A Candid Conversation with Som Seif, Founder & CEO of Purpose Unlimited
The interview is hosted by Jason Boudreau and published in Iconic Concierge, Winter 2022/23
I had the pleasure of sitting down for a deep conversation with Som Seif, Founder & CEO of Purpose Unlimited. I’ve known Som for many years through the industry, with VELA being a partner company of Purpose. Over the years, Som and I have spent most of our time talking business and so it was wonderful to spend some time on the topics of family and philanthropy, and to learn more about Som’s family history. It’s always inspiring to speak with people like Som and hear about what drives them to be their best, push through adversity and truly create something great. I hope you enjoy this first candid conversation of 2023 with one of Canada’s leading financial services entrepreneurs, Som Seif.
Som’s background plays a huge role in who he is today, and we began the conversation from how it all began. His family immigrated to Canada from Iran around the time of the Iranian revolution. His father was working toward his master’s degree in England where Som was born. It was the 70s and his father originally wanted to stay in England, but a professor suggested he move to a more progressive society-a country that might be more welcoming like Canada. This advice led his father to Toronto, ON, where he applied to continue working toward his Ph.D. at York University. His family immigrated a year later in 1980.
“It was one of the greatest decisions my family ever made, but most importantly, one of the most important decisions in my life that I didn’t make. That single decision changed the probability of success for me, and my family, 100-fold”.
Growing up Som dreamed about being an architect as he loved the idea of building and designing. However, in speaking with a couple of well-known architects in the Toronto Area, he changed his mind and decided to pursue engineering at the University of Toronto. Very shortly thereafter, he went to work with RBC Investment banking, just in time for the tech bubble.
“I worked at RBC for six years but then, I just started to really ask myself whether this was what I wanted to do? I remember the big moment. I was 25 years old and starting to make very good money for a young kid, and I remember coming home one night at two in the morning (pretty typical of the hours I was working). I sat on my bed and said to myself I’m not happy. It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I wasn’t happy because I had pursued all of this with the singular goal of making money. Now that I was making some money and was on a path to making lots more money, I didn’t feel like I had the right goal. I had to step back and figure out what I really enjoyed.“
Som wanted to apply himself to see his ideas flourish and he realized he wanted to build something. So, he decided to leave, giving himself an ultimatum, “If I reach my 30th birthday and I’m still sitting in this seat, I’m going to resign”. That day came before Som turned 30. At the age of 28, he established his first company called Claymore; an ETF company built on a strong philosophical model and a vision to build a better asset management firm.
Over the following seven years, Claymore became one of the most important asset management firms in the Canada and changed the way the industry looked at investing and investment product design. Then, Som’s business partner in the company wanted to exit, so in 2012 the company was sold to the world’s largest investment management firm, BlackRock.
A year later, Som started Purpose Investments and co-founded a firm called Wealthsimple. Both companies have been growing over the last nine years in multiple areas of financial services, driving successful industry innovation for Canadians.
“If I went back in time, I wouldn’t do anything differently. One of my fundamental beliefs is that we shouldn’t have regrets in life—that every decision we make in the moment, right or wrong, has been for reasons that were in the moment. I also believe it’s important to go back and reflect on our decisions with the benefit of hindsight and apply those insights going forward.”
As with many other entrepreneurs, the pandemic had an impact on Som’s priorities and exposed him to what is most important in his life. Having dinner every night with his wife and four children during the pandemic was amazing after years of building Purpose. “I have made it a rule that I want to be home four weeknights and the weekends to have dinner with my children. It is important not to be absent for what I think is the most relevant period of their lives—it’s just that family time of being around the table together.”
Som’s childhood was very different that his own. He wants to be certain to lead by example in everything that he does. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have lots of material things. All I had were my dreams. In many cases, our lifestyle has taken away some of those things from my children because they have grown up in a different life setting. We have to find different ways to inspire them to dream–be something greater than what they are today in many ways.”
Continuous development and learning are important things that Som wants to instill in his children. He believes that people should not be worrying about how they are relative to somebody else, but they should focus on how they progress as an individuals. “If you as an individual think that way, you’re just going to get stronger. You’re going to get better. You’re going to do more. You’re going to feel more accomplished. You’re going to attack your goals, and I think that’s the most important thing I want to teach my kids. I think it’s a really powerful way to think in life.”
Giving back is another big part of Som’s life that he wants to pass on to his children. He has been involved with his time, energy, and money in different organizations to give back to society. Being grateful to his parents for coming to Canada and for the opportunity this country has given him, Som has a sense of duty to give back to his country, and community. This passion brought him to the organization “Big Brothers” while he was in his second year of the university. Even though he was busy with his studies and a very busy social life, he signed up and became a Big Brother.
“It taught me so much about the joy of giving and the invaluable personal returns. It has been an important part of my life ever since.”
Today, Som has a deep engagement in several organizations that he is passionate about. He applies himself to them wholeheartedly and plans to do so for the rest of his life.
“I aspire to give with impact. I believe it is the most important project of my life. Today I try to add value and all the rest of it, but I’m talking about really giving with impact. I want to apply the same rigor and entrepreneurial spirit that I dedicated to building businesses and helping to change the financial services industry for the benefit of Canadians, to how I can support causes drive positive outcomes that matter and change society in meaningful ways. I’m really energized an excited at the prospect of getting there.”
Knowing what we know about Som Seif, it’s only a matter of when…