Ottawa Stronger Together celebrates Forty Under 40 class with 'story of hope' for business community

Ottawa’s rising business stars got the ultimate show of support Thursday night from a person who knows more than a few things about building a successful company.

“We have your back,” Shopify chief operating officer Harley Finkelstein told the 2020 Forty Under 40 class during a one-hour special on Rogers TV called Ottawa Stronger Together.

“We need you to keep persevering and keep surviving during this crisis. I just wanted to send some words of encouragement, some love, some hope to keep fighting.”

Finkelstein’s sentiments were echoed throughout the unique celebration, which took the place of the usual Forty Under 40 gala at the Casino Lac-Leamy. Since bringing together hundreds of people in a ballroom was not an option this year due to the ongoing pandemic, the event’s organizers ​– OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade ​– were forced to adapt on the fly. 

The result was Ottawa Stronger Together, which featured pre-recorded segments that spotlighted the achievements of the 2020 recipients and other local entrepreneurs, live interviews with community leaders and a slew of congratulatory messages from well-known figures such as David Chilton of the Wealthy Barber fame and Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean.

All the segments had a common theme that could be boiled down to one word: resilience.

Acknowledging that the last few months have been a “really, really tough time for our city,” co-host Mark Sutcliffe pointed out that the capital has seen a litany of “incredible stories” of businesses pivoting to meet the challenges of COVID-19 and help boost the region’s economy. 

“This is part of the story of hope in our community – the fact that we can celebrate the people who are going to lead us into the future,” noted Sutcliffe, who hosted the broadcast with Sandra Plagakis from Kiss 105.3 FM.

OBJ publisher Michael Curran, who’s been involved in the event as a judge and organizer for more than two decades, said recognizing the achievements and potential of Ottawa’s brightest young business minds is essential in a period of economic upheaval.

“We might need Forty Under 40 more than ever,” he said. “There are many businesses suffering greatly right now ... More than ever, we need this young group of business and community leaders to step forward for us to reflect on their success, reflect on their expertise and their commitment to our community and let that really inspire us at a time of relative uncertainty.”

Mayor Jim Watson agreed, telling Sutcliffe that Ottawa has a solid economic base and a bright future ahead thanks to a talented new generation of emerging business leaders.

Watson urged this year’s Forty Under 40 recipients to “have confidence in the local economy” as the region emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. The mayor encouraged Ottawa’s rising business stars to keep using their talents to make the National Capital Region a better place.

“Please try to stay here in Ottawa. We need your talent right here. Use the services of Invest Ottawa … and get engaged and involved in your community. Help create the next Shopify for your generation.”

Many of the words of inspiration came from past recipients such as Mitel chief financial officer Vanessa Kanu, a Forty Under 40 alumna from 2017.

“It really just goes to show how much talent we have right here in the city of Ottawa,” she said. “Take some time to celebrate this really significant accomplishment.”

Words of wisdom

Other established entrepreneurs also offered some words of wisdom to this year’s class. 

Karla Briones, who immigrated to Ottawa from Mexico with her family in 1997 and now owns one Freshii and two Global Pet Foods franchises in the capital, said 2020 was shaping up to be a record year for her businesses before the pandemic flipped the economy on its head. 

Briones quickly responded, beefing up her e-commerce offerings, converting her Freshii restaurant into a grocery delivery service and providing a “personal shopping” experience to her pet store customers that also included home delivery.

“Having a very strong online strategy is a must,” she said. “I actually was able to attract markets that I never thought possible because of my online sales.”

Not all the advice was business-related, however. Local tech founder Paul Vall​ée, a 2011 recipient, reminded the newest members of the exclusive club that while hard work is essential to realizing their full potential, so is finding time to play.

“You need to take a vacation,” he said. “Book it. The tourism industry needs it, and you need it.” 

The night was capped off in style with a “world exclusive” performance from Six over 40, a supergroup of Ottawa business titans that included Kevin Ford, Jim Harmon, John Jastremski, Lou Rankin, Rich Rankin and John Sicard. 

All in all, they demonstrated some pretty serious musical chops, closing out the broadcast with a rousing rendition of After Midnight – with a few altered lyrics to reflect the Forty Under 40 theme.