As Francis will blog about later this week, Victoria Lennox and the team at Startup Canada were back in Ottawa last week and my brief showing at one of the events left me with plenty of food for thought.
Startup Canada wrapped up two busy days in Ottawa with a “Wine Down” event at The Hub on Bank Street on Friday evening. For those of you who don’t know it, The Hub is a co-working, meeting and learning space focused around social entrepreneurship.
I am a Gen Xer, not a boomer, and yet, to be in that room, I certainly did feel my age in a way that I haven’t before. There was plenty of idealism, ambition and energy. There’s plenty of idealism, ambition and energy to be found all over Ottawa wherever young entrepreneurs tend to congregate, be it The Hub, TheCodeFactory, or any of the various open labs, watering holes and caffeine bars that lie in the orbits of Carleton, Ottawa U and Algonquin.
I was chatting with an old colleague of mine who falls into my age group and she made an insightful comment about the divide that lies between this next generation of entrepreneurs and those organizations that have the mandate to drive economic development across the region, which by default must also include the incubation of startups as well as the provision of those resources required by ventures at a more mature stage. I don’t have to name names here. If you know Ottawa, you know which organizations I am talking about and I don’t want the point that I’m trying to make undermined by appearing to aim a finger in only one direction. If there’s blame or criticism to be dished out, there’re lots of places for it to stick.
The point which my colleague made was the fact that the gatekeepers of economic development are, by and large, Gen Xers and boomers – people who are middle-aged or older, often white males and usually in a suit. I don’t have an issue with age, ethnicity or gender (I do with lack of diversity). Neither did my colleague. Her point was this:
“They have to stop wearing damned suits to work every day.”
In her mind, the suit, especially when worn with that most evil of accessories, the neck tie, is a symbol of the cultural divide that lies between the doers and the facilitators – the entrepreneurs and the policy makers. It is also a dress code favoured by this group because many of them come from public sector backgrounds. And no matter how well-intentioned, she argued, someone who is a bureaucrat at heart with a comfortable salary and no skin in the game (like an investor) will always struggle to see the world through the eyes of an entrepreneur and serve the needs of an entrepreneur with a suitable sense of urgency.
By the way, she is an entrepreneur speaking from personal experience.
A couple of months back I raised the question, “where is Ottawa’s International Startup Festival?” With a nod of respect to Montreal’s quite successful International Startup Festival, I argued that Ottawa needed a similar signature event as a rallying point to build a stronger, integrated and collaborative startup environment in Ottawa. I was somewhat surprised and disheartened by some of the reader response to that post – snarky comments like, “it’s two hours down the 417.” Other readers assumed, in error, that I was preaching for the creation of an event that would give the Ottawa crowd a reason not to attend the Montreal event. Few seemed to grasp the importance of Ottawa defining its own identity, culture and personality separate and distinct from that of another city and another startup scene.
Another acquaintance at the Wine Down expressed his disgust that the majority of Ottawa’s best and brightest will eventually pull up stakes and relocate to what they consider to be greener startup pastures. Someone else observed that Ottawa’s startup community remains fractured and scattered compared to other centres across Canada. If these comments are accurate, what does that say for the long-term economic prosperity of this region?
Entrepreneurs, by their very nature, don’t wait around for the bureaucratic cogs to turn. They quickly turn elsewhere for what they need, or, they pull together in grass roots fashion to help each other out and create the environment that will help them prosper. The most successful startup incubators, such as Y Combinator and Tech Stars, began this way, not as a result of a public sector-led economic development initiative. While the “old guard” does have an important role to play, it must learn how to engage with those it’s attempting to serve to bridge the divides, build a cohesive community and achieve the desired outcomes. The grassroots nature of incubation and entrepreneurship was on display in spades Friday night at The Hub, but there were far too few of Ottawa’s economic development gatekeepers on hand to take notice and realize that, if they truly want to provide the help that is needed, they had better learn how to keep up and stay relevant.
Perhaps the best way to start is with a pair of jeans and sandals.