An interview with icona founder Tony Cai


You're the founder of icona, a company that creates transformative communities. Where did your sense of community come from when you were growing up?

My family came to Vancouver when I was five years old, but my parents soon returned to Hong Kong to take care of the family business while I stayed behind. School was the biggest influence in my life, a place that gave me a sense of stability and belonging. From elementary school all the way through to high school, I attended Christian schools — first Delta Christian School and then Surrey Christian High School. I always felt as though I fit in and was supported there. 

When did you decide to become a businessperson and entrepreneur? 

Actually, my dream job was to be a police officer. I loved the idea of serving and protecting the community. That's why I decided to attend SFU after high school — because it has a nationally recognized criminology program.

But I come from a family of entrepreneurs who encouraged me to learn about business, too. I took courses in economics as well as criminology at SFU, and when I graduated and visited Hong Kong to reunite with my family and support the family business, I realized that there are many ways to make a positive community impact. Gradually, I realized that I could make a bigger impact by using my business skills to improve my community. 

What — or who — are some of the biggest influences in your life?

My father wasn't around when I was growing up, but he taught me a lot from afar. He passed down his strong work ethic to me, and being on my own from a young age taught me to be independent, to take care of myself. That's a big source of pride for me. I learned very early on that your fate is in your own hands.

In high school, I worked in restaurants in various positions to help earn my own way. By the time I was in university, I was spending summers planting trees in the Interior and northern BC. It was hard work, but I learned quickly and earned a lot.

I saved as much as I could and invested my wages in gold. I actually bought one-ounce gold bars and coins, one at a time! As a result, when I graduated from SFU, I had not only paid my own way, but saved $100K. Being able to support myself and create wealth with my own hard work was a proud moment for me.

icona is committed to exploring and adopting best practices and influences from all over the world. Where does this global perspective come from?

I am lucky that my education and career path introduced me to the incredible creativity and innovation happening around the world. After graduating from SFU, I reunited with my family in Hong Kong and had an opportunity to take an Executive Master of Business Administration on an exchange program with the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

This is where I gained exposure to international perspectives. I met and learned from some of the smartest business minds — people who had led the World Bank and established some of the world's biggest brands. It showed me how powerful ideas can be when they're shared on a global scale.

The experience also shaped the way I see urban spaces. Spending time in places like Beijing, Shanghai, London and Tokyo exposed me to some of the most successful examples of domestic and commercial development and showed me how differently a city could develop to reflect a unique scale of living, culture and context. The scale of some of these developments is incredible. It showed me what is possible, how the right spaces can transform the way people live and work for generations.

I was also fortunate to travel to the Arctic Circle, where I visited cities like Copenhagen and Oslo — cities that are built for a very different purpose and on a very different scale. There, the urban environment is designed to support inclusiveness, encourage social interaction and improve the overall quality of life. 

It's important to me that icona projects take their inspiration from global examples, ideas and design principles, that we  look beyond our own backyard.

What else do you think icona does differently?

icona is focused on creating places that matter — where people can live, work and play. That means our company needs to understand how people live and what they need. We need to listen to them.  And we also need to think in terms of the planet — stewardship and sustainability. 

Here's an example. icona is currently looking at the potential to create a community in nature using 150 acres of land in Anmore South. Ordinarily, someone like me, the company founder, wouldn't be directly involved in community outreach. But I believe it's important to put myself at the centre of the process. I joined every meeting, attended every open house, talked to residents directly. As icona begins the community consultation process, I will continue to be involved, because that's how I can be sure that icona developments aren't just successful from a financial perspective but from a community perspective. They need to be places that improve the way people live and work and interact.

icona is also different in the way we approach sustainability and environmental stewardship. From building techniques to materials to energy sources, we are continually seeking to innovate and bring new ideas to the development process.

I have seen a lot of beautiful places around the world, but Vancouver's natural surroundings make it very special. In my travels, I had a chance to see how different countries and cultures celebrated and protected nature. Places like Denmark, Copenhagen — they recognize that humans and nature need to find better ways to coexist. The volume of human-made materials now surpasses the volume of living organisms on the planet. What do we do with that information? How do we find innovative ways to make room for people while protecting the natural world? A big part of the job for our VP of engineering is to actively research global innovations in building materials and processes that we can integrate into icona projects.

You've lived all over the world. What made you decide to return to Vancouver and found icona here?

I loved every minute of my time abroad, but Vancouver is my home, my roots.

After years spent travelling the world and learning from different places and perspectives, I wanted to bring back everything I learned and apply it to Vancouver's unique needs and context.

From a business and development perspective, I find it exciting that Vancouver is still young and actively exploring its identity. It's very chill and laid back, but it also has a tremendous passion and commitment to being better. It's a place where, as a business owner, you have the freedom to try new ideas. It's still small enough to feel like a supportive community, but big enough to have big energy, big ideas.

I believe in a balanced life where people can enjoy the four essentials of a happy life — friends, family, career and peace of mind. Vancouver is a place where it's all achievable, and the idea of creating spaces that support a balanced life is exciting.

You are about to become a father for the first time. How has that changed your outlook as a company founder and entrepreneur?

I want my daughter to have a chance to appreciate the same world I have seen through my own eyes — both the natural world and the incredibly diverse cultures and communities I've been lucky to experience. I want to be able to introduce her to all the places I have had a chance to see and enjoy, whether it's Vancouver's mountains and forests or the New York skyline at night.

That means making sure it's all there for her as she grows up, ensuring that humans and nature can find ways to co-exist in harmony. We need to think differently about the big challenges facing us in balancing the needs of humans and the needs of nature. icona is a new company and we are exploring new ways of doing things. We have no preconceived ideas. We're saying, "Let's pause for a second and think about what's really going on in the world. How can we do this better?"

More insights by icona