One couldn't help but nod along in recognition when the AC/DC started to play at the Forty Under 40 Gala that returned Friday night to the Hilton Lac-Leamy.
The gala’s heavy metal anthem song, Thunderstruck, with its distinctive opening riffs, filled the room while rising young entrepreneurs, business professionals and non-profit organization leaders proudly walked across the stage together, waving and smiling to their audience. Meanwhile, the ballroom full of some 600 friends, family, colleagues, clients and event partners clapped and cheered them on Friday night at the Hilton Lac-Leamy.
The pandemic was not at all kind to face-to-face business networking events, which are so important for companies trying to build professional relationships and to meet prospective clients. Having flesh-and-blood people together that evening meant one could really feel the energy and excitement over the return of the in-person Forty Under 40 Awards Gala. The event also marked the 25th anniversary of the annual celebration, a joint initiative of the Ottawa Board of Trade (OBoT) and Ottawa Business Journal, in partnership with their long-time partner, the University of Ottawa Telfer School of Management Executive MBA.
“It doesn’t end tonight; it starts tonight,” OBJ publisher Michael Curran told everyone while speaking on stage with OBoT president and CEO Sueling Ching. “If you’re a recipient here tonight, this is a cohort you belong to. Many people stay connected to a subset of their recipients and they form very close important business relationships.”
Added Ching: “The cohorts from years past have been some of the most important community builders.”
Guests first gathered for an extended cocktail reception before heading into the ballroom for dinner and the on-stage awards presentation, which was supplemented by videos and music to keep things fun and interesting. The evening reached another milestone, as well, by handing out its 1,000th award since the celebration of young business talent was first launched.
The call for nominations happened this past winter, with a panel of judges reviewing submissions and deciding on the 40 winners. Names were announced in the spring.
Attendees included Len Potechin, founder of real estate investment, development and management company Regional Group. He turns 96 next week. His grandson, Tal Scher, vice president of asset management, investor and government relations at Regional Group, was a 2022 Forty Under 40 Award recipient. There were three generations of family leadership in attendance that night that also included Scher's uncle, executive chairman Steve Gordon, and his cousin, president and CEO Sender Gordon. Potechin founded Regional Group in 1958.
Recipients kept it humble, recognizing that they didn’t get there alone. Jessey Bird, 38, vice president of marketing and communications for United Way East Ontario, felt like she was accepting her award on behalf of many.
“Honestly, I’m so proud of the work that I do at United Way East Ontario and, specifically, in the pandemic. To be working as a young leader with my team through really challenging times and to be helping people — and then to be honoured for that work — is really special, not only for me but for the whole team.”
Similarly, Responsible Choice president and CEO Darren Burrowes, 38, saw his award as a group celebration. “It’s an accomplishment that I share with my entire team because I truly believe that there’s no such thing as a self-made individual. You only get to these types of things with the people who were along in the process with you.”
Burrowes was only 19 when he started his designated driver business. He described the experience of going up on stage to collect his award as “weird, in the best possible way.
“It felt really, really great,” he continued. “I’ve seen so many names that I recognize win a Forty Under 40 and always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have my name on there?’ I’m really, really lucky that I had close people on my team to nominate me, and I’m really excited to be part of the process.”
Riaz Sidi, 37, president of marketing boutique agency Sidi.io,found it exhilarating to be publicly recognized. He said he felt much more comfortable up on stage than he might have a few years ago. “I wasn’t nervous because I felt I actually earned it,” he told OBJ.social afterward. “In the past, I was faking it to make it but I know deep down, when the cameras are off and I’m not recording anything and I’m not talking to my team and not meeting with a client, that I’m putting in the hard work. This award is evidence of that.
“It also shows that the crazy, kooky idea that I had to build a business in my basement has actually materialized into something, and we’re impacting lives and we’re able to hire people and grow companies. That’s rewarding.”
Sidi said he could feel the love from the business community, including clients and partners, during his moment in the spotlight. “They were high-fiving me and shaking my hands as I was heading to the stage, cheering me on and supporting me,” said Sidi, who announced in the spring that he was one of the winners through a 48-second video that he shared on social media of him celebrating with his family over a home-cooked dinner of steak and champagne. His mother is seen in the background raising her glass of bubbly and saying, "Well done, Riaz".
For many, winning a Forty Under 40 is also a clear indicator to recipients that they’re on the right track. “It’s really special,” Shannon Ferguson, 36, CEO of fan engagement, loyalty and couponing platform FanSaves said of receiving her award. “Sometimes, you have ‘imposter syndrome’ in this business; you don’t know if you're really supposed to be here. Tonight felt like a validation. It really shows all the hard work you do is really worth it. Of course, you don’t do it for the awards but it does make it that much sweeter.”
Attendees included many award winners from past years, including André Grzela, owner of Beachcomber Hot Tubs in Orléans. He became part of the Forty Under 40 club in 2020, shortly after pandemic restrictions prevented large in-personal gatherings such as the Forty Under 40 Awards Gala from happening. “I didn’t get to party and have fun with the other recipients,” he explained of why he decided to attend this year’s awards gala. “I wanted to be able to celebrate in real life.”
Attendees were encouraged to participate after the awards presentation in a mini charity casino that offered them a chance to win prizes while raising funds for the Ottawa Network for Education’s Junior Achievement program.