Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88
By Deb Cummings
The volunteer spirit shown by Jeff LaFrenz, BSc (Eng)’85, MSc (Eng)’88, might not seem so extraordinary in these parts — after all, Calgary is the volunteer capital of Canada — but factor in the number of companies that he helped create and the countries in which he’s worked, and any surplus personal time he may have to volunteer seems, frankly, impossible.
Except if your motto — one formed around some of the enduring lessons he learned as a student — is something along the lines of, “Never stop learning and always be curious.”
Adds the serial entrepreneur: “If you don’t choose to look, things will pass you by.”
Turns out not much passes by LaFrenz, whose laser focus has zoomed in on so many entrepreneurial projects, from the creation of a fantasy football league application (kyboshed by Yahoo, who got there first), to his first big win — a company that produced industrial surge protection for high-end office equipment. “Entrepreneurism is a group sport” he adds, recognizing the key role that the team plays in turning such ideas into successful ventures.
LaFrenz’s curiosity has opened many industries to him, including earth observation, defence, telecommunications and health care systems. His latest endeavour is VizworX Inc., a company that creates industrial applications using augmented and virtual reality, artificial intelligence and data visualization. And yet, he’s still found the time to serve on numerous UCalgary boards and committees and volunteer for scores of causes since he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1985 and a Master’s in Electrical Engineering in 1988.
But what, exactly, fuels this propensity to serve — especially in demanding roles such as president of the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA), a position that required 20 to 30 hours a week of LaFrenz’s time, as well as his six-year term on UCalgary’s Senate?
“It comes back to seeking an understanding of the bigger picture,” LaFrenz explains. “All the volunteer roles I took on at the U of C gave me tremendous insight into the operations of the university and the challenges and opportunities that exist within an academic environment.”
LaFrenz says “aligning interests” is vital when selecting volunteer opportunities, alongside the countless roles he’s assumed as a mentor, speaker, advisor and leader of other volunteers, mostly within UCalgary’s Schulich School of Engineering and Cumming School of Medicine.
“One thing you have to remember with volunteer work is that people are there because they choose to be there,” says the man who, over the years, has hired many UCalgary alumni. “You have to really understand their motivations and make it in their self-interest. Aligning expectations and making sure that people see the value of whatever it is they're working on is key. This is also extremely relevant and important in the work world, and, in many ways, what you do as a volunteer can help you in both worlds.”
Growing up with an ambitious father who came from Europe after the Second World War and who rose through the ranks of the construction industry, as LaFrenz says “starting as a nail-pounder to being in charge of all of engineering for ATCO Construction,” and a successful mother who still pushes past the “limits” that society “expects” of her, left a mark.
“Education was certainly valued in our home, as was taking risks,” LaFrenz recalls, adding that now that he and his wife (a UCalgary alumna) are parents of a four-year-old, he thinks about these matters even more. “And both my parents stressed a fulfilling life beyond work.”
The other simple lesson LaFrenz ascribes to his upbringing is the importance of respect — an attribute much admired by all of his nominators.
Ultimately, people are people. No matter who they are, where they come from or what they do . . . we have to respect that what they do is important to them. It may or may not be a big thing in my life, but it’s a massive thing in their life. I respect that — that everybody does what they do, the best they can. And so, I don’t care whether you’re cleaning the bathrooms or you’re running a company; you’re doing an important thing and it matters.
Two important things that certainly mattered when LaFrenz was GSA president was the creation of a graduate student bus pass (graduate students can thank him and his team for that enduring, cost-saving legacy) and giving students a voice on how the university’s discretionary funding for students was spent.
“Back then, one of the challenges was the lack of study spaces for students so we pushed for access to a certain fund . . . which we got in the end,” recalls LaFrenz.
Not that there are any fixed or fast end goals for LaFrenz.
Fellow alumnus, Dean Olafson, BSc (Eng)’86, MBA’98, points out that, were it not for LaFrenz’s “collaborative and inclusive style of managing people, the Schulich School of Engineering Alumni Chapter might not have survived.
“Jeff is an excellent ambassador and supporter of the University of Calgary,” adds Olafson, which is something he can’t imagine ever changing, as ultimately LaFrenz just wants to make his world a better place.