Author Archives: Courtney DeLaura

By: Courtney DeLaura | Nov 16, 2021

3 mins | 711 words

logo of the company called catalystCanada is Catalyst’s fourth home — the open-source consulting company was founded in New Zealand, then added operations in Australia and later the U.K. and in 2020, it established a presence in Ottawa.  

The company was launched 22 years ago by a group of individuals whose mission was to make open-source software the choice of governments. It set up shop in Australia about 12 years ago and now has offices in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. The U.K. office, founded in Brighton nine years ago, has served as the company’s European headquarters.  

In all, Catalyst has 400 team members globally.  

 A software-as-a-service company, it specializes in cloud-computing consulting. Many of its customers are working in open-source systems, but need support and often customization on them. Most are either universities, which are pivoting to online teaching as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, or governments.  

 Chief operating officer Matt Porritt, whose title is “solutions architect,” says the company has developed some values from its open-source mantra.  

“We try to conduct business in an open and honest way,” Porritt says. “When we’re setting up in Canada — we’re investing in the Canadian economy. Similarly, we’re not mining the Australian economy and then sending it back to New Zealand.”  

He says all of Catalyst’s growth in Canada has been organic. “We’ve been working in Canada and the U.S. for the last couple of years, for different organizations. With on-the-ground operations based in Ottawa, we plan to expand across the continent.”   

Currently, the Canadian operation is small, with just eight employees, mostly in Montreal, but there’s also a team member working in British Columbia. Porritt is stuck in Australia because of COVID rules so the company has been working to fill a leadership position in Ottawa to help him manage from afar.  

“Our commitment to Canada as a company hasn’t changed,” Porritt says. “But some timelines have had to shift due to the pandemic.”  

Why Ottawa? 

Once Catalyst’s principals settled on the idea of setting up their North American hub in Canada, they had to decide where to do so within this vast land. The company has worked for clients in most of the larger provinces so it considered Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.  

“We staked out and toured all of them,” says Porritt. “The last trip we took, my wife came. Part of it was finding a place that would work for business, but the other part was finding a place we wanted to live in.”  

They knew Ottawa was a good place for their business to set up — as the seat of the federal government and a city with three universities, it justified itself on those points alone, especially as it’s a nice distance between two of the other cities they considered, namely Montreal and Toronto.  

“We liked Ottawa as a city,” Porritt says. “We drove around suburbs and parts of all of the cities we visited and asked ourselves ‘Would we live here?’ In Ottawa, it was a ‘yes.’”  

Affordability played into the decision, in terms of cost of living, office space and staffing costs.  

He said Canada is attractive to Australians because it has a similar population size, GDPs are similar and there’s lots of higher education. Geographically, he says, it “has a familiar feel.”  

Attracting talent 

Attracting good employees is always a challenge in the field of technology, but initial market research told Catalyst’s team that Ottawa and its surrounding areas could provide what they need.  

The tech ecosystem in the city was an added bonus, Porritt says.  

“We’re a tech company, but we’re not a tech company in the same way as a startup,” he says. “We deal with education and government, so that ecosystem is more important than having other tech companies nearby. Because we’re a global company already, we have a support network built in. It would be a different case setting up a new tech company. That said, you do want some critical mass and Ottawa provides that, too.”  

Catalyst at a glance 

Employees: 400 globally 

Years in business: 22 years 

Customers: Universities and governments 

Clients on how many continents: 6 

Main product/service: Software-as-a-service and open-source consulting 

Visit https://catalyst-ca.net/company to learn more.


Interested in accelerating your success in North America? Discover why Ottawa is considered a great place for your business and how we can help you establish and grow your business in Canada’s capital city.

Nov 12, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTTThis featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference.


She’s the President & Co-founder of Hyperion Global Energy — the world’s first industrial carbon recycling system. But this impact-focused entrepreneur wasn’t always a carbon tech leader.

From marketing, to advertising, and even hospitality, Heather Ward’s knack for identifying emerging trends and connecting the right people to address them has helped this impact-focused entrepreneur and creative strategist bring mission-driven visions to life.

Today, that vision is helping make the planet cleaner and safer for all, where Heather leverages next-generation technology to help companies ‘Clear the Air’ and propel innovation in the circular economy.

We caught up with Heather to learn how we can change systems from the inside out, the power of slow, and why you should never count yourself out — even into a new industry.

Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless, Heather’s story will ignite your inspiration.


This episode is for you if:

  • You want to drive meaningful change from the inside out
  • You’re curious about cleantech and are eager to learn more
  • You just launched a business and need a go-to-market strategy
  • You’re tired of the rat race and are ready to slow down

Looking for something specific?

4:00] The path from “A” to “B” isn’t always straight
[5:00] The time Heather moved to Toronto with one suitcase, no job, and no place to live
[5:41] Research and learn, fast — Heather’s tips to succeeding in Public Relations
[7:20] Here’s how Heather transitioned to the world of clean energy
[9:00] Aligning the professional with the personal
[12:00] How would you explain this to your grandmother?
[14:17] How to craft an effective go-to-market strategy
[15:40] Diversity, inclusion and creative ideas
[16:10] Introducing the Dyson of garment steamers
[18:24] How non-sexy products could be lucrative and innovative
[20:00] Unlocking your creative brain through flow
[21:47] On (intentional) slowness and strategy
[22:20] Let’s remember that the tortoise won the race, not the hare
[26:25] Why Heather swears by a good night’s sleep
[26:51] Presencing and absencing
[28:00] Who are your unlikely allies?
[35:15] How you can transfer your skills to a new industry

Naomi: Tell us about your origin story.

Heather: Getting from A to B isn’t always a straight line. Sometimes it’s a circle. That’s certainly been the case for me as an entrepreneur.

From a young age, business always interested me. I sold catalogue items door-to-door, and studied entrepreneurship, marketing and economics in school.

When I left university and moved to Toronto, I went there with a suitcase, no job, and no place to live. I started in hospitality and moved my way up to events and customer service. I learned principles there that I still use today — for example, the worst complaint you get is the one you don’t hear.

From there I got into PR and marketing, on the agency side with a large national firm. There I learned the importance of research and being able to quickly get up to speed, and understand the industry your client’s in.

I carried this with me when I started my own agency, which I ran for about a decade in Toronto. We launched Canada’s first electric vehicle. In those days, people were just starting to talk about social impact. That shaped me.

A few years later, I made a leap into cleantech. I had moved to Ottawa and wanted to get involved with the social entrepreneurship world, so I joined an incubator at Impact Hub Ottawa. That’s where I met my co-founder. Things grew quickly from there.

Naomi: What motivated you to explore other industries, business models, and the world of social impact?

Heather: As the community lead at Impact Hub, my purpose was to help other entrepreneurs. At that point, after a decade of running my business, I had achieved what I wanted professionally and wanted to get into more purpose-driven work. Things that aligned more with my personal values in social impact, like the environment.

In changemaking, we talk about the world’s problems. As an entrepreneur, you naturally want to talk about solutions.

I met my Co-founder, Jerry, at the Hub. He was a brilliant engineer with this idea for carbon recycling. I liked that it was an approach with a tangible solution. At the time there was climate denial and the silencing of science in the media, and with my background in media, I kept my eye on it.

The best way to change a system is to get inside of it. That’s where the theme of unlikely allies comes from. Collaboration is key to innovation. Look with a new view to potential partners.

After collaborating with Jerry, we got into the Carbon X Prize, which was a competition to solve the world’s most pressing problems. That catapulted us into new ways of looking at the carbon problem.

Naomi: What does it mean to shape the narrative for climate change?

Heather: When you start doing startup pitches, you need to have an elevator pitch. Something I’ve learned is to explain it like you would to your grandmother, to be concise.

One of the challenges with the tech industry is how deep you can go into the subject. It’s different when an engineer is explaining something to you, compared to a marketer.

You don’t want to dilute the message, but you need context. If you want to get off the shelf and into the market, you need to look at all the forces, and competition, that are driving the industry. Know your audience, and adapt your message to them.

Naomi: Can you walk us through how you approached your go-to-market strategy?

Heather: Know your market and do your research. Design thinking principles apply here. The three main things you want to look at are desirability (does someone want this?), feasibility (can we build this?) and viability (can we sustain this financially?).

With the tech adoption curve, at the early stage, you’re searching, doing customer discovery and validation, then looking at your product-market fit. You leave room to iterate and potentially pivot before you execute.

Creativity is important. Being able to bring a fresh perspective, even from outside the industry, is key. That’s why diversity and inclusion are so important. On our team, people have different experiences from different industries.

In my past career, a client of mine was launching a product, let’s say the Dyson of garment steamers. In the American market, people like Martha Stewart were fans. In Canada, we were finding that most of our product requests were coming from photographers and fashion designers. So, the brand became the official garment care to Fashion Weeks in Canada, where we did about 18 seasons backstage.

We found ourselves in New York, and eventually rolled out globally to Fashion Weeks in Paris, London, Milan. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to travel to all those spots but we did win a global PR award for the client. To this day, they still have that sponsorship.

Naomi: We don’t often talk about these less obvious, not-so-sexy products or ideas, even though they can be lucrative and innovative.

Heather: If we can make steamers sexy, I’m excited to see what we can do with carbon recycling. I’m going into cement factories. But look at what Dyson has done with vacuum cleaners or Tesla with the electric vehicle. There’s a lot to be said about design and product.

Naomi: Do you have any mental exercises that have helped you think creatively?

Heather:  I used to go to CreativeMornings here in Ottawa. It’s interesting how you can feed that part of your brain even if you don’t consider yourself a creative. Just looking at other people’s stories, you never know what will inspire you.

You have to let your brain get into that flow mode. That’s why some of our best ideas happen in the shower or right before bed. Some folks put a notepad by their bed. Go for a walk, get some sunshine and fresh air — do something different. A musical or artistic outlet can often bring inspiration.

Slow down. We are so rushed. We talk about the hustle. I try to be slow and strategic because that’s where the real magic happens. I read In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré, a Canadian author I had the pleasure of seeing speak at Idea City. He changed how I see time and speed and the importance of doing the right things at the right time.

We often forget Aesop’s fable where the tortoise won the race, not the hare. In entrepreneurship, you need endurance for the long haul. Pace yourself.

Naomi: You’re very purpose-driven. After running your company in Toronto for 10 years, you sold it, then transitioned to a completely different life. Why?

Heather: It was a fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world. The financial sector is a fabulous time when you’re in your 20s. The wall I hit back then was losing my dad suddenly. It was a massie wake-up call that life is short. It put things into perspective.

I achieved what I wanted professionally and wanted to give back. Through the media, I was reading about climate change. My brothers lived in Ottawa and are both engineers, and my dad was a Professor who pioneered environmental engineering in the 70s. His name was Gerry, like my Co-founder’s. I believe in serendipity.

I got quiet, slowed down, and moved to Wakefield, Quebec, a little village north of Ottawa. When you start to follow your heart and intuition, it will draw you to the places that you need to be, where you can really turn off that noise. And sleep.

I was so happy when Ariana Huffington came out with Thrive. For years I had been saying that sleep was key to my success. In terms of pacing, that’s what led me to this more purpose-driven work, from joining the Impact Hub to connecting with global changemakers, and being so inspired by these stories.

Otto Sharman from MIT has a theory of presencing versus absencing. Presencing is open heart, open mind — compassion, curiosity and courage as opposed to fear and blame.

I changed my mindset and looked at how I can work within a system to create change. Who are unlikely allies that I can partner with?

Naomi: Can you tell us more about unlikely allies?

Heather: It’s a big term that relates to systems change. Saying that industry is completely bad, and they need to just stop doing what they’re doing isn’t realistic.

To tackle climate change you need to affect economic, political and social systems. Where are the pivot points? How can we innovate in these industries? Pressure from shareholders, impact on stock prices, committing to targets with the Paris Agreement.  Change is coming.

These companies are desperate for technologies like carbon recycling. Where we are right now with cleantech is comparable to 15 years ago in the solar industry.

Collaboration is key for innovation. What is an industrial customer’s pain points? How can you solve them?

Naomi: Where can people read more about what’s coming up in cleantech?

Heather: Following COP26, happening this week in Glasgow, is an interesting place to start. Bill Gates has invested in this sector with Breakthrough Energy ventures. He put out a great white paper on cleantech and what it’ll take to scale it.

A lot of these companies exist in accelerators and incubators because it’s so early. We were part of TechStars Energy accelerator in Norway. A lot of these companies aren’t public yet in terms of investment, but if you find them, amplify them.

The Orca project in Iceland is sucking CO2 out of the air. I have seven nieces and nephews that I’m very close to and worry about the future for young people. And I think it’s important that they see not only the problems but the solutions and how they can get involved. You don’t have to be an engineer or have a PhD.

With the right drive and passion, you can get involved. Look at how policy can push these issues forward, like carbon pricing.

Naomi: What would you say to folks who are thinking about transitioning into a new industry?

Heather: If you have transferable skills, you can bring those to the table. People talk about imposter syndrome, but when I looked around I didn’t see much being done in this industry.

If people can take anything from my personal story it’s that I worked in other industries and brought those skills with me. Don’t put limits on yourself.

I could have said, “I’m not a chemist, so how can I possibly lead a company in this space?” But you have to be willing to learn, to jump in and see where your passion takes you. What do you love? What fascinates you?

There were early days when we were bootstrapping when I was not getting paid to come to work. So you have to really find something you love, your purpose. Go into spaces with like-minded folks. Whether it’s CreativeMornings, or for me it was Impact Hub. That’s where the magic happens in terms of serendipity.

Have courage, make the leap and be comfortable in the unknown. Be open to what you might find — your gifts to the world are important.

Connect with Heather

Connect with Naomi

About the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile

headshot of Naomi Haile, wearing a white sweaterAn intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.

Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.

As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.

Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.


Check out other inspiring stories in this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT:

Bobbie Racette’s inclusivity-first platform is revolutionizing the $455 trillion gig economy
How Esosa Ighodaro-Johnson got out of her own way to raise $1.4 million and co-found Black Women Talk Tech
She’s ushering a new generation of financially empowered youth: introducing Tecla Kalinda

logo of AccelerateOTTAccelerateOTT rallies hundreds of founders, innovators, industry veterans, investors, tech giants, and a host of entrepreneurial partners from Canada’s Capital Region across Canada and worldwide. This one-day flagship entrepreneurship conference hosted by Invest Ottawa strives to equip, connect, and create new opportunities and impact for founders, entrepreneurs, business owners, startups, scaling firms, SMEs, and their partners.  It aims to catalyze their growth and success by addressing key opportunities and challenges facing the startup and scale-up community; providing actionable insight entrepreneurs can put to work; and facilitating relevant investor, customer, and market connections. Visit Invest Ottawa’s venture path programs to see how we can help your business thrive.

 

Nov 2, 2021

Knowledge is power, and at Invest Ottawa, we aim to support and host a variety of workshops, networking events, and community events to help our local entrepreneurs and businesses.

Whether you’re an up-and-coming entrepreneur looking for resources to begin your venture or an established business needing a refresher on specific business topics, our community has a range of opportunities designed to help you level up. We’re all about helping Ottawa entrepreneurs make informed decisions about starting and growing their businesses.

We’ve highlighted ten events this month worth considering.


1. Exporting 101

Date: November 8th
Time: 1:00pm – 2:30pm
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

This webinar will give you an overall view of what you need to know to export goods abroad:

  • Financial issues (Incoterms, payments, exchange rates, insurance),
  • Canadian export regulations,
  • Declarations and permits,
  • Logistics costs,
  • Free Trade Agreements and their impact,
  • Regional differences (USA, Europe, Latin America, Asia),
  • Shipping to trade shows,
  • The roles and responsibilities of the:
    • exporter,
    • the importer,
    • the carrier,
    • the freight forwarder,
    • the customs broker, and
    • other intermediaries.

Learn the basics as well as the important details that will impact your bottom line and avoid mistakes, minimize costs/risks and maximize revenue.

Register

2. The Small Business Information Expo

Date: November 9th and November 10th
Time
: 1:00pm – 3:00pm
Organizer: Procurement Assistance Canada
Cost: Free

Do you want to help your business? Are you an Indigenous entrepreneur, or part of an Indigenous-led business? You need to attend this event!

The Government of Canada is organizing a Small Business Information Expo (SBIE) to help you get the information you need on a range of key business support programs and services. From financing, to hiring, to innovation, to doing business with the government, to exports and more you will find support that you didn’t even know existed!

Register

3. Understanding ‘QuickBooks Online’: Logan Katz Learning Series

Date: November 9th
Time: 9:30 am – 11:00 am
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

Stay on top of where your money is going! Join a free webinar, ‘Understanding QuickBooks Online,’ hosted by Lindsey Horvath! Learn to securely import bank and credit card transactions, track your income and expenses and more.

This is a beginners course and, as such, advanced topics such as multijurisdictional activity and foreign exchange are beyond the scope of this course.

Register

4. Google Advertising: The Business Owner’s Starter Guide

Date: November 10
Time: 10:00 am – 11:30am
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

You’ve probably heard different things about Google Advertising, some good, some not-so-good. In this free webinar, we will unveil the facts about this often misunderstood form of online promotion, and lay out a framework that will help you decide if it’s right for your business.

Google Advertising can be very powerful, but only if it’s done properly. This webinar is designed specifically for business owners who want to learn more about how Google Ads work, and more importantly, how well it could work for them.

By the end of this webinar, you will have a solid understanding of how Google Ads are priced, how to set a realistic budget, and how to identify your return on investment. If you’ve ever been curious about Google Advertising, you won’t want to miss this session!

Register

5. 9 (other) ways to sell with Moneris Online

Date: November 12
Time: 10:00 am – 11:00am
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

There are endless possibilities when it comes to what you can sell on your website.

Running a small business is a pretty big deal. But it’s also a lot of hard work, and we recognize the hustle. From the tangible to the intangible, there are endless possibilities when it comes to what you can sell on your website. With the rate at which we’re all turning to the internet – nearly 60 per cent of the world is online – there’s no reason to limit yourself to just physical items anymore. There’s a huge 24/7 market to access, which opens us up to a world of opportunity. Come learn 9 simple and easy strategies Canadian businesses are using to successfully sell online.

Register

6. Patents 101

Date: November 16
Time: 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

Come and learn about patents and how to protect the next best innovation!

Have you come up with the “next big thing”? Whether you are creating cutting-edge technology or improving a well-known product or process, you need to know more about patents. Patents can increase credibility, boost confidence among investors, keep your competitors at bay, and help you profit financially from your creativity. Don’t let someone beat you to it! Learn what you can patent and how, in order to stop others from making, using or selling your inventions, and turn your innovations into lucrative business assets. A special note: if you attend this session and wish to discuss particulars of an invention you are working on, do NOT disclose any specifics during the open session—you’ll learn why during the seminar!

Register

7. Social Enterprise 101

Date: November 17
Time: 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

What exactly is a social enterprise? How do you start one? And where can you go for help?

In this webinar, you will learn more about social enterprise models and characteristics, local examples, support resources, and considerations for starting. Join us to learn more about this unique type of business that uses revenue-generating activities to achieve a social, environmental or cultural good.

Register

8. Opening a Food Establishment in the City of Ottawa

Date: November 18
Time: 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

This presentation is led by the City of Ottawa’s Business Information Officer (BIO), Sylvie Idone. The BIO’s role is to support entrepreneurs aiming to open a new food business in Ottawa. The session provides insight into a range of entrepreneur-centric services offered by the City and focuses on topics such as the different categories of food-related business licences regulated by the City, the regulations for home-based businesses, and the interdepartmental permit and legislation requirements (i.e. health, by-law, fire and building code requirements). If you are considering opening a bakery, café, restaurant, wholesale food, catering or mobile refreshment/food business in Ottawa, this is the session for you.

Register

9. Market Research Techniques and Resources

Date: November 18
Time: 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

Market research helps you to better understand your market. It is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the success of your business idea. This seminar discusses how to conduct market research, outlines the types of market research, and provides tips on how to plan your search and be effective. Included are specific examples to illustrate how to use the many free resources available to you to obtain specific information.

Register

10. Violence and Harassment in the Workplace

Date: November 29
Time: 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Organizer: Invest Ottawa Education Centre
Cost: Free

As a business owner, you are responsible to make sure your staff and guests all follow the most recent protocols and stay safe. COVID-19 has taken its toll on everyone. As a business owners you are responsible to make sure your staff and guests all follow the most recent protocols and stay safe in a respectful manner. This final stretch could be one of your most challenging in terms workplace violence and harassment towards your staff and/or your customers. Join WSPS in their awareness session on what Workplace Violence and Harassment is and the resources available to you.

Register


Want to become part of our vibrant entrepreneurial community and stay updated on entrepreneur news, opportunities, and resources? Subscribe to our business community newsletter.

 

 

Nov 1, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTT

8 mins | 2,644 words

This blog features a round-up of the key takeaways from each panel at this year’s AccelerateOTT. For the busy entrepreneur, if you’re looking to cut to the chase and get right to the valuable knowledge, click on the panel of interest below to get straight to the key insights.

Opening Fireside Chat | ScaleUp Panel | Keynote Fireside Chat | Tech Founder Panel | Investor Panel | Keynote Presentation


And so the day came and went on October 27, where over 1,000 budding and progressive entrepreneurs registered from Ottawa, across Canada, and internationally (including in 10 countries) to AccelerateOTT 2021! Through a randomly selected draw, we welcomed 50 AccelerateOTT’ers safely to Bayview Yards to equip themselves with powerful insight and knowledge from the in-person and digital stage, making the day a truly immersive hybrid event experience.

Hybrid events, the new norm

Image of the foundry at Bayview Yards set up for a hybrid event with socially distanced seatingAt the onset of the pandemic, businesses quickly adapted to virtual events as the new normal to get their content, programs and services to their audience. But as life returns to yet another new normal, a different type of event evolved—the hybrid event.

At Invest Ottawa, hybrid events not only allowed us to continue to deliver an impactful AccelerateOTT 2021 experience to enrich and accelerate the ventures of entrepreneurs at all stages, but opened the floor to connect and unite the entrepreneurial ecosystem across the globe to expand their knowledge transfer from world-class speakers like CBC’s Dragons’ Den Manjit Minhas and CEO and Founder of BroadbandTV Corp, Shahrzad Rafati. Both in-person and online entrepreneurs received an equitable and seamless experience—a win-win for all.

Were attendees engaged during the event? Yes. Were there networking opportunities? Yes. Were there exhibition booths for sponsors? Yes! In fact, before hybrid events existed, it wasn’t uncommon for live events to host technological features such as event apps for chatting, networking, and polling.

And with Ottawa having the highest concentration of tech talent in its labour force in North America and ranking top 10 overall as one of the only two Canadian cities, it’s common sense that the City would be a launchpad for innovation and entrepreneurship, being the ideal location to host top-notch hybrid events. AccelerateOTT was exactly that—a high calibre hybrid event, utilizing the Hopin event platform in combination with homebred video production equipment, secured from Ottawa’s very own Ross Video, to provide a spectacular production.

From the stage and airwaves

The day was filled with actionable, thought-provoking content. Changemakers and groundbreakers led from the stage and airwaves, pushing through the She-Cession and sharing the secrets tobehind the scenes of technology used for a hybrid event success with lessons learned from the trials and tribulations of their entrepreneurial journeys.

From inspirational insight on resilience, client attraction, revenue generation, talent attraction and investment acquisition to actionable opportunities to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive entrepreneurship ecosystem, AccelerateOTT 2021 had something for everyone to walk away with and make their next big-money moves.

That’s why we are sharing the top takeaways of the day for each panel session for you to take in and digest the valuable golden nuggets of wisdom each discussion brought to our AccelerateOTT’ers. The content was so rich that we just had to share!


Opening Fireside Chat

Esosa Johnson, Co-Founder of Black Women Talk Tech
Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Wealthsimple, Invest Ottawa Board Member and host of Invested In Our New Reality, Invest Ottawa’s pandemic-born podcast.
Moderator: Manjula Selvarajah, Journalist, Producer and Syndicated National Tech Columnist This opening fireside chat kickstarted AccelerateOTT and woke up the audience with real talk about the challenges and opportunities emerging from the She-Cession, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women (especially in marginalized communities), and how we call can drive change.

The chat was buzzing from the stellar content brought forward, which ignited the spark for AccelerateOTT 2021. Here is what everyone can agree on for the top takeaways from an empowering session:

  1. It’s imperative to check on biases at an individual level to see change at a collective level to help overcome systemic challenges.
  2. A top-down approach of having more women in investment and women on boards will have more women funded. But, ultimately, an ‘all hands on deck’ approach, including men and women in investment and power positions, is needed to disrupt the systems drastically and put more capital in the hands of women founders.
  3. Find your community of support and entrepreneurial circle to tap into for resources and opportunities. The virtual environment has opened doors for entrepreneurs from all walks of life to expand their networks.
  4. Pitching is just part of the process. Pitch as many times as you can to get feedback and suggestions to help you build a persuasive pitch.
  5. Fundraising can be daunting, but getting access through incubator and accelerator programs can assist with raising capital and access to mentors and advisors to support your business.


ScaleUp Panel

Bethany Deshpande, Founder and CEO, SomaDetect
Heather Ward, Co-Founder, President and CCO, Hyperion Global
Bobbie Racette, Founder and CEO, Virtual Gurus
Moderator: Sonya Shorey, Vice President of Strategy, Marketing and Communications, Invest Ottawa, Bayview Yards and Area X.O

 

This next panel was all about the real talk with a vulnerable and honest discussion about the challenges of building diverse tech ventures. Built on the foundation of resilience, three changemakers shared inspiration and actionable insight on client attraction, revenue generation, talent attraction and investment acquisition—with the mindset of helping Canada and the world build back better.

There was a lot to unpack in this short session, but here’s what you need to know:

  1. Validate, derisk, and build traction where you can in the early stages through the use of accelerator programs.
  2. Be resilient to getting a lot of ‘nos’ when pitching to land funding. Learn from each pitch, be persistent and take it as an opportunity to pivot when necessary.
  3. In your business’s early stages, shaping and refining your story can help set you up for success when attracting funders. Take the time to shape your brand and personal story. Success in fundraising comes from telling a great story that captures the heart and mind.
  4. Culture is key. The clearer you are with your mission and vision, the better chance you have to attract the right people and retain talent.
  5. Don’t change who you are. Believe in yourself. Be bold and be brave. The no’s will be easier to handle when you believe in yourself and your business.
  6. When looking to scale, find alignment with partners. Specifically for exporting strategies, find global leaders in your space to build relationships on a local level.


Keynote Fireside Chat

Amber Mac, Keynote Speaker, Bestselling Author, TV Host & Tech Expert
Shahrzad Rafati, Founder & CEO at BroadbandTV Corp (BBTV)

 

The path from start to IPO is quite the journey. Shahrzad Rafati delivered a robust discussion to help you unpack the way towards IPO, encouraging everyone to reach IPO status.

There were so many quality nuggets of shared secrets to success from Shahrzad. We selected the top tidbits you should know about:

  1. Don’t just focus on your financial bottom line, but rather your Quadruple Bottom Line. Setting short and long term goals for each of your bottom lines will contribute to a healthy, impactful, and successful organization:
    • People
    • Social
    • Environmental
    • Financial
  2. Empathy is at the core of great leadership and creating an inclusive workplace. Listening is crucial to understanding a variety of perspectives that represent and impact businesses.
  3. To be successful long term, you must take care of your physical and mental health. The pandemic has exacerbated the need for many entrepreneurs to prioritize well-being.
  4. A business’s value does not equate to its market cap. Build a solid company with strong results and fundamentals, and the market and investors will eventually catch on.
  5. Go after large pools of opportunity. Choose to solve a large problem as it requires the same amount of work and will create a larger impact.
  6. For Canadian tech companies to scale, a larger pool of investors that understand the tech ecosystem is necessary.


Tech Founder Panel

Rachel Bartholomew, Founder & CEO, Hyivy Health
Julie MacDonell, Co-Founder and CEO, Heirlume; inaugural SheBoot Pitch Competition Winner
Sem Ponnambalam, Co-Founder and President, xahive
Jana Rieger, Founder and CEO, True Angle
Moderator: Julia Elvidge, SheBoot Co-Founder, High Tech Advisor, Investor, Co-Founder and Former President, Chipworks

 

AccelerateOTT’s tech founder panel was all about fueling the entrepreneurial fire with actionable insight to help scale up, generate revenue and customers, and fund your business venture. Five incredible founders shared their stories of how ecosystems are supporting tech founders in their journeys. And the message was clear here:

  • Women-led companies would benefit more from government funding allocated directly to founders within accelerators.
  • Women founders and owners want fewer learnings of business foundations within accelerator programs and more nitty-gritty details of running a business to level up.

If you’re in the entrepreneurial tech trenches looking to tackle the burning questions that keep you up at night, then here’s what you need to know from this inspirational session:

  1. Timing is key for choosing the right accelerators. Be strategic about which accelerator you select through the different phases of your company and find the one that fits your stage.
  2. When seeking unexpected investment:
    1. Go coast to coast. East Coast versus West Coast has a different approach to valuation.
    2. Be bold in your ask and know what you want
    3. Know your terminology and put together your due diligence package so you’re prepared
  3. If you’re in the early investing stage, focus on strategic angels that align with your mission and vision. Angels are often the investors who will support you as they’ve been in your shoes before.
  4. From a startup perspective, ensure you have the right support systems. Have your legal and financial contacts in order. And once you start scaling, use a bank that can support you internationally.
  5. Get help early on in your venture by exploring your ecosystem and network. Often there are a wealth of resources waiting to be discovered, including knowledge of accelerators.

 


Investor Panel

Janet Bannister, Managing Partner of Real Ventures
Christophe Bourque, General Partner at White Star Capital
Candice Matthews Brackeen, CEO of Lightship Foundation, General Partner at Lightship Capital
Judy Fairburn, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The 51
Moderator: Jennifer Francis, Chair, Capital Angel Network, SheBoot Co-Founder, Investor and Tech Executive

 

This panel was armed with actionable takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs who are looking to land investment from VCs. Four experts shared the best-kept secrets in the investment world, and we are delighted to share with you the top insights to accelerate your venture:

  1. Geography is no longer a barrier. The pandemic has propelled investors to do their due diligence and investments remotely.
  2. It’s easier for investors to invest in a movie than a photograph. Getting in front of investors in your early-stage and developing a relationship is key so investors can get to know you and your company.
  3. Be prepared when you’re ready to fundraise. Show you’re in control of your business, have your story, know your data and KPIs, and have those up on the screen. Show investors and help them build conviction.
  4. Have a consolidated and tight process when you’re ready to fundraise. Having more VCs in your pipeline prepared to invest simultaneously will allow you to select investments within the same round.
  5. Focus your pitch on storytelling, including your hardships. Sharing your passion and why along with your struggles, gives investors confidence while showing your resilience and perseverance.
  6. Build your team for the future. Investors are looking to back people and teams that can successfully execute a business plan.

 


Keynote Presentation with CBC’s Dragons’ Den Manjit Minhas

With Susan Richards, Founder and Managing Partner, numbercrunch Inc.; Co-Chair of the Board, Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards

Susan Richards on the stage with Manjit Minhas on the screen, speaking virtually

The keynote presentation by Manjit Minhas from CBC’s Dragons’ Den came in hot. It was the perfect way to end AccelerateOTT 2021 with a fire discussion on the secrets of success to bring any business next level, especially in the Den. Notes were taken. The chat was buzzing. Advice was given. And here’s the many gems that Manjit generously shared to help the entrepreneurial community scale with success:

  1. Understand and know your industry inside and out to be best equipped for success. By being prepared and well-researched in your industry, you can be the go-to source of knowledge for your business.
  2. In terms of scaling success, learn to say ‘no’ more than you say ‘yes,’ so that you can stick to your vision and stay the course for your scaling strategy.
  3. Make your public relations strategy a priority as part of your customer acquisition and marketing strategy. Your story is one of the major components of success with investors.
  4. Educate your customers on your product. Through education, customers can develop a relationship with your brand.
  5. Know who your customers are and what platforms best you can reach them.
  6. Marketing for customers also means marketing for talent. As you brand your company to find customers, keep in mind that you are also branding your company to find talent.
  7. Know your financials and numbers. Ideas are great, but revenue and understanding your costs are key.
  8. Investors want to invest in people—people who are driven, coachable, accountable, responsible, and open to iterating their products and ideas for the needs of their customers.
  9. An outstanding pitch is:
    1. Concise
    2. Only a couple of minutes
    3. Answers the basic questions
    4. Addresses the “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How”
  10. Be a mentor. Give back to your community by sharing your skills with all walks of life that can benefit from your knowledge for their success.
  11. Invest in yourself. Mental and physical health is paramount to your success, so know your non-negotiables and stick to them.

 


Be bold. Be brave. Tell a compelling story.

 

The reoccurring themes of the day. But also what our second cohort of the SheBoot Pitch Competition put into practice at the pitch competition. Hundreds of online participants cheered as ten remarkable women founders competed for a total of $200,000 in investment from 20 local women angels.

It was a tough decision for both judges and attendees voting for Crowd Favourite, but choices had to be made. The winners were announced:

  • Alida Burke, Co-founder and COO of Growcer, an Ottawa-based social enterprise addressing food security and empowering communities in any climate, from the Arctic to the desert, to grow fresh, hyper-local produce year-round through its hydroponic modular farms in purpose-built shipping containers: Top prize winner with $150,000 in investment.
  • Vanessa de Waal, Founder and CEO, Flöka, an Ottawa-based company that helps lifestyle-focused practitioners scale data-driven, preventative care: Second prize winner with $50,000 in investment.
  • Simone Godbout, Co-founder and CEO, and Nadia Ladak, Co-founder and COO, of Marlow, a company that designs and sells menstrual products and lubricated tampons on a subscription basis through an e-commerce channel: Crowd Favorite award winner with an opportunity to pitch the Capital Angel Network.

Headshots of Alida Burke, Vanessa de Waal, and Simone Godbout

And there you have it. A ground-breaking day for a hybrid version AccelerateOTT 2021 packed with the most actionable insight and something for everyone to put to work right away.

Be sure to stay connected with us by becoming part of our vibrant entrepreneurial community. You’ll be the first to know about International Women’s Week 2022 along with your finger on the pulse of entrepreneur news, opportunities and resources.

By: Courtney DeLaura | Oct 28, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTTThis featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference. Visit www.accelerateott.ca to learn more.


I had $300 in my pocket after I got laid off, and now my business is valued at $22 million.

In the midst of losing her job, Bobbie Racette set out to build a platform that would economically empower others. As the Founder and CEO of Virtual Gurus, this Cree-Metis champion for Indigenous and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities is doing just that through her inclusivity-first talent and services solution.

Today, Bobbie, recently named Canada’s Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year, works with a 150-person-strong team to champion marginalized groups, setting a new business standard rooted in community impact.

We caught up with Bobbie to talk about approaching the right investors for your business, staying true to yourself, and taking your power back.

Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless, Bobbie’s story is sure to spark inspiration for your own entrepreneurial venture.


This episode is for you if:

  • You’ve recently lost your job
  • You want to create a meaningful diversity strategy
  • You’re struggling to raise money for your business
  • You believe economic empowerment is critical for equity

Looking for something specific?

[4:30] How Virtual Gurus matches business owners with top talent
[5:30] The goals and metrics that define Bobbie’s commitment to diversity
[6:30] Pushback on diversity and inclusion mandate from investors – what it means to be non-compromising about your values and vision
[7:20] 2 years on the road and 170 “no’s” later…
[9:00] To be or not to be [yourself]?
[10:10] Why mass lay-offs prompted Bobbie to start her business (before being let-go)
[12:30] Bobbie’s ideal client
[14:00] Quality talent and fair wages
[15:34] Kickstarting Virtual Gurus with just $300
[17:00] Virtual Gurus, a two-sided marketplace
[18:00] Building skills, creating community, and encouraging growth
[19:11] Here’s what investors look for before they’ll invest in your company
[20:20] How approaching “impact investors” changed the game
[23:27] Knowing when to introduce new integrations
[25:55] Building a business without the formal background
[27:00] When Bobbie choked five minutes before her pitch
[28:00] Putting yourself out there and persevering, nerves and all
[30:00] Inspiring young Indigenous women
[37:05] Battling imposter syndrome
[37:43] Believe that you are the best person to run your company
[39:29] What to look out for in the gig economy’s $455 trillion market

 

Naomi: Bobbie, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Bobbie: I’m a huge traveler, but I hail from Regina, Saskatchewan. I’m the Founder at Virtual Gurus, where we help business owners and entrepreneurs connect with the talent they need to drive everything from their back office administration to marketing, web design, bookkeeping, social media, legal, medical and financial assistance.

We have over 400 virtual assistants working on the platform, and are onboarding 100 as we’ve landed a number of large corporate accounts. We pride ourselves on the fact that every single one of these people are based in Canada.

What sets us apart from the competition is our diversity and inclusion mandate, and our commitment to providing work to marginalized communities. We want 95% of our contractors to be women. 65% are Black, Indigenous or people of color. 45% are members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.

We welcome people with disabilities, stay-at-home moms, people in the army and veterans. Our goal is to offer meaningful work to them all.

Naomi: It’s rare for companies to be so outspoken and clear on their hiring goals. For you to be clear and uncompromising is inspiring. But I also know you’ve received some pushback on this.

Bobbie: Raising money is one of the most daunting things I’ve ever had to do. I don’t like asking for help. Virtual Gurus seed round was 1 million. It took two years and 170 investors saying no to close my financing round. I’m a woman, I’m LGBTQ and I’m Indigenous. I don’t like saying that’s why it took so long but the research clearly shows that those parts of my identity are often a factor.

A lot of the investors I met with gave some really valuable feedback. However, some of them suggested that I don’t talk about community or our diversity mandate. That it’s not about that, but it’s about scaling growth. But this is about me scaling people.

I’m always myself. I usually wear jeans, Converse shoes, and a black T-shirt or button-down. You can see my arm tattoos. And I would often get an investor telling me that maybe I could come in without them showing. But they have nothing to do with my skillset.

At some point, I thought I should change how I dress. I should change my pitch. Maybe I won’t talk about diversity. But I just shook my head and realized that businesses these days do talk about that. I’m really happy with how we closed our funding round. We’re working with investors who are perfect for us.

Naomi: Take us back to when you first identified the problem that drove you to build Virtual Gurus.

Bobbie: I had moved to Alberta to work in the oil and gas sector. The pay was good. I would work 12-hour shifts and go back to my camp and do that three, four, five weeks at a time before getting time off. Then the layoffs started. Oil prices plummeted.

I realized that I had to pivot if I wanted a chance at finding work in the city. I looked online, where the freelance gig economy thrives. I signed up for companies who are now considered our competitors. While I thought it was amazing, the pay was extremely low. For one task, I bid $2 an hour just to get a task. Who can live off of that?

A lot of these companies were offshoring overseas. That’s not a bad thing, but a lot of folks on our turf don’t want offshore support. A lot of people wanted to work with me because I was based in Canada. That’s when I realized there was an opportunity for me to provide meaningful work and offer a fair wage. That’s how Virtual Gurus began.

I started by putting up a funny splash page online, going on Kijiji. I built out my ideal client, the quality of service I wanted to offer. I was a virtual assistant, while, at the same time, working 12-hour night shifts as a foreman. After them, I’d go back to my camp where I’d work another four to five hours in my room.

I had 19 clients and word was getting around that there was someone in Canada doing this great work. It was catching on, so I started work on a bigger site. The number one thing was that I wanted to provide equal talent and offer a fair wage. I worked on a lot of pricing models to ensure that our platform had a healthy margin.

Naomi: While you were working those long hours, what kept you going?

Knowing that layoffs were coming, that I would need a job. But, also, my work ethic comes from my mom. She’s worked hard her entire life. I will say that once you create something, it becomes your baby. You get that adrenaline rush when you see things happen.

I had $300 in my pocket after I got laid off, and now my business is valued at $22 million Canadian.

Naomi: When did you know you were ready to bring people onto your team?

Bobbie: I brought my first assistant from Kijiji. I wanted to find someone on the East Coast because a lot of my clients were based there. That was my first virtual assistant, and she stayed with us for four years.

I worked on the site and algorithms, going to community groups like Startup Calgary, Calgary Economic Development, and putting myself through an accelerator. I was in Arlene Dickinson’s for six months. Fast forward to today where we have a full tech team working on our platform. It’s two-sided because we’re a two-sided marketplace: one for the clients, and the other for virtual assistants. Clients can click and pick the talent they want, and VAs get access to skill building, tests, and a whole community through Slack.

We’re closing our Series A right now, to build out our machine learning capabilities to allow for mass onboarding, because we can’t keep up with the growth.

Naomi: What have you learned about investors, and what they’re looking for in a business?

Bobbie: You always have to prove yourself when it comes to raising money. You have to prove that you have a viable product. Some investors want technology, others want revenue. That’s why it’s important that they put their portfolios on their website, so you know whether they’re right for your business.

Things changed for us when we started approaching impact investors. We’re an impact startup. We provide work to marginalized folks. When I could communicate that the reason why we needed more funding is to provide more work because we can’t keep up with the growth – instead of because I needed to build out our technology – more people came on.

This next round has been so much easier. We haven’t had to go looking for investors. When I closed out funding in 2020, we had five full-time staff and were at around two million in annual recurring revenue. Now, we’re at about six million with 30 full-time.

Naomi: Ask Betty is a new integration for Virtual Gurus. Why did you add it to your product?

Bobbie: Virtual Gurus has a subscription model, where the lowest package you can sign up for is 10 hours a month with a dedicated virtual assistant. But we had folks reaching out to us and saying that they only need support with a task here and there, and they didn’t care who their virtual assistant is. So that’s where the idea for Ask Betty came to life.

You can go on Slack and download it, and through Ask Betty, you’ll get your own personal assistant on-demand. You can just say “hey, Betty, I’m doing a podcast, can you transcribe it?” And it’ll send it right back to your Slack. It’s getting a lot of love.

The thing is, we’ve essentially started two startups at once. It’s a lot of work. There’s so much movement. So you have to ask, what do we focus on right now? There are always budget constraints.

Naomi: You don’t come from a business background. What was it like having to learn everything on your own?

Demo days are big in the startup world. I really struggled with public speaking when I started out. For my demo day, when I was in Arlene Dickinson’s tech accelerator, five minutes before I had to go on stage, I choked. I ran out of the building and went home. I was so nervous, crying, getting sick. I had to work to get over that.

I reached out to people in the startup community for help. I felt like I needed to redeem myself. So I flew out to Montreal for Startupfest, and pitched. I ended up being the runner-up for the $100,000 prize – this is out of 3,000 people. That’s when I was like “you know what, I can do this.”

I’m an introvert, so it’s been a struggle. But I just keep putting myself out there. The most empowering thing has been getting past this and learning so much about myself. I’ve persevered over and over again. Now you can put me in front of a crowd and I’ll be fine.

Nerves are good. Channel them, get pumped, get happy. Before a speaking engagement, I’ll go to the mirror and do a Superwoman pose. On stage, I’m jacked with a big smile on my face. And then more and more speaking events and requests started coming in.

Naomi: How do you feel when you look at how far you’ve come?

My number one goal is to inspire people, especially young Indigenous women. When I only had $300 in my pocket, I was borrowing money from my mom to pay rent. I was laid off. The package wasn’t much. I still have a long way to go. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about all the people I’m providing work for who have struggled as well. That’s what gets me out of bed.

I have this motto, and it’s “Inspire one, inspire a nation.”

If I can inspire people to work past the barriers of starting a business, of being a woman in tech, a lesbian in tech, an Indigenous woman in tech. You have to keep pushing. I’m not shy to talk about where I came from because others need to know that they have it in them to do it.

Turn the bad things in your life into good things. My mom isn’t just proud of me. She’ll look at me sometimes and go, “where did this come from?” If everyone did just a little bit of this in their entrepreneurial journey the world would be a whole different place.

Naomi: You talk about Virtual Gurus being an impact-focused firm. Where did your thinking and intentionality come from?

Bobbie: When I realized Virtual Gurus was going to scale, it was a light bulb moment. I had to leverage my voice and platform to help people who were struggling to find work, especially marginalized communities. They are our North Star, and we’ve rebranded so they’re right at the top of our logo. What we do, we do for them.

Sometimes, a virtual assistant will reach out on Slack and say “thank you for helping me provide food for my family.” We want these people to feel empowered, like they’re part of a community. So they can support each other and learn from one another. That’s why we launched the Virtual Gurus Academy, which is by virtual assistants, for virtual assistants.

Our newest, largest account from the US, is coming to us for 100 virtual assistants because they love this angle we’ve taken with diversity. We are now able to provide 100 different people who are BIPOC community jobs. If everybody puts numbers and mandates on their website we can make a real difference.

Naomi: That was something that investors told you to get rid of. Not everyone’s gonna see it, but the people that you’re meant to work with will.

Bobbie: It feels good. We are doing what we set out to do. Every single one of my 32 staff… That’s why we work here. It’s amazing to see how close it brings my team together as well.

Naomi: Are there any other experiences that helped validate that you were on the right path?

Bobbie: When I was about to get laid off, I hired a fellow that I met online to be our CEO. I didn’t think I could do it. Imposter syndrome. That was my number one mistake because I gave up quite a bit of buying shares. I didn’t think Virtual Gurus would get as big as it is now. Maybe six to eight months after he came in, I realized our visions weren’t the same, and that I needed to take over. That there was nobody better to run the business than myself.

Taking my power back, to help it scale, was one of the most empowering, beautiful things ever. I came out of my shell. That’s why I went to Montreal, pacing back and forth in front of a pitching tent, in front of thousands. Just the fact that I got on stage was winning for me.

It’s important that we understand that we are the best people to run our businesses. Everybody’s going to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty. You need to learn from them to grow. I tell these stories all the time because they made me who I am today. That’s why I’ve been able to scale like this.

Naomi: Thank you for being honest, that this is about learning as you go. Now, I’d like to know whether there’s anything interesting going on in your industry that you can share with us today?

Bobbie: The gig economy and the sharing economy, freelancer economy, is a $455 trillion market in North America. There’s a lot of food gig workers, administration and freelance.

Upwork, for example, started years ago. Platforms like ours are coming out and taking a completely different approach. We’re providing quality talent. There are other platforms in the US, but we’re the only one in Canada. In the US, some have revenues of $100 to $400 million a year. That’s because they’re approaching it with a fresh perspective, too. We’re onto something in Canada, but we’re actually scaling big time in the US right now. It’s rare, but 60% of our clients are based there.

I love how much this industry is changing. The cycle is refreshing.

Connect with Bobbie

Connect with Naomi

About the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile

headshot of Naomi Haile, wearing a white sweaterAn intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.

Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.

As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.

Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.


Check out other inspiring stories in this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT:

How Esosa Ighodaro-Johnson got out of her own way to raise $1.4 million and co-found Black Women Talk Tech
She’s ushering a new generation of financially empowered youth: introducing Tecla Kalinda

logo of AccelerateOTTAccelerateOTT rallies hundreds of founders, innovators, industry veterans, investors, tech giants, and a host of entrepreneurial partners from Canada’s Capital Region across Canada and worldwide. This one-day flagship entrepreneurship conference hosted by Invest Ottawa strives to equip, connect, and create new opportunities and impact for founders, entrepreneurs, business owners, startups, scaling firms, SMEs, and their partners.  It aims to catalyze their growth and success by addressing key opportunities and challenges facing the startup and scale-up community; providing actionable insight entrepreneurs can put to work; and facilitating relevant investor, customer, and market connections. Visit Invest Ottawa’s venture path programs to see how we can help your business thrive.

 

Oct 25, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTTThis featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference. Visit www.accelerateott.ca to learn more.


I’m not materialistic. But when you don’t have anything, you see what money can do for you in your life.

With an eye to ushering a new generation of financially empowered youth, Tecla K. Kalinda, a Senior Analyst at the Bank of Canada, founded ZalaSmart: a financial education company geared towards teaching kids and teens financial literacy by helping them develop personal finance skills to better manage their money.

Since launching in 2018, Tecla has made ZalaSmart available via youth-centered organizations like the Ottawa Public Library / Bibliothèque publique d’OttawaThe ForUsGirls Foundation Inc., Global Shapers, and Girl Guides of Canada, to make ZalaSmart accessible to young people, no matter their means.

We caught up with Tecla on talking to kids about money, why entrepreneurs need to delegate, and how we can solve Canada’s trillion-dollar problem.

Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Either way, you’re bound to take away some valuable tidbits on financial literacy from Tecla’s story.


This episode is for you if:

  • You’ve struggled with your finances
  • You want to grow generational wealth
  • You’re an entrepreneur who has a hard time delegating
  • You believe our kids are the key to a more sustainable future

Looking for something specific?

[4:00] Where political instability and financial awareness meet

[9:00] How Rich Dad, Poor Dad changed a young Tecla’s life

[10:00] The misunderstood power of compound interest

[11:30] What kickstarted ZalaSmart

[14:00] Connections that brought ZalaSmart to life

[18:36] The strength of (outside) expertise

[24:00] Helping kids retain what they’ve learned

[31:00] We need to delegate to succeed

[32:00] Listen to the market, and give it what it wants

[34:00] Focus on your vision

Naomi: Tell us about how you grew up.

Tecla: I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My family moved around a lot. I lived in Portugal, South Africa, but I consider Ottawa, Canada home.

I studied economics for my undergrad, and I’m doing my master’s concentration in financial economics.

Naomi: Was financial literacy something you were exposed to growing up?

Tecla: Money was something I was always curious about. Unfortunately, I’ve lived in countries where things weren’t stable, politically. In Congo there was a civil war. My extended family in Rwanda suffered from genocide. In South Africa there was an apartheid.

When I was born, my family was in a good position. I remember we had drivers and nannies. But by the time we moved to Canada, we came here as refugees. We lived in a shelter at first then, slowly but surely, worked hard and made our way to the middle class.

I’m not materialistic. But when you don’t have anything, you see what money can do for you in your life. Those events sparked my interest in money and to be financially secure and literate.

I come from a culture that when your parents age, you care for them. That forces you to not save up for your own retirement because your kids will take care of you, and the cycle continues. But you can stop that cycle, so your kids have enough money, and they’re not all spending it all on you. They can take care of themselves and retire well and build generational wealth. There’s nothing else I’d love to see more.

When I was a teenager, I read Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki, and it changed my life. Shortly thereafter, I got my first job at Subway, and then I opened my first investment account at 17. Luckily, in grade 12, I took an economics class, where they talk about buy low, sell high. I was good at learning and applying the principles I learned. It’s easy to read about these things, it’s a whole other to apply them and make them work.

When you’re 18, you go to college, and on-campus there are little booths where everyone’s ready to give you a credit card, like “oh, you only need to pay the minimum!” which is like 10 bucks a month. But I’ve seen people close to me take these things up without understanding how high the interest rates for credit cards are – 22%! They can’t pay it off and that ruins their credit, which makes it hard for them to buy a home.

Naomi: It isn’t common for young people to think about finances in this way. Do you wish you started even earlier?  

Tecla: Absolutely. Information is king. For example, I understood compounding interest, but not as deeply as I do today. The power of compound interest is that you don’t want to touch it, because the longer your money stays in an investment account, it accumulates. It happens faster the longer the money stays there.

In my early 20s, I thought “maybe I’ll use this money to pay something off.” But today, it would be worth so much more. It’s harder to build that back up. I could have used my normal day job to pay things off slowly, and let the compound interest grow.

Naomi: This idea of giving young people access to this information is the driving force behind ZalaSmart. What inspired you to build it?

Tecla: I love my day job. I work at the Bank of Canada. My work inspired me to start ZalaSmart. I was on the financial institutions team, and I was responsible, among other things, for publishing statistics on our website.

These numbers include things like household and business credit. To break down household credit, remember that we all live in homes – that’s a household. Every home has debt, whether that’s a mortgage, student or car loan, credit card, and so on. If you add up all those homes across the country, you get total household debt.

I saw these numbers rising and remember thinking to myself, “why are we in so much debt here? Why is this number rising so quickly?” When it hit the trillions, it was all over the news. It was a big deal.

I thought to myself, what if every Canadian child was taught financial literacy? Could the statistics be reversed? I looked into it and couldn’t find a single program where a child could learn everything from credit scores, budgeting, savings goals. I wondered if this could be what changes things.

So I started developing ZalaSmart. My sister introduced me to someone who came on as an expert curriculum developer. When you’re working with kids, you want to include animation. I spoke to experts in the financial world, whether they were advisors or working at a local bank, to find out what the issues are.

I also spoke to a neuroscientist, who understands brain development and how to make a concept stick in someone’s mind long-term. I realized then that we had to start at a much younger age then what I was thinking – which was between 18 to 20 years old.

Key concepts are best to learn in your core development phases. Think of when you’re learning to swim or ride a bike, things that stick with you for life. You don’t want people to come in one day and forget the content tomorrow. That’s why our program uses storytelling and experiential learning.

Naomi: For context, Statistics Canada reported in at the end of 2020 that the average Canadian household now owes $1.71 for every dollar of disposable income. To make sure you could build an impactful solution to this, you intentionally sought out experts early in your journey to help build ZalaSmart. How did you do that?

Tecla: You have to love what you’re doing because to bring it to life is hard. I’m not saying this to discourage people. When you see an entrepreneur, you usually see the glitz and glam but you don’t see the grind. There’s so much hard work. Passion and perseverance are important.

First I had the idea. Then I realized, okay, I need to build a product. I need a website. I need to market it. Am I a web designer? A pro marketer? You need to charge people, so you need to register as a business. There are so many hurdles. I wear 10 different hats that I didn’t necessarily sign up for. It’s a lot, and the support is needed.

When you find the right experts, it will be done well, and it will save you so much time. Time is huge to me; I value it a lot. Before you work with anyone, Google a couple articles on their expertise. What does it mean? What’s out there? What are you looking for? You’re not the expert, but you need to assess them and know if what they’re saying makes sense. You have the vision.

It’s a skill in and of itself to bring the right people together to make something happen.

Naomi: How did you start developing the product itself?

Tecla: I joined multiple business entrepreneurship groups. I did a lot of reading, looked up what was happening in my city, and connected with folks in the field to learn from them. I met someone who had written her thesis on financial literacy.

The first step is research, research, research, learn, learn, learn. Understand the problem. What’s happening out there? What do people need? Why is this happening? Then, find experts to help you develop everything. Testing is key.

When I worked with the curriculum developer I went out and tested everything, then made a bunch of edits. When you work with students you realize what they like, what they don’t, and what they want to change. I didn’t spend so much time trying to perfect something before going live. I went public with our first prototype.

Naomi: Where do you see the most opportunity in financial education and literacy?

Tecla: I’ve had parents ask if they could sit in on my programs, to learn these concepts for themselves. Especially when it came to understanding credit scores, good debt and bad debt. There’s a huge space for parents – actually, I’m working on something specifically for them.

We’re launching ZalaSMart online to make it accessible worldwide, and in a variety of languages. The next one will be French, then either Spanish or Mandarin. For concepts that can differ from country to country, like investments, we’ve made part of our programing customizable.

Naomi: How has your ability to delegate and outsource work impacted your ability to grow ZalaSmart?

Tecla: It gives you the headspace to grow. It’s key to listen to other people’s ideas. I write down and revisit what they say to see how I can incorporate them into my long-term plan because my goal is to help as many people as possible.

I just do my best to give the market what it’s asking of me.

It’s also important to know when to say no. You have to be focused. At one point I felt like I was spread too thin because I was trying to build content for different age groups. I realized I had to focus, and build on each age group, one at a time. When something is doing well, move on to the next thing.

Naomi: What has been an important investment that has helped you on your journey?

Tecla: Fostering good, strong relationships with the people in my life. I’ve known my closest friends for over half of my life. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. They’re the joys of my life. My friends, my family – they’re everything to me.

No matter what I’m going through, they bring me joy. I’d do anything for them.

Connect with Tecla

Connect with Naomi

headshot of Naomi Haile, wearing a white sweater

About the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile

An intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.

Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.

As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.

Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.


Check out other inspiring stories in this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT:

How Esosa Ighodaro-Johnson got out of her own way to raise $1.4 million and co-found Black Women Talk Tech

After a year of grit and grind, are you ready to celebrate resilience? To get real about ongoing challenges? And to accelerate the growth of diverse and visionary ventures?logo of AccelerateOTT

Join Invest Ottawa and our vibrant entrepreneurial community at AccelerateOTT 2021 Hybrid! Over 880 entrepreneurs have registered. There is still a spot for you. Grab your ticket.

Oct 14, 2021

logo of AccelerateOTTThis featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa. We teamed up to produce this special series in celebration of AccelerateOTT, Ottawa’s flagship entrepreneurial conference. Visit www.accelerateott.ca to learn more.


 

Everyone thinks you’re competing with them, but you’re really in competition with yourself

She raised $1.4 million and co-founded Black Women Talk Tech along the way. Today, Esosa Ighodaro-Johnson wants to help you get out of your own way. Headshot of Esosa Johnson wearing a bright fuscia blouse

From banking executive to tech founder, Esosa has learned the power of community. With Black Women Talk Tech and Roadmap to Billions, she unites Black women tech and scalable business founders across the United States to bridge critical knowledge gaps — helping them grow their business and build independent wealth, establishing legacies that can change the world.

We caught up with Esosa to find out how she pivoted from the conservative world of finance to tech, and why self-awareness and failing forward are the key to success.

Listen to the episode on Spotify / iTunes / Google Podcasts

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Either way, you’re bound to be inspired by Esosa’s story.


This episode is for you if:

  • You want to build something that serves your community
  • You’re eager to transition into tech
  • You feel like you’re getting in your own way
  • You’re hungry for insights on how to launch your business

Looking for something specific?

[3:30] The remarkable story behind Esosa’s journey to America
[5:30] Why Esosa wants to build something as “big as possible”
[8:30] Helping Black women build the next billion dollar business
[11:27] “Stop doing things that aren’t fun”
[12:15] Transitioning from finance, to tech, to entrepreneurship
[18:00] How the New York City subway connected Esosa to her first Co-founder
[20:25] Building businesses with strangers
[26:00] Bootstrapping her way to success
[30:00] The ultimate brainstorming exercise for aspiring entrepreneurs
[32:45] What it means to build a legacy
[33:53] You need to grade yourself to get ahead
[36:00] Growing Black Women Talk Tech
[40:00] 97% of Black women business are bootstrapped
[41:00] Creating Black Students Talk Tech
[43:29] You are your own greatest competition
[44:00] Here’s the greatest investment Esosa has made
[46:20] Pay someone else to help you pay attention

Naomi: What’s your origin story?

Esosa: My family’s from Nigeria. My grandfather, a medical doctor, came up with a solution to sleeping sickness. As a gift, the government gave two of his kids a full scholarship for school in America.

That’s how my mom came to America, and why I’m here. I marvel at that story. It inspired me to support the audacious moves of people who decide to be entrepreneurs.

My community, Black women founders, we’re so creative. Often our problems aren’t solved by the masses, so we have to come up with the solutions ourselves.

At Black Women Talk Tech, we want to help Black women build the next billion dollar tech or scalable business.

I went to school for Finance and worked for CitiGroup after I graduated. I got a solid foundation and a 401k in my early 20s. It was a big transition for me to go from finance to tech. It was around 2012, when the iPhone was just becoming a thing.

Naomi: What were you thinking when you transitioned from finance to tech?

Esosa: People were making millions off of apps they worked on for a few months. It interested me, how quickly you could gain traction and make real money, real opportunities for yourself. What drew me in was a friend who was working at Microsoft, before leaving to start a gaming app.

He was making at least a quarter million at Microsoft, so I was like, if you’re leaving for this app situation, I need to get into it. At the time, the average person downloading games was a woman, age 28, who made over 100K.

People were willing to pay for digital products. You’re playing a game, and if you want to level up, you’ll pay $5. That’s how these apps raked in dough.

I talked my friend into creating a course around gaming apps. We got a group of friends together, and paid him to make it happen. We were scrappy.

I started going to every tech conference I could find. Back in 2012 there weren’t that many, but it was still a West Coast game, in Silicon Valley. Though a lot has changed, deals still get done faster there. They’re less conservative than in the East.

I met someone on the subway in New York City, who happened to be in tech, and ended up being my first Co-founder. We talked on the subway, then six months later we started our first business, Cosign, which helped people democratize affiliate marketing by recommending products on social media.

We created the first “Buy” button on social media back in 2013. We scaled, raised money, pivoted and started something different. Then we got married, and had our first kid. So find love on the subway, ladies and gentlemen!

Naomi: You met your current co-founders at an event for women founders. How did that lead you to your first event?

Esosa: Myself, Regina and Lauren met at a networking event, and were like, “Oh my gosh, another Black woman! What are you working on?” It was just so refreshing to see – as we used to say – a chocolate drop in the room.

What I love about technology, that is fairly different from finance, is the willingness and the openness to help each other. We did a retreat in Connecticut in 2015 and said “hey, maybe we should try doing a one-day event next year, and allow more people to join.”

We found time in 2017 for the first official Black Women Talk Tech event, where we invited gurus to come every hour. We invited 20 investors. One of my advisors worked at Google and got us a spot there.

We sent out the invitations a week before over email. We were expecting 15, 20 people to show up. Over 300 people tried to come. We were shocked. These people were from everywhere: Canada, New York, Pittsburgh, California.

We had to do an application process. Who are we to do that? But we only had 30 spots available in a small room. It was one of the most powerful events I ever attended. I think there’s only 14 women who raised over a million dollars. Six of them were on stage at our event, sharing how they did it.

We had a pitch competition, even though we didn’t have any money to give. Instead, finalists got access to another competition where they could win money. The winner at our conference actually won at the other competition. She got a huge story in Forbes, and things went viral from there. She attributes all of her success to those days.

You don’t plan for that, right? Opportunity meets preparedness and you get this great blessing. Another woman got her first cheque from a company at that event. Within 10 months she grew her business to seven figures. The next year, she did about 10 million, bootstrapped. The year after that, she raised the largest Series A for a Black woman, which was 15 million at the time.

Naomi: What advice do you have for our listeners who want to build a business?

Esosa: Just start. Find an idea you enjoy. That’s what will make you stick with it. Times will get challenging, so you want something purpose-driven.

For folks starting out, take 30 days, and every day come up with three problems and solutions you can provide. By the end of the 30 days, you’ll have 90 ideas.

From there, ask yourself, what are you passionate about? Pick your top five. Then, which offers the greatest opportunity? Do some market research. Find out where you can make the biggest bang for your buck or effort.

Narrow it down to one or two ideas and test it for six months. If it doesn’t have traction, go for the next idea. Nobody’s making you do this. You choose your lifestyle.

Don’t be afraid. Fail forward. As you build your business, you have greater accountability. You’ll build a legacy, not just for yourself, but your family, your community, and hopefully the world.

Naomi: How did you implement a new service for your community?

Esosa: We were founders, so we knew what we needed. We wanted to figure out what was important to our community.

What’s the number one thing they’re struggling with? For a lot of people, it’s fundraising. It’s new territory for many people in our community.

Last fall, we published the largest research report on Black women who are tech and scalable business owners. It showed that 97% of Black women businesses are bootstrapped. We’re funding our own ideas.

We need to build networks and access points to get fundraising from actual investors. That’s why we created investor matchmaking programs in our events. A large student population wanted in, so we started Black Students Talk Tech.

That’s typically how we work. We serve our audience, and we listen to what they want from us. Sometimes people will tell you what they want, but you may not be in a position to take action. You have to figure out when it makes more sense for your business, and what you have capacity for.

Since our inception, people have been asking for a membership, but we couldn’t quite do it then. We just launched one, which has been incredible.

We started with 30 people, now we’re at 2,700.

Naomi: What are the most important investments you’ve made for your growth and development?

Esosa: Everyone thinks you’re competing with them, but you’re really in competition with yourself. Figure out how to improve yourself every day.

I love investing in courses, learning, and productivity hacks. I manage my time effectively so I can get the most out of what I enjoy. Getting a therapist can help you work through things that can sidetrack you.

Having an executive coach has been incredible, too. You can’t always see yourself, even in the mirror.

Folks in their 20s and early 30s are trying to figure out what they want for themselves, versus what their parents want for them. That shift can be a challenge. You want to make your parents proud.

Figure out the top two things you want to improve on, where you need extra support, and pay someone to pay attention to that so you can grow. I have too many things coming across my desk. You’ll thank yourself when you’re older for the decisions you make now.

Naomi: What are you keeping an eye out for in today’s tech ecosystem?

Esosa: There are so many things that you heard about years ago that are now mainstream. Crypto was coming out, what, 10 years ago?

What’s so interesting to me are NFTs, and all the different technologies folks are creating on blockchain. It’s all over the map. It feels like the beginning of the internet.

I’d love to build everything. I realize I can’t do that, so I want to invest actively in startups. But I really, really love what’s happening with blockchain today.

Naomi: Where can people get plugged into your work?

Esosa: Go to blackwomentalktech.com. We have tons of cool things you can join – whether it’s our membership, an event, or content that can help support your business or career in tech.

This month, we have the Unicorn Ambition conference, hosted by our brother conference Black Men Talk Tech. It’s free, it’s awesome, and it’s hybrid – you can join online and in-person, in Florida, on October 20th and 21st.

If you’re a student, sign up for Black Students Talk Tech. If you’re a founder, sign up for our The New Face of a Founder Summit, which offers a full day focused on finance and fundraising next year, on February 24th. Roadmap to Billions is a hybrid conference on May 20th and 21st.

We’re looking forward to getting back in-person. I love getting to see people and hug them, feel that energy. It can’t be replicated online.

Connect with Esosa

Connect with Naomi

headshot of Naomi Haile, wearing a white sweaterAbout the Power of Why Host, Naomi Haile

An intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.

Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.

As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.

Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She is starting graduate school at Columbia University.


After a year of grit and grind, are you ready to celebrate resilience? To get real about ongoing challenges? And to accelerate the growth of diverse and visionary ventures?logo of AccelerateOTT

Join Invest Ottawa and our vibrant entrepreneurial community at AccelerateOTT 2021 Hybrid! Over 700 entrepreneurs have registered. There is still a spot for you. Grab your ticket.