At 48, the high-tech entrepreneur and co-founder of Groupe 3737 takes on a new volunteer role as the university's 14th chancellor, for a five-year term.
Frantz Saintellemy left Montreal’s north-end Saint-Michel neighbourhood at a young age to pursue his education and wound up studying at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT.
Besides a string of successes in high-tech, the 48-year-old also finds time to give back to his community – largely through Groupe 3737, an incubator/accelerator for entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds that he founded with his wife, Vickie Joseph.
Now the dynamic businessman is volunteering in another capacity: as UdeM’s new chancellor, an unpaid position, for a five-year term.
When Saintellemy moved with his family from his native Haiti to Saint-Michel at the age of 8, few people would have predicted that he would someday become chair of the board of a top-ranked university.
Back then, his French was poor and he was placed in a transition class for non-francophone students.
But his resilience quickly became evident. In the schoolyard, Saintellemy was the one who stood up for the kids who were bullied. And soon he was organizing his class’s soccer games and the dodgeball games.
Gérard Jeune, a teacher with whom Saintellemy has maintained a lifelong friendship, noticed his leadership qualities and challenged him - in Creole - to focus on quickly improving his French and English and raising his grades.
If Frantz could get better marks, Jeune told him, he’d take him into his Grade 3 class after the Christmas break and, as a result, he wouldn’t lose a year.
“I wasted no time,” Saintellemy recalled in an interview at UdeM’s MIL Campus. “I started watching Passe-Partout, Goldorak, Sesame Street – and I succeeded.”
But nobody can make it on their own, he added.
“You are part of a community. Gérard Jeune was one of the first to believe in my potential and I consider myself a product of my environment and the many people who have reached out to me at one point or another in my life.”
Since those formative years, he has been unstoppable.
From Saint-Michel to Silicon Valley
As an entrepreneur, philanthropist, board member, husband, father and now chancellor of UdeM, Saintellemy has always juggled multiple roles. He feels he needs to be involved in many things at once in order to succeed.
As a child, he would do his homework on the school bus so he could spend his evenings playing soccer. The sport eventually took him to Europe to play in tournaments. Sport introduced him to new worlds and made him realize the importance of setting goals.
As an elite athlete, he had to use his time efficiently and make the right choices to do well in his studies. When it came time to choose a university, he was drawn to Northeastern in Boston because of its computer engineering department and work-study coop program.
“I was looking for the fastest way to get into the workforce, to be able to practice my trade as soon as possible,” he said. “Northeastern let me start working in my first year and gave me credit for almost all my cégep courses.”
Saintellemy’s high GPA at Northeastern won him scholarships that helped pay his tuition.
“I came from a large family, one of 13 kids, so we had to work hard for everything. All my siblings were studious and had strong characters. There was healthy competition among us: you had to claim your place. We all went to university. Education opened doors for us.”
Saintellemy is part of the first generation in his family to attend university. His education equipped him to climb to the top rungs of the high-tech industry and pursue a productive career in Boston and Silicon Valley. Along the way, he earned a reputation for creativity, initiative and solving complex problems.
Giving minority entrepreneurs a leg up
A love story brought Saintellemy back to Québec: “I met Vickie Joseph in Florida and she became my wife. She was also from Quebec and after two years in Boston we decided to come back and start a family.”
Growing up, he didn’t feel he was part of a minority – “Saint-Michel is like the United Nations!” he exclaimed – but coming back to Quebec, he experienced a shock.
“In the United States, it wasn’t unusual to see black entrepreneurs, black executives. Here, wherever I went, I was an exception, especially in my field, high-tech.”
He and his wife wanted to do something to change things, and so, in 2012, Groupe 3737 was born. Its location, at 3737 Crémazie Blvd E., has personal meaning for Saintellemy: the building once housed the Dominion Textile factory where his mother worked.
For almost a year, she went to the factory every morning, hoping to be hired for the day by the foreman. “There was a large concentration of day labourers of Haitian descent and my mother was one of them,” he recalled.
Saintellemy and Joseph bought the abandoned building, renovated it, converted it to 12 commercial condos, and sold nine floors to entrepreneurs looking to set up shop and create jobs in Saint-Michel.
Groupe 3737 occupies more than 50,000 square feet on three floors. The space is used for training, coaching and mentoring programs, an innovation lab, and a computer room where young people learn coding. Since March 2012, Groupe 3737 has coached more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, supporting the creation of more than 100 businesses that have generated combined total revenues of over $160 million.
UdeM’s new chancellor intends to remain chair of the board of Groupe 3737 and president and chief operating officer of LeddarTech, a company valued at more than $1 billion that develops microprocessors and software used in the automotive industry.
He’s used to dealing in large figures. In 2010, he and a group of investors acquired the microelectronics firm ZMDI. In 2015, they sold it for US$350 million.
As UdeM’s 14th chancellor, Frantz Saintellemy hopes to inspire young people, regardless of skin colour or financial resources. “I want them to see that everyone can go to university and that it can change their lives.” Education, he believes, “is an incredible social lever.”
He also believes that as a major Quebec university that’s well-known in the French-speaking world, Université de Montréal has the potential to be a driver of change. And “with that potential comes responsibility,” he said.
“We have to build bridges. Too often, even today, the people who go to university come from social backgrounds that prime them for professional success. To build a more equitable society, we need to increase the size of the pie, to give all kids hope, regardless of their financial resources.
“We need to be more inclusive, more accessible, and closer to the community. I want UdeM to be perceived as innovative, modern, entrepreneurial and accessible to all.”
And though Montreal has is well-positioned in the global digital landscape, Quebec needs to do more at the primary and secondary levels to solidify and expand those high-tech gains, Saintellemy said.
“We must improve our kids’ digital literacy, especially since many children in disadvantaged communities and outlying regions don’t have enough access to computers and high-speed internet at home to develop their digital skills. And in today’s world, that’s as fundamental as French, English and math.”
Investing in digital literacy for all kids will support the development of Quebec society and get more young people into cégep and university, especially science and engineering programs, he believes.
“It’s no use giving only the most privileged members of society a university education. To truly elevate our society, we have to get to the weakest links.”
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