How tech companies in Silicon Valley North are giving back
Engineers turn their skills to help fix social problems
Above, a video that Kitchener-based video analytics company Vidyard made for the House of Friendship, a local charitable social service group.
While Waterloo Region touts itself as Silicon Valley North, a booming tech hub with a reputation for innovation, the region's smaller size and close-knit community mean that some of the troubling aspects of Silicon Valley's growth, like unaffordable housing and a homelessness crisis, aren't felt here.
But that doesn't mean that tech companies – and the government funding that they receive – aren't subject to scrutiny. Recently, when Kitchener city council voted to give $300,000 to tech incubator Communitech and promised to consider giving the same amount to Communitech over the next five years, there was public outcry that some local arts groups were denied funding on the same day.
You can't just come into a community, come into a neighbourhood, hire a bunch of talent and not have a positive contribution.- Joseph Fung, VP at NetSuite
Budget chair and Kitchener city councillor Scott Davey clarified to CBC News that the funding for Communitech and arts groups come from different pots and that some arts groups hadn't properly documented their funding requests or weren't established enough, and those groups could still appeal.
At the same time, downtown Kitchener is gentrifying, with tech offices taking over revitalized old manufacturing buildings, condos altering the skyline and new bars and restaurants opening up to take advantage of the influx of residents with plenty of disposable income. The changing face of the city is raising concerns that people who can't afford to live downtown as landlords increase rents are being driven out.
It's a concern that some tech companies here are working to mitigate, by giving back through outreach and fundraising efforts. Employees at engineering firm MTE Consultants do weekly Meals on Wheels runs, companies like Christie Digital donate technology in kind to local arts groups and used money that would have gone to Christmas party on charitable efforts, while NetSuite employees have lunch and learn sessions on social issues.
Building a community
Michael Litt, the CEO and co-founder of video marketing and analytics company Vidyard, is aware that while Kitchener is booming, there's also the danger that tech companies could be seen negatively. Litt's company went through the prestigious Y Combinator incubator in San Francisco and Litt often travels there for work.
"I've seen essentially that community push people out of the city and I've also seen what it's done to the culture and the vibe and housing costs and there's been some pretty negative effects," said Litt, who set up his company's first office on King Street in downtown Kitchener and is moving offices later this spring to another downtown Kitchener office a block away.
Litt wanted to find a way to give back and build the community he works and lives in.
Vidyard's leadership team came up with the idea of a monthly social night, called Plugin, that raises funds for local non-profits and social groups, while bringing the tech community together for networking and introducing people to new businesses opening in the area.
The Plugin event held at the Apollo Cinema in early March raised more than $1,200 in ticket sales plus proceeds from the bar and sponsorship from BMO for the House of Friendship, Litt said. Vidyard also produced a video for the House of Friendship, above, to use as the group sees fit.
"We run the risk of getting to a point where tech becomes a hated aspect of this community and so it's something that I certainly want to get out of ahead of because, by all stretches of the imagination, I love this community, I live downtown just as much as other people do, and what I love about it is that there is an arts culture," Litt said.
Company culture a draw
MTE Consultants Inc. is one local company that has embedded charitable work directly into its corporate culture and that has made the civil and environmental engineering firm a draw.
"When we talk to our human resources department about why people choose to come to MTE for work, one of the main things that they say they choose MTE is because of our community involvement," said Laurie Vandenhoff, MTE Consultants' marketing manager. "It's nice to hear people actually getting that feedback as well because it is such a big focus for us."
When the 200-person company celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015, they set a goal of doing 30 things for the community. Staff members suggested ideas, which included group blood donations, fundraising barbecues, donating signs to post along the Avon Trail, and even community clean-ups.
"Our company is so community based, we don't work very far away from where we all live, so it goes the same way with who we support charity wise," said Nicole Amaral, a marketing communications coordinator with MTE.
Since MTE is a company full of engineers, they also donate their professional services to local groups like the Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. MTE did the civil and structural engineering work for both the Anselma House shelter in Kitchener and the new Haven House women's shelter in Cambridge, working with architects to make the plans.
As well, MTE competes in the annual Canstruction fundraiser for the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, which sees local companies design and build displays entirely out of non-perishable food items. Vandenhoff estimates that since MTE started participating in Canstruction in 2008, they've raised about $30,000 in food donations and cash.
"You can't just come into a community, come into a neighbourhood, hire a bunch of talent and not have a positive contribution. I think a lot of companies tend to do that and they tend to forget that it's really important that you leave things better than when you came in," said Joseph Fung, the vice-president of human capital management products at NetSuite.
Fung founded TribeHR, a human resources software company, which was then acquired by NetSuite, a cloud-based business management software suite, in 2013. Fung himself is dedicated to corporate citizenship, sits on several community boards including Habitat for Humanity, and even offered employees days off to do volunteer work when he founded TribeHR. Those volunteer days were something that he was pleased to see NetSuite offered when they acquired his company.
Now, Netsuite has an impact committee which promotes and manages employee efforts to do charitable work.
"One of the risks in the tech industry, and engineers we do this all the time, we take a look at a problem, we assume no one has fixed it, and we should come in and rush in with a solution," Fung said. "I think our team is doing a really good job of recognizing there are already great organizations doing remarkable work in the region and how do we partner with them?"
One of the ideas that came out of the impact committee is Slower Cooking, Faster Meals, a slow-cooking training class. NetSuite worked with local social service agencies to identify people who would benefit from learning and then teamed up with The Working Centre and St. John's Kitchens to do a cooking class which walked participants through prepping a week's worth a meals, using a menu designed by a Netsuite employee who had gone to culinary school. The 10 participants got to keep the slow-cookers and cooking tools, plus the food.
"When you do have the opportunity to go to university, work in a very fast-growing tech company, there's a lot of privilege that does come along with that and so it's easy to lose touch with some of the challenges others in our community have," Fung said. "I think these learning opportunities have been really good for our team and I think our team has really valued it."