Breaking down Victoria’s entrepreneurial barriers, once and for all
Founder, innovator, business enthusiast — Scale YYJ invites everyone to its series of community-organized events.
Victoria Tech Journal’s #victjtalks: Victoria: On the Climatetech Frontier. Photo: Allison Gacad
There’s an open secret in Victoria’s entrepreneurial community. While it’s not explicitly exclusionary, different social circles have formed amongst founders, and it can be difficult for newcomers to figure out where they belong. Add to the equation a generation of newly-remote workers who are looking for human-to-human connection amid economic headwinds, and you have a perfect storm for a desire to build inclusive communities of support.
Thankfully, the sun is finally coming out in Victoria, and it’s inspired a group of organizers to settle things once and for all: to invite everyone to a weeklong series of community-organized events in the city, this coming May 29 - June 2 at Scale YYJ.
Working across the siloes
One part of the challenge is that there exists a thriving tech community, but not everyone sees themselves as a tech entrepreneur. Tech-enabled businesses, such as e-commerce brands, may shy away from the label, even if they actively use tech tools to power their business.
“I'm part of a few groups where, when tech events come up, I've had a few fellow operators and founders say things like, ‘Oh, well, my company's not really a tech company. So I never really feel like I'm part of that [event], or that I should be part of that [event]’,” said Nadia Tatlow, CEO of Shift, a software company that manages browser workflows.
Nadia Tatlow, CEO at Shift. Photo: Talk Shop Media
It’s this notion of labels and identifiers that Scale YYJ is looking to get away from, and organizers are actively curating the week’s events to better reflect an inclusive experience.
“With Shift, all the stuff that I deal with day to day is probably very similar to the CEO of a big beauty e-commerce company,” said Tatlow. “Yeah, we're building completely different products for completely different audiences. But we have a lot in common in terms of sourcing remote talent [for example].”
The Scale YYJ organizing committee members intentionally came together from different backgrounds of their own to prevent a repeat of a tech bubble. Alongside Tatlow is Junaid Ahmad, co-founder and CEO of Jackrabbit Ops, an AI project management software venture; Jayesh Vekariya, co-founder and co-CEO at joni, a sustainable period care company; Brad Williams, CEO and co-founder of TheFinanceStack, a venture that offers companies fractional teams of finance and accounting staff; and Dan Gunn, CEO of VIATEC.
Finding a common theme
To break down the siloes, the organizers mused about what they all had in common as builders in Victoria. Coming out of the pandemic meant re-training the muscles to reach out and collaborate with one another, which can be a difficult practice, even if they had previously done so in the past. And for new entrepreneurs to the city, this was even more challenging. Without a local pulse on the communities of support, if a newcomer had problems with anything from fundraising to mental health, it could be difficult to find the right network of individuals.
Left, Brad Williams, CEO and co-founder of TheFinanceStack. Right, Junaid Ahmad, centre, and Ahmed Amawi, right, co-founders of Jackrabbit Ops at the VIATEC awards. Photo: Brad Williams and Junaid Ahmad
The steering committee is composed of folks who were born and raised in Victoria’s tech scene, as well as relative newcomers to the city. This diversity of perspectives meant that finding common ground could better reflect the range of experiences entrepreneurs have in the city.
“We've centered it on — there's a lot of companies that are scaling, and they have lots of challenges,” said Williams. “I can be a founder and I could have that challenge [of scaling], or I could just be working for a company and I don't know how to scale my career.”
Scale YYJ came to life thanks to a title coined by Gunn. In today’s macroeconomic environment, growth and scale can be a particularly challenging beast. While similar dips in the economy have taken place in the past, it’s never been at this intersection of complex work and financial trends: high interest rates for loans and remote work environments coming out of the pandemic could mean a double-edged sword: limited budgets to grow company culture, alongside potentially disconnected employees.
The week of events offers an opportunity for not only company founders to participate, but employees and staff, too. And it was designed that way from the beginning.
“We're building a week of events that is super diverse and inclusive.” said Tatlow. “That goes beyond what is traditionally defined as tech. So it's all about learning, building and connecting — connecting operators, builders, entrepreneurs, and then bringing the wider community together under the same roof, to push Victoria to new heights and break down barriers.“
Choose your own event adventure
Ahmad was particularly energized to bring together business communities in Victoria after returning from a trip to San Francisco for the region’s Tech Week. It was one of the better conferences that he had attended, and part of the power in the experience was the grassroots-organizing nature of the event.
#victjtalks: Victoria: On the Climatetech Frontier. Photo: Allison Gacad
“I can't hammer home this point enough: when the event is actually organized by the communities [it’s looking to serve], you feel welcomed [as a participant],” said Ahmad. “When it's organized by people outside of that community, it just doesn't resonate. You feel this lack of connection between the people that are leading the events [and the people in the community].”
Ahmad took this inspiration from SF Tech Week and brought it to Scale YYJ. The steering committee’s intention was never to exercise control over the week, but instead hold the space for innovators to take leadership around hosting new spaces, he explained.
“When community members step up and showcase — hey, look, I'm in the AI space, I'm building something cool here, I'm gonna be talking about these things — because that common ground is already there and it's not fabricated from a marketing aspect, more people feel like they can speak out and attend those events,” Ahmad said.
Some community members have already stepped up to the challenge. Panache Ventures, a Montreal-based venture capital firm focused on pre-seed and seed-stage startups, was an early investor in Victoria companies Certn and Audette. The firm is hosting a Non-Cocktail Networking event during Scale YYJ, where participants can take part in a spin class at SPINCO.
“Victoria is an important ecosystem for us,” said Chris Neumann, a Vancouver-based partner at Panache Ventures. “We see a ton of potential within the greater Victoria ecosystem. And we're just huge supporters and are excited to be able to help in a small way with this new event there.”
Panache has already hosted a Non Cocktail Networking event in Vancouver to much success, with plans for more across the country, added Neumann. Part of the appeal from founders is the opportunity to connect with others in the local ecosystem without drinks being involved.
“For us, our goal is to invest in the most ambitious founders across Canada, regardless of background, interests, or where they come from. We've invested in startups from Victoria all the way to St. John's, Newfoundland, [as well as founders of] different genders, ethnicities, orientations,” Neumann said. “One of the things that we want to promote are networking events that are more inclusive and provide more opportunities for founders of diverse backgrounds to feel comfortable getting together.”
An open invitation for human connection
Coming out of the pandemic has brought a desire to rebuild relationships and create new ones, especially among remote workers. Hybrid work has grown popular, but in an era of seemingly-endless Zoom meetings, staff are increasingly looking for ways to engage with colleagues beyond the workplace. Tatlow noticed this, and started getting her office together outside of work hours — for coffees, lunches, and even pottery-making.
“There's so much value in hanging out and having conversations outside of traditional workplaces or networking places,” said Tatlow. “I think that everyone's sort of thinking in that direction — how do we get stuff going on a more human-to-human level?”
The benefits of engaging in person are massive, particularly from a business perspective. Studies completed by Microsoft’s Work Trend Index found that strong workplace relationships allow for better productivity and innovation. And the downsides of fully-remote workplaces can be painful, too. For younger workers, the social isolation has had ripple effects on performance: workers aged 18 to 25 reported more difficulties feeling engaged or excited about work, getting a word in during meetings, and bringing new ideas to the table than older generations.
As Scale YYJ approaches, the organizing committee emphasizes the value-add for companies, founders, and innovators who could be hesitant to host an event. Scale YYJ takes care of outreach and attendance — the only ask of organizers is to get creative with the events they submit.
“When you're just starting out a startup, you're often in stealth mode,” said Tatlow. “And everyone's always worried about debuting what they're working on. But this is a pretty safe, supportive community to put it out there and get some eyes on what you're working on, or to at least talk about what you're working on.”