The writer is co-founder and CEO of Vidyard, a world-leading video platform for business.
The note was handwritten on a crumpled piece of paper. Someone from the neighbourhood had come in without saying anything and left it on our front desk at Vidyard. The message was loud and clear.
Until then, I hadn't fully realized the impact that my tech company and others like it were having on Downtown Kitchener (DTK), a traditionally low-income area that houses many of the city's social services. But the note left no room for doubt. Gentrification had come to DTK, and resentment was already creeping in.
As little as 10 years ago, this development would have shocked most people. When I was growing up in Waterloo, my parents warned me to stay away from DTK. In fairness, the area was widely known then for drug use and prostitution. Of course, what we didn't see from the suburbs was that it was also undeniably vibrant: a unique cross-section of people, classes and backgrounds unlike anywhere else nearby.
I didn't discover all of that until years later, when I was first getting my company off the ground and opened an office in DTK. I managed to get an amazing deal on a workspace inside The Tannery Building, a one-time tannery in the heart of the neighbourhood converted to tech offices. Sure, working late sometimes meant a scary walk out to my car. But it was a place where my business could actually afford to put down roots. And a place my wife and I grew to love for its spirit and diversity. We even moved to the community and bought a home.
In short time, word got out about DTK, and other young, hungry companies discovered the cheap and cool office spaces. Vidyard outgrew one office, and then another. Hip restaurants popped up: getting a reservation became harder and harder. Condo developments broke ground. Suddenly, what was once a socially and economically diverse neighbourhood was becoming more and more pricey – and more uniform.
This is nothing new. Gentrification and tech have a reputation for going hand in hand. In San Francisco, the rush of tech workers over the past decade has sometimes steamrolled existing communities. Rents have climbed to record highs, with tensions leading to a string of high-profile confrontations, from fights over public park space, to smashed Google bus windows. In fact, many of my peers and colleagues there have actually started to move out, seeking more vibrant cities. Sadly, it's a problem that spiraled out of control well before it emerged on the radar of the companies that were transforming the city.
There's no reason we have to become another San Francisco in Kitchener. As a tech community, we're still at an early enough stage that we can stop this pattern. But it's going to take some work.
Step 1: Be aware of your impact … because you're definitely having one.
You may not realize it, but your presence in a community has an impact. When people bring money into a place that didn't necessarily have much before, rents rise accordingly. Suddenly, everything gets more expensive. Prices at the grocery store increase, gourmet donut shops replace bodegas, restaurants cater to higher-income clientele, and nonprofits struggle to maintain a presence where they're needed most. Critical services like social housing, employment offices and addiction support are often priced right out of the neighbourhood, depriving an area of its cultural and social heart.
Ultimately, if you only have young, upwardly mobile people in a community, it's not a real community: it's sterile, unhealthy and unrooted. You need people moving through economic classes to create a dynamic neighbourhood—one that has a rich, homegrown culture, is sustainable and is prosperous in the long run. The vibrance and energy of DTK, the very character that makes it such a special place to live and work, is no accident. Without appreciating this, we can easily destroy it.
Step 2: Find ways to align interests with the community
Awareness alone isn't enough. Technology companies can take concrete steps to not just mitigate their impact but to help support the community around them.
CEOs and founders, and the boards that advise them, can go a long way toward setting the tone. One simple step is to make the community, in no uncertain terms, one of your stakeholders. Just as you factor in the needs of investors, employees and customers when reaching decisions, so should community interest be weighed in the balance. Opening a new office in a refurbished building, for instance, might seem like a healthy step for a growing company. But are you displacing long-time residents, retailers or social services? Is there a middle ground that could mitigate the impact? We recently moved into a new headquarters, for example, but only after getting reassurance that a small portion of the ground floor would be leased as a grocery store. It's a small step, but one that has a tangible result.
Technology companies can also find ways, big and small, to give back to the places they call home. Yes, the tech space is competitive and staying afloat as a business is a priority. But often there are win-win opportunities out there, if you're willing to explore creative ways to collaborate with the community and its leaders.
One example is a program we do called Plugin – a regular series of fundraising-networking events in Kitchener. Our first one was at a historic downtown movie house called Apollo Cinema, where tech workers and people from the community met up to talk and raise money for the neighbourhood. With these mixers, we're bringing attention to local businesses, we're getting our employees together with the people who live here, and we're raising funds for social services. (And, I'm not shy to say that this initiative has also proved a powerful recruiting tool — prospects want to work for a company that does some good, beyond the impact on its own sector.) One year in, we've raised a substantial amount of money, started a formal board, and registered as a not-for-profit.
Not every company has to set up its own initiative – simply looking around and getting involved with other local projects is powerful, too. What's critical is setting an expectation of social consciousness. When you, as a leader, take the importance of diversity and community seriously, it has a multiplying effect. Employees go on to start their own businesses and spread that ethos on a local scale and beyond. Ultimately, only a genuine understanding of the value of community can temper the impact of gentrification in the neighbourhoods we're lucky enough to call home.