Starting Up in Ottawa: Walking the Talk
How Ottawa start-ups attract a younger generation
By Barbara Balfour
When people say they work for Amber Stratton, she corrects them and says they work together.
It’s that collaborative, family-like environment that the co-owner of Pure Yoga Ottawa and Pure Kitchen credits for their success. It’s also a key factor in being able to recruit and retain staff in a city that increasingly grapples with a skilled labour shortage.
“Pure is a lifestyle brand, not just for our customers but also for the staff who work here. It’s much more than practicing on the yoga mat—it’s also eating clean and healthy and taking care of yourself, which is how the restaurant evolved from the studios,” says Stratton, who co-owns Pure Yoga’s three studios with childhood best friend Jen Dalgleish.
Stratton and Dalgleish also co-own the two vegetarian restaurants of the same name, located in the trendy Westboro neighbourhood and on the bustling Elgin Street, along with general managers Kyle Cruikshank and Olivia Cruickshank, and Stratton’s husband David Leith, who previously co-owned Fresco and Empire Grill.
“My husband led the interview process for Pure Kitchen and said it was particularly unique because the candidates were so passionate, saying, ‘This is the way I live my life, this is the food I eat,’” she says.
“We’re in a big university town and we appeal to a younger demographic. This generation is more aware of what they put in their bodies. And, wherever there’s a buzz, they naturally want to be part of it.”
While recruitment has been relatively seamless, Stratton and her team work hard at retention by offering discounted yoga memberships, team building events, nutrition seminars, and bonuses for the management team.
“Nothing goes unnoticed—we invest in our staff at all levels and always remember our own experience from when we were once employees, too.”
Appealing to a younger demographic is precisely Spartan Bioscience’s strength in recruiting skilled talent to work for them.
“There aren’t a whole lot of young, hip biotech companies in Canada that we’d be competing against,” says founder and CEO Paul Lem, who created the company 10 years ago.
About 70 employees work for Spartan, which aims to bring DNA testing to the masses by creating tests in three main categories: infectious diseases such as strep throat; food and water safety testing, which could, for instance, monitor bacteria growth in the air conditioning system of an office tower; and drug responsiveness testing for patients with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
“If you want to make the most money and sit behind a government desk for the next 30 years, don’t work here. Come join us if you want to make a difference in the world,” says Lem.
“If you walk down our hallways, you’ll see our average age is pretty young. We’ve got Ping-Pong tables, free food, and cubicles decorated with Lego figurines. We might have a cardiologist come in over lunch to speak about the difference our technology is making in people’s lives.
“We’re very supportive of co-op programs and we recruit students from universities in Ottawa and Waterloo who are exploring alternatives to medical school. Many of them tell us, ‘This place is so cool, I want to stay.’”
However, it’s a much more challenging landscape for companies in the software and gaming industries, says Graeme Barlow, director of marketing at Iversoft Solutions Inc., which builds mobile apps, games, and software.
“The federal government sector sets expectations that are not always consistent among junior developers, who get paid substantially more than in the private sector,” says Barlow. “Another area where Ottawa truly struggles is in the lack of sales and marketing talent in town. Top talent gets traded back and forth between firms all the time.”
To address the gap, Iversoft had to increase their salary budget and get creative in where they source their talent. “We might try to entice developers to relocate from Toronto, or take grads who don’t come from the traditional computer sciences stream and invest more in their professional development,” says Barlow. “In fact, the number one place for us to recruit right now is the games program at Algonquin College.”
In addition to offering competitive salaries, a full range of benefits, beer Fridays, and the ability for staff to bring their dogs to the office, they’ve also helped incoming hires find housing or a moving truck. At least half their 20 staff are originally from out of town, including northern Ontario, Toronto, and the East Coast.
“Invest Ottawa has been pretty proactive in making Ottawa a great place to live and work. A lot of people who come here don’t go back,” says Barlow, who is originally from Pickering.
“More startups, more funding, and growth has made it easier to recruit, and the more companies that look outside the local talent pool, the better the startup ecosystem will be,” he continues. “People underestimate our ability to attract from out of town. We’re not San Francisco, but the quality of life, atmosphere, and cost of living here are all awesome. Ottawa can be a compelling argument.”
Barbara Balfour is a freelance journalist, TV host, and producer based in Ottawa.