Mayor Ken Sim to hire Chief AI Officer for the City of Vancouver

The serial-entrepreneur-turned-mayor shared his experiences navigating the lows of building businesses, the highs of leading Vancouver, and the newest position for hire at the city.

Ken Sim, Mayor of Vancouver (left), and Ray Walia, founder and CEO of Launch Academy (right). Photo: Allison Gacad.

“The first mayor to attend Vancouver Startup Week” is a new title for Ken Sim, who, after founding and building Vancouver-based businesses Rosemary Rocksalt and Nurse Next Door, has now turned his entrepreneurial experience toward the the City of Vancouver. In a fireside chat organized by the Frontier Collective, Sim was joined by Ray Walia, founder and CEO of Launch Academy, to “get really raw” about his past life as a business exec and how it has informed his leadership as mayor of the city.

From basement entrepreneur to a global company: In 2001, Sim left his career as an investment banker while his wife, Teena Gupta, was pregnant with their first child. The pair were both without salaries and decided to move out of Toronto and into the basement of his family home.

Gupta was placed on emergency bedrest, and as they sought at-home care, the options were disconcerting, said Sim. Later that year, he founded Nurse Next Door — raising $500k on a $2.25 million valuation, while he and his co-founder kept 87 percent of the company, he said. Today, the venture is present in 352 locations across four countries, and led by CEO Cathy Thorpe.

“When we first started the company, I was looking at a business opportunity,” said Sim. “I just wanted to make money. It didn't come until two or three years later, when I saw what our people were doing to affect lives [...] It's gotten to the point now [where] I can tell you three, four, five hundred different stories where our people made a difference [and] touched the lives of people. That's awesome.”

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The City of Vancouver is a startup, but it also isn’t: Sim joked that the startup stress of making enough money to cover payroll isn’t exactly the same as managing the city’s fiscal responsibilities. “I know that even if we massively screwed up, we have the ability to correct, and our people will still be able to make their mortgage payments and feed their families,” he said.

Sim also sees his role as mayor, along with other elected officials, as one of strategy, similar to that of a company’s C-suite. “Our role is to paint the vision,” he said. “And then make sure that we have the right person — really, it’s the city manager — in place, and support that city manager in achieving that goal, as opposed to jumping in and trying to figure out what everyone else does and do their job for them. So that's what we're focused on. It is a startup.”

Vancouver’s tech is “ours to lose”: While Sim has long-celebrated Vancouver’s tech scene, he also cautioned that it’s not a sector the City should take for granted. Sim cited Vancouver’s leadership in areas such as AR, VR, Web3, gaming, and clean energy.

“We need to wave the flag; we have to build on what we are great at, because it changes so fast,” said Sim. “And we have to be intentional, or someone else is going to eat our lunch.”

Hiring for a Chief AI Officer: The global AI wave isn’t one that should be ignored by local businesses, said Sim — and he considers the City of Vancouver in need of one too. The mayor announced his intentions to hire a Chief AI Officer during the fireside chat.

“They don't even have to have a technical background,” said Sim. “When you look at AI, what we're seeing is [that] it's the people that actually ask the best questions and understand the workflow that will crush it in these spaces.”

One area of application for the city’s future Chief AI Officer? Speeding up the permitting process, said Sim. “In Australia, they're using AI to issue permits in 12 seconds. So it changes everything. You don't have to worry about compartmentalizing databases anymore.”

Sim acknowledged the ethical concerns around AI, including its ability to displace jobs as well as the bias present in large language models.

“Whatever we do, the goal is not to reduce headcount,” Sim said.

“As an entrepreneur, as a startup, don't try to be perfect. It's an emerging technology like everything else. Let's use it. Let's try it out,” he said, referring to the City of Vancouver. “We're gonna scrub some things, and that's okay. And we'll tweak it and get better and better and better, and we’ll be in the game.”

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Five goals before he taps out: Sim closed the session with five personal goals he’s hoping to achieve as mayor of Vancouver. While he didn’t give them all away, he did state that once they’re complete, he’s “tapping out” as mayor.

“Don't be surprised if there's significant movement on the humanitarian crisis that we have going on in the Downtown Eastside,” said Sim. “Don't be surprised if something is around, creating an environment where all of our kids can see a future in the city of Vancouver. And don't be surprised if we're more united than ever before.”

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