novel concept, and much of Gifford’s role involved educating clients about its benefits and security. This venture would be her first crash course in the fast-paced and often uncertain world of startups.  

"It was lots of cold calling, trying to build our brand, and bringing in clients," she explains. Gifford found herself at the forefront of educating businesses about the new cloud technology.  

During her tenure, Pareto was acquired by a larger insurance entity, primarily for its technical talent. This acquisition provided Gifford with valuable insights into the acquisition process and the dynamics of being part of a growing tech company. However, her role remained focused on business development, leaving her with a desire to expand her technical knowledge and skills. 


Exploring Augmented Reality 

Following her stint at Pareto, her career took an interesting turn when she joined an augmented reality (AR) company focused on the furniture industry. This role marked her first foray into marketing and sales leadership.  

"It was the first time I really understood what marketing is, how it supports sales, and how to develop the right content and materials to generate leads and build our brand," Gifford says. 

The company, Powerball Technologies, though innovative, faced significant challenges. "We quickly found out that the Canadian market wasn’t ready to adopt this type of technology," Gifford notes. As a result, its sales efforts were concentrated in the U.S., necessitating frequent travel to trade shows across the country. The technology it was selling was ahead of its time, requiring physical demonstrations to convince potential clients of its value. 

One of the key products was a white-label app that allowed designers to visualize furniture in real time using customized mouse pads as the tracker.  

"We would place these mouse pads on the floor, allowing designers to see different furniture pieces in their space in real-time," Gifford explains. Despite its innovative approach, the company struggled with this technical execution due to a lack of in-house technical expertise. Its reliance on outsourcing led to the company’s eventual closure. 

Danielle with a camera crew

Learning from Setbacks 

The closure of the AR company was a significant setback for Gifford. "It was really tough cause I felt like a failure," she confides. Her family suggested she join in the “family business” at RBC.  

“My mom had been working in the bank since she was 18 and so had my brother,” she says. “Meanwhile, I had these other opportunities come up in front of me and I was reaching and grasping for the next one, which was awesome. But I had to stop and ask myself: What do I really want? Where do I want to be? What do I want to learn?” 

Gifford was determined to continue on her unconventional path and this determination led her to pursue an MBA at the University of Calgary, a decision driven by her desire to keep learning and growing. Without knowing anyone in Calgary, she packed up her car and drove across the country from Ontario to her new home. The MBA program at UCalgary offered an accelerator option for those with an undergraduate business degree and allowed students to work while studying. This was crucial for Gifford, who had always supported herself financially.  

“I really feel like the MBA was a pivotal moment in my journey because what it allowed me to do was crystalize a lot of those learnings that I had gotten from working in those early stage startups,” she says. 

It was in 2018, during her MBA that Gifford was introduced to Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies (CDL-Rockies), a startup program for seed-stage, science-based companies established at the University of Toronto, with a branch at UCalgary, that profoundly influenced her career trajectory.  

"CDL was transformative. I went from a microscopic view to a macro lens, seeing companies in various sectors like energy, agriculture and finance," Gifford says.  

CDL-Rockies provided Gifford with a unique opportunity to work with early stage founders and gain important insights into the critical milestones founders needed to achieve to grow their businesses. Her role with CDL-Rockies involved managing a portfolio of companies and leading site recruitment, exposing her to the intricacies of venture capital and startup ecosystems. She also built valuable networks with colleagues globally, as well as mentors and founders, many of whom she remains close to today. "The network I built at CDL has been incredibly important to my career," she emphasizes. 

One of the most significant opportunities that arose from her time at CDL-Rockies was an offer from Cory Janssen, who was the former co-founder of Investopedia (which was sold to Forbes), to join AltaML, an AI company.  

"Cory reached out with a unique opportunity to build out a Business Unit inside AltaML focused on developing technical talent and experimenting on AI-use cases," Gifford recalls. Despite her initial lack of deep technical knowledge in AI, she trusted and believed in her ability to learn and adapt. 

At AltaML, she was tasked with owning a $10-million P&L (profit and loss) focused on education and experimentation in AI. "We called it the Applied AI Lab and we worked with large enterprises on taking their AI use cases from ideation to proof of concept, all while training the next generation of data scientists," Gifford explains. This role allowed her to combine her passion for technology with her desire to support and mentor others. 

“I built my first-ever technical team of data scientists, product managers and project managers, and was able to eventually scale the program through the development of a partnership with      Microsoft,” says Gifford. “We brought on Rogers, Intuit, Health Canada and there were a couple of different cohorts of students that were coming through and learning. I really enjoyed that process.” 


Championing Women in Tech 

Gifford says a common thread throughout her career, “has been supporting women, whether it's in technology or venture capital and finance.” 

Gifford has been a staunch advocate for women in tech. She helped spearhead the Women in AI chapter in Calgary and built out CDL-Rockies high school apprentice programs to encourage young women to explore careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  

"It’s hard to be in an industry when you don’t see a lot of people like yourself represented,” Gifford notes. “Sometimes, you don’t even realize that it is a route you can take."   

Her commitment to supporting women extended to her taking on a new role in August of 2022, at a non-profit called Movement 51. As its executive director, she helped build the organization from the ground up, developing a platform for early stage investing and capital-raising.  

"(Movement 51’s) mission of supporting women-led companies and democratizing access to capital for aspiring female investors was really important to me," she says. 

But despite her passion in this area, Gifford realized her true calling lay in the tech industry. After a brief hiatus for the last quarter of 2023 to reflect on her career goals, she joined PwC in May 2024 to focus on generative AI.  

"This was a chance to join a global firm of executives and thought leaders who really understand the space," Gifford says. “It’s also an opportunity to focus on generative AI, which is something I think is going to change the way we interact with the world.” 

Her new role at PwC allows her to leverage her expertise in AI while working with a team of leaders at the forefront of technological innovation. She says she is excited about the potential of generative AI to transform industries and is committed to making technology accessible and inclusive. 

Balancing Limitless Ambition with Personal Well-being 

Throughout her career, Gifford has learned the importance of balance.  

"There’s so much pressure to be the best version of ourselves and to climb, climb, climb," she reflects. Taking a step back to evaluate what truly makes her happy and what type of work environment she thrives in was crucial for her.  

Recently recognized as a LinkedIn Top Voice, representing less than 0.5% of LinkedIn members, her article for the website, “Mid-Career Crisis? Or, a Mid-Career Awakening? reads like a manifesto of the struggles faced by any rising young executive, especially with regards to the ideals of our work and how we struggle to separate that from our identity.   

Gifford emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries and creating space for personal time. 

"The last 12 years of my life have been a lot of go, go, go, hustle, hustle, hustle. But how do I also create a little bit of space for myself?" she asks. Gifford has found that working with a career coach has been incredibly helpful in navigating her career path and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. 

Her story highlights the importance of resilience, continuous learning, taking calculated risks and having the courage to carve one's own path. As she continues to make strides at PwC, she remains committed to driving innovation and supporting the next generation of women in tech.  

Her journey serves as a reminder that, with self-belief and the right support, one can overcome setbacks and achieve great heights in any field.

Danielle Gifford will also be taking part in the Spark Change with UCalgary Alumni Entrepreneurism Webinar on June 21st where she will join a panel of alumni entrepreneurs, register for this unique event today!

Spark Change with UCalgary Alumni Entrepreneurs

Tuesday, June 25 | 12 to 1 p.m., MT - ONLINE (Zoom)

Join UCalgary Alumni to ignite your entrepreneurial spirit!

With a focus on entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking, this career-development webinar will allow you to learn from the best. Join an incredible panel of alumni experts — including A.I Tech Start-up expert Danielle Gifford, MBA'20, international recruiter Jane Griffith, BA’96 and the owner and president of the Calgary Surge, Dr. Jason Ribeiro, PhD’24 — as they describe the unique paths they carved out as entrepreneurs.  

Gain insights from those who’ve turned their ideas into reality and use the opportunity to exchange knowledge, and perhaps even start something yourself!