The believer: Why Hubert Lau advocates for entrepreneurs despite the trials of entrepreneurship  

Published on June 12, 2023

2023 Honorary Degree recipient trusts his faith in humanity, his abilities and a higher power

Hubert Lau (Computer Systems Technology ’91) isn’t interested in talking about success.

What you learn from it, he suggests, is that the status quo is acceptable. And it doesn’t give much cause to be humble, which he sees as essential to learning that leads to growth.

Lau knows this because he’s a veteran Edmonton-based entrepreneur who has seen myriad successes.

He founded an IT consulting and networking firm that has served more than 1,000 companies and organizations. He became the largest exporter of malting barley to China. He and a colleague designed voice over internet protocol networks long before making calls over the web became popular.

He also helped build TrustBIX, a company that provides technology solutions for supply chain management and global food traceability and sustainability.

That’s where success is harder to come by these days.

Listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, TrustBIX once traded as high as $1.05. After COVID, and a chill in Canadian relations with China (one of TrustBIX’s major clients), and the decimation of pig herds by African swine fever, and a pivot to poultry being blocked by avian flu, and market uncertainty for investors due to the war in Ukraine and high inflation, the stock recently sat at a closing price of $0.03. “Cash is really tight for us,” says Lau.

But he can find the positive in that. Lau has seen enough ups for every down to have developed a faith in humanity, his own abilities and a higher power to know there’s a lesson – one that will see him through this and whatever challenges may come.

“If it’s perfect every time you’re not learning,” says Lau. “So the failures are great. They hurt like hell, don’t get me wrong, but you get better.”

That philosophy keeps the 2023 honorary degree recipient committed to a life in entrepreneurship. It’s also what he draws from in his role as one the region’s strongest supporters of students, colleagues and strangers looking to achieve their own business goals, which Lau sees as a driver of innovation and economic advancement.

And he makes no secret of the fact that he guides others with the hope that he might be guided through challenges in return, and that a stronger sense of community might arise from that.

An unexpected path to entrepreneurship

Lau never set out to be an entrepreneur. After high school, he wanted to be an occupational therapist, volunteering in a geriatric health facility. Gregarious and genuine, he made real friends. That eventually proved difficult.

“You know what happens to geriatric patients?” says Lau. “They move on to the next world.”

He needed a new plan. Knowing his son’s drive to help others, but also wanting to be practical, Lau’s dad suggested computers. As seen from the late ’80s, they seemed like they would meet every need, including that of doing more good in the world. And, dad pointed out, NAIT’s placement rate in the field was nearly 100%.

Computers came naturally to Lau. “What NAIT taught me is how a computer worked and that there was a logical breakdown of commands to execute,” he says. “Those courses gave me the tools to [address] any problem.”

But they did not immediately land him a job. When Lau graduated, unemployment in Alberta was nearing 10%. So he and his girlfriend, who had taken the same program, took jobs through a temp agency. “As long as it was in front of a computer we would do it in the hope that we would get exposure to somebody who would find our skills useful,” says Lau.

The strategy led to a connection with KFC Canada – a long and busy relationship that would ultimately see Lau incorporate as an IT consultant.

Dad was right. “You started to see the computer as an enabler to help anybody achieve their goals,” says Lau.

It was an enabler for him, too, fuelling a love of learning that would broaden his expertise. In those early days of personal computing, Lau was among the vanguard in an era of constant technical evolution. He had no choice but to teach himself, which meant reading manuals like they were drugstore novels.

“I remember sitting on a train going to work and reading,” Lau recalls with a laugh, “and my heart rate was going up because I was so excited to figure out all these new features and functions that were possible in DOS – in DOS!”

Even then, when friends compared him to Midas, the mythical king whose touch turned everything to gold, Lau would pause to consider his good fortune as his skills took him in new and unexpected directions.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe a two-year education got me so far,’” he says. “It prepped my brain in a way that I never understood.”

Supporter, connector, life-long learner

The Midas analogy is only partly applicable. On the one hand, the king was motivated by greed; Lau wasn’t. But on the other, success was countered by failure. Midas made food inedible and turned his daughter into a gleaming statue. When the gods took pity on him and reversed the power, he vowed to share his remaining wealth with the kingdom.

For Lau, that wealth is knowledge that comes from experiencing good times and bad. At NAIT, he shares that through the JR Shaw School of Business and the Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship.

“He's been a really great supporter from an advisory perspective,” says dean Dennis Sheppard, who counts Lau among his school's strongest supporters and connectors to the local business community.

Also, students find him instantly relatable. Sheppard recalls a recent event in which Lau shared advice with a few who aimed to become entrepreneurs. “He just stopped whatever he was doing and they were the only people in his world,” says the dean. “He is able to step back and remember what it was like to be in their shoes, starting from scratch.”

Lau’s impact is felt beyond NAIT as well. “He is a strong ambassador and takes any opportunity to promote the Edmonton region as a place to live, work and build a business,” says Malcolm Bruce, CEO of development organization Edmonton Global.

Ron Horton, vice-president and secretary general of the China-Canada Business Association, feels Lau’s “many contributions have helped numerous Canadian businesses and businesspeople. [He] is generous in lending his time and expertise to those who ask.”

In doing so, Lau hopes to not only create a culture around freely exchanging ideas and information but one in which it’s OK to ask for help.

“Talking about your weaknesses is really good for you,” he says. “When you talk openly about your challenges, people want to help you. They’ll come with ideas. It feels good when people care enough to try to help.”

He says that with TrustBIX in mind. Financial results announced in late May showed promise. Compared to the same quarter last year, revenue was up almost 65% and operating expenses dropped slightly. But Lau still worries – to a point.

“Do I believe we’ll get through it somehow? Yeah,” he says. “How ugly will it get? Not sure yet, but it will get pretty ugly.”

While continuing to boost others, Lau has faith that help will come for him, too – an investor, a contract, a grant, a teacher who will see him as an eager student.

“I can’t explain it and I'm not going to try,” says Lau. Instead, he’ll focus on doing what he feels are his most important jobs: “continuously learn, ask questions, ask for help, put in long hours, be fully engaged.”

And, perhaps, he’ll remind himself of another important lesson he shares with others when he can. “Failure is temporary,” says Lau. “It’s part of a journey. It’s not the journey.”

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