Alumnus Brett Chang charting a new course for transit in Toronto
Named one of the Globe and Mail’s “Top Torontonians who got things done in 2014” for his development of Line Six, a resident-run shuttle bus service in Liberty Village, Brett Chang (HBA 2013, St. Michael’s College) has consistently had his eye on improving Toronto’s transit system.
After graduating from U of T with degrees in history and political science, Chang worked on political campaigns and at various start-ups. He is now a marketing manager at Uber and recently returned to U of T to share a mentorship meal with students in the Department of Political Science.
Brett Chang (HBA 2013, St. Michael’s College)
Marketing Manager, Uber
Did your career plans change during your time at U of T?
When I was in third year I was convinced I would go to law school. I thought that was my path because I liked debating and I enjoyed legal matters and global politics. I had a friend who was deeply passionate about the law, and I didn’t think I was him. I didn’t think I was going to go to law school, do really well and turn into a great lawyer. It was never something I was truly passionate about. As graduation neared, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t too worried. I gave myself time to explore different things, expose myself to new industries and meet new people. Because of that, I ended up on this weird path and I’m very happy.
How did you make the transition from working in politics to working in start-ups?
The main thing you learn in politics is to go out there and get things done, so the transition from that, especially on the organization front and the issues management front, went well. The other key skills you learn are how to communicate and how to manage crises, and those are both useful in and applicable to the business world.
Did you start Line Six because of transportation problems you had as a student?
When I was at U of T, I was commuting back and forth from my parents’ house in Etobicoke, and that took me about an hour-and-a-half each way every day. I spent a lot of time on the bus and a lot of time on the subway. I came to the conclusion that there has to be a better way to commute; there has to be a solution to public transportation outside of what was currently happening. I recognized a similar problem in Liberty Village, which also has poor transit — full streetcars would pass by waiting residents and they were inconsistent and unreliable. We wanted to provide an alternative mode of transportation that was funded by residents. That’s where the idea of Line Six came from and we wanted to turn it into a crowdfunding platform where anyone anywhere could start their own transit line.
What have you found to be most rewarding about working at start-ups? The most challenging?
The best thing about working in technology is the amount of value you can add. Start-ups are a team sport and every member is crucial to the success or failure of that business. You’re always working on projects that impact the company’s bottom line and genuinely feel like your work adds real value to the business’s greater mission. Most challenging would have to be the pace. With limited resources, you need to be able to get projects quickly off the ground, learn and iterate rapidly. While keeping this pace can be exhausting, seeing the final product succeed is an incredibly rewarding experience.
What do you hope for the future of transit in Toronto?
I think that the future of transportation in Toronto is going to be multi-mode. I hope people no longer take one type of transit every day. There was a time when people would only drive to work. I don’t think that’s a good thing for reasons branching from congestion to carbon emission. If we could get people to use alternative modes of transportation — from biking to work, walking to work, walking to the GO station, and/or taking an Uber to a TTC station — it would be the healthiest way to move forward and I think it’s where we’re going.
Why should Toronto embrace Uber?
Uber improves transportation; it takes cars off the road and it gives people a reliable and affordable way to get around the city. If we’re looking at a multi-mode transportation system, where people take taxis, Ubers, streetcars and subways, having more options is better. People see it as an “Uber versus taxis” kind of fight, but we see it as Uber versus car ownership. We want to take cars off the road and we want people to not have to own a car to get around the city.
In the short time since you’ve left U of T, what have you learned that would be useful to students now?
Some people who graduate from U of T know exactly what they want — they want to go to law school because they’re passionate about law or they want to go to med school because they’re passionate about medicine. But there are other people who don’t know what they want to do. What I would say is don’t rush it. Get exposed to as much as you can. Do interesting things, follow your passions, travel the world and meet different kinds of people. The more uncomfortable situations you put yourself in and the more exposure you get to different experiences, people, and places, it will help you decide what you’re passionate about, what you love to do, and will help you land a job you love.
Why did you decide to return to U of T as a mentor?
When I was graduating, I needed some kind of reassurance that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do after you graduate. Even if you do different part-time things, travel or volunteer, it will all accumulatively guide you in one direction and ultimately help you. I know it’s hard to see that immediately upon graduation, but it will and you have to have faith in that. I wanted to tell my story and help people who may be a bit anxious or nervous about what they’re going to do and reassure them that everything will be okay.