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Denise Williams

Forty under 40 winner 2018; CEO, First Nations Technology Council; Age 36
Photo credit: Chung Chow

It was a desire to teach English as a second language that pushed Denise Williams to leave Vancouver Island and move to the Lower Mainland 17 years ago.

But a bus ride in downtown Vancouver to hand out resumés to English-as-a-second-language schools shortly after the move sent her career path on a notable detour.

“[I] met someone on the bus who worked for what’s now called the Department of Indigenous Services Canada,” recalled the 36-year-old.

The chance encounter led to a job with the federal government – albeit in a role far removed from her current position as CEO of the First Nations Technology Council.

While her work with the federal government began with photocopying binders of documents for three months, she eventually worked her way up to become an executive assistant and later a policy analyst.

But the bus ride is now one of Williams’ go-to examples she points to if anyone has doubts about sparking up conversations on a bus.

In her early 20s she left government to join the First Nations Education Steering Committee and has been focused on education and technology in Indigenous communities ever since.

But when she became CEO of the First Nations Technology Council in 2015 she found the organization in deficit.

Over the ensuing three years she’s helped raise $18 million for the non-profit.

And while the council was initially launched with two employees, Williams has helped bring the roster up to 14 workers with plans to double the head count by year’s end.

“It was just a couple years ago that we were sitting at roundtables for sector development for B.C.’s tech and innovation economy and thinking about the talent shortage,” she said. “And now we’re seeing some of the first graduates out.”

Williams added, “There [are] not words to describe what it feels like to see that there [are] those Indigenous peoples in B.C. that not only have the talent, not only have the experience – they have extreme enthusiasm.”

Birthplace: Ladysmith

Where you live now: North Vancouver

Highest level of education: Master of business administration

Currently reading: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Currently listening to: A lot of music I loved growing up; I’m feeling particularly reflective lately. This week I’ve been reminiscing with Jeff Buckley

When you were a kid, what you wanted to be when you grew up: I wanted to be an astronaut. But I think at the core of that was a desire for adventure and to be part of a team doing something really important that would benefit humankind

Profession you would most like to try: I would like to trade lives with Claire Williams for a year and try to navigate strategy, technology and politics as a team principal with Formula One

Toughest business or professional decision: I had to decide if I would try to rebuild a non-profit called the First Nations Technology Council and take on the risks and heavy lifting that go with it, or join an established organization and risk missing the opportunity to build something myself

Advice you would give the younger you: Don’t waste time feeling anxious about doing the right thing; you’ll find that your instincts and moral courage will lead the way

What’s left to do: Change the face of this country’s tech and innovation scene to celebrate the leadership and breakthroughs of Indigenous people, ensure all Indigenous peoples have access to technology in Canada to strengthen our sovereignty, complete a doctoral degree, buy a Formula One race car, befriend Elon Musk and go to space. In that order.

Join us to celebrate the 2018 Forty under under 40 Awards January 24, 2019, at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For tickets and event info visit