Partnerships and Supporting Ottawa Business Through the Pandemic

Nov 19, 2020

A discussion with Senior Manager, Strategic Partnerships, Kara Eusebio

7 mins | 1521 words
By: Katie LeClair

Katie LeClair headshot photoKara Eusebio joined our team in 2017. The organization had just moved from what insiders refer to as Aberdeen – our office building in Little Italy – to “Ottawa’s one-stop acceleration shop,” Bayview Yards. We had a partnerships program with one signed sponsorship agreement but no official division and no full-time staff. Kara was the first. Since then, our Partnerships team has seen an approximate 550% increase in revenue and the strength of the program has received praise from thought-leaders and peers.

Today, sponsorship program leaders across industries and sectors in the for-profit and not-for-profit space manage (and in many cases struggle to manage) the stress and economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. I wanted to connect the now Senior Manager, Strategic Partnerships, to uncover what it’s been like at Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards.

I met with Kara – each seated on the other side of our respective laptops – to discuss the five Ws. We talked about the foundation of the program and how it’s been able to scale. We also discussed how COVID-19 had impacted the team’s work and their experience with sponsors since March.

With genuine curiosity, I started our conversation by asking what she envisioned three years ago when she first joined Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards. Her response came quickly, “My goal at the beginning is still the same as it is now: to build a world-class partnerships program… to be the go-to and for people in North America to say, yes, that’s how it’s done.” She expanded, saying,

“I wanted to bring together a group of sponsors that genuinely loved being here [at Bayview Yards and Invest Ottawa] and a program that is high-quality and high-touch. I want people to get a lot of value out of the partnership.”

As she dug in a little deeper, the team’s objectives were clear: secure funding for the programs, fill the needs-based gaps for entrepreneurs and deliver top-quality content, resources, and support

Quality was a consistent theme woven throughout our conversation, emphasized when we talked about partner selection and retention and program delivery. Kara shared that when identifying if a partner is the right fit (if their intentions align with our vision), it comes down to their willingness to try new things to serve entrepreneurs. Are they open and able to adjust based on the needs of small businesses? Invested partners tweak their programs or develop new products or services based on what they hear from business owners and entrepreneurs. And they communicate clients’ needs back to the Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards teams so they can adjust. This willingness to be flexible and to collaborate is what the team seeks to find.

When it comes to the Partnerships team’s delivery, standards are high. Kara confirmed, “we offer the only Canadian accelerator to have a third-party valuation done on our benefits. We did this to ensure we’re giving people and our sponsors all the touchpoints and value they’re looking for to achieve their business objectives and make sure their investment is well spent.”

Beyond a pathway for business development, working with Ottawa’s lead economic development agency at the city’s innovation centre, Partners can develop their own emerging leaders by running workshops, handling consultations, and connecting with the innovation ecosystem. “It’s on the ground skill development… partners have told our team that their connection with us is a part of their recruitment strategy. Their employees don’t sit at a desk all day, but are actively on-site with companies, bringing value and building relationships with business owners and entrepreneurs.”

Kara emphasized that our partners invest time and resources in getting to know us. They intimately understand the challenges startups and SMEs have.

To the Partnerships team, this had never been more evident than when COVID-19 reached our region. As Kara explained it, “sponsors weren’t back on their heels, scrambling. Because they prioritize our partnership – because it’s important to their firms – they could act quickly and give support in real-time.” Whether it was late-night calls, detailed instructional emails or digestible guiding resources for startups and SMEs on navigating our new reality, sponsors were prepared and positioned to help.

As the architect and leader of our Partnerships program, I asked Kara how she felt in March. She shared, “it was frightening in a variety of different ways, for many reasons. We saw reports that sponsorships should see a close to 50% drop in commitments for the year.” But instead of focusing on that, the team focused on providing value.

Many of our sponsors are small businesses themselves. They are a similar size revenue scope to the companies that we serve. And the ones at an enterprise level, they still had and have concerns about local markets.

We focused on adding value and visibility to them as well.

Kara confirmed that the team quickly shifted how they operated.

“We introduced high touchpoints (even higher than usual). Conversations with our sponsors were a couple of times a week. We stepped that up. We were asking them what their pain points were, what they were hearing from people. We facilitated an even greater open dialogue. We introduced flexible payment plans; they’ve been committed to us, and we’re committed to them.”

These changes have been hugely beneficial on many fronts.

Even with the added pressures, our partners didn’t waiver their commitment to supporting small businesses. Highlighting that she shouldn’t have been surprised, Kara explained that for almost all sponsors, their immediate response was the same: they wanted to show up for companies.

A leader at MDK Business Law said,

“If we’re not here for them now when they need us the most, well, what was even the point then?”

Kara shared that she was on the phone at six, seven, eight o’clock at night with RBC and BDC at the beginning of the pandemic. “They were walking us through exactly how, step by step, to get our clients support… they want companies to succeed.” Our partners were there from the start.

RBC is an example of a company that has said, “no, this is the right thing to do. We’re putting our time and resources behind this because small business is the lifeblood of our country.” They established the Canada United Small Business Relief Fund to give much-needed funding to small businesses. The support helps pay for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like masks, face shields, and latex gloves, and renovation costs so business owners can adhere to local, Provincial or Federal reopening guidelines or improve their e-commerce capabilities. RBC also quickly built a COVID-19 related resources page and provided critical insights to companies on how to access funding through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA).

Logan Katz is another example: an accounting firm that introduced the COVID-19 Hub. Their comprehensive webpage provides up-to-date information on economic support measures to help businesses through the pandemic. They intend to help people understand and navigate Canadian programs.

Nelligan O’Brien Payne introduced a free employment law helpline. Anyone can call in and ask questions. To speak to an expert, you don’t have to be a client, just a business in need of support.

Rogers also really stepped up. They committed to supporting small businesses by allowing owners to delay bill payments and offering free Microsoft Teams accounts so teams could stay connected (Kara’s eyes lit up when she recalled that companies couldn’t believe it was true). They partnered with the Ottawa School Board to provide laptops and tablets to kids who don’t have access at home. And they did so quietly. They also expanded their Small Business telecommunications and internet offerings to solopreneurs and others newly working from home.

So many of our partners chose to act and made decisions that directly benefitted people because it was the right thing to do. Kara and the entire Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards team is proud to work with them.

A strong partnership stems from a strong relationship

“In sponsorship, many people assume you make a few calls and secure a new sponsor. The reality is, new sponsors who have joined in the past few months have been in conversation with us for a long time, some since 2017. It’s about building relationships, collaborating on initiatives, trying things out – determining those things that work and things that don’t work. So, when it came time, and the opportunity arose where we could collaborate in an official capacity, to them, it was a no-brainer.”

Today, we have a total of 17 corporate sponsors. To Kara, the changes we have seen over 2020 have introduced a great opportunity for our organization(s) to bring on additional sponsors who understand our mission. They are motivated to be a part of what we’re doing to support businesses and recognize our programs’ value and impact on entrepreneurs and firms.

“Other accelerators and non-profits have reached out to our team, asking how we’ve been able to support our sponsors through COVID-19. They’ve asked how we’ve been adding value. And we’ve been able to help them as well. It’s beyond our sponsors; we are able to support folks in other innovation and non-profit spaces and in the accelerator world too.”

Our sponsors are essential in facilitating key programs and services to local entrepreneurs. As collaborators within the innovation community, their support enables Invest Ottawa to provide access to workshops, seminars, networking opportunities, and events for thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the year.

To see a list of our partners, visit the Invest Ottawa sponsorships page. To register for an upcoming event or workshops, or to book a consultation with our sponsors, visit the Invest Ottawa events page.

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