The National Capital Region needs to work harder to attract and retain top high-tech talent or risk falling behind in an increasingly competitive global economy, Invest Ottawa’s new co-chair says.
David Ritonja is a VP with Alcatel-Lucent Canada.
By David Sali
David Ritonja, a locally based vice-president at Alcatel-Lucent Canada, assumed the co-chair’s position at the city’s main economic development agency last month. He took over from Windmill Development Group founding partner Jeff Westeinde, whose two-year term expired, and will work alongside Mayor Jim Watson, the other co-chair.
“It’s really how do we nurture, develop, encourage talent,” Mr. Ritonja says when asked to name the organization’s No. 1 priority for 2014. “That’s critical in the world of innovation and knowledge-based industries where portability of jobs is a factor these days.”
An aerospace engineering officer in the Canadian Forces before his career in high tech, Mr. Ritonja has an impressive resumé that spans nearly two decades in the technology industry.
Before joining Alcatel-Lucent, he spent time at other large corporations such as global aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, Telus Mobility and AT&T Wireless, as well as local enterprise software startup Neuma Technology.
A passionate booster of local industry, Mr. Ritonja watched the city’s tech scene blossom in the 1990s and then struggle to rebound when that bubble burst a decade ago. Ottawa is still a powerhouse in the field, he says, but the city’s economic leaders haven’t always done a very good job at selling that message to the world.
“The reality is we still have a very strong, diversified and vibrant knowledge-based economy that’s continually growing,” he says. “And yet, if you were to ask the average person, people might still label Waterloo and other places as that kind of hub. Yet we actually have a stronger base of business than they do in Waterloo.”
Mr. Ritonja isn’t wasting any time tackling the issue. He has asked Alcatel-Lucent colleague Chris O’Gorman, who is in charge of the firm’s North American talent development program, to lead a group of about a dozen of his peers from other industry heavyweights.
Their job: Brainstorming strategies to keep the region’s best engineers, software developers and tech minds in Ottawa, rather than leaving for the Waterloos of the world, and to convince those who aren’t here yet why the capital is a great place to live and work.
“Companies are quite mobile these days, and people are very mobile,” Mr. Ritonja says. “You want to give a mindset that industry can get the talent that they need and that they can grow here. If you’re not viewed as a place where you can draw on that talent, you end up having a challenge.”
He also touts the agency’s new Ottawa Ambassador Program – in which entrepreneurs and executives sign up to help promote Silicon Valley North on business trips and host delegations from other cities – as another innovative way of luring new talent and opportunities to the region.
Since the program was launched in January, about two dozen of the tech sector’s most high-profile leaders, including Mitel’s Terry Matthews and Harley Finkelstein of Shopify, have joined its ranks.
“The idea is with an ambassador program, you get senior representation in the city beyond Invest Ottawa, beyond the mayor, beyond traditional people that would speak up for the city, that actually have a business representation voice for Ottawa,” Mr. Ritonja says. “(Visiting delegations) don’t want to talk to bureaucrats or city (officials) about what does it mean to do business in Ottawa, can I get talent, is it a good place to live, what about commuting, what about travelling to other cities and markets. They want to talk to their industry peers.”
Mr. Ritonja also sees plenty of opportunities for closer relationships between industry and the city’s universities and colleges through such initiatives as expanded co-op programs.
“In some ways, you could brand Ottawa as the academic capital of the country because of the credibility of (the University of Ottawa), of Carleton, Algonquin and Cité collégiale,” he says.
“We have a unique breed of capability, I think, for talent development. A lot of industries want to be linked to places where innovation gets created, and that is oftentimes linked to progressive post-secondary institutions.”
The much-debated innovation complex at Bayview Yards, which is scheduled to open in 2016, will provide a place for that talent to share ideas, learn from mentors and build successful startups, he adds. The 45,000-square-foot heritage building at 7 Bayview Rd. will be converted into the new headquarters of Invest Ottawa, along with an expanded incubation and acceleration centre and other support agencies for entrepreneurs.
“The right things are happening,” Mr. Ritonja says. “There’s a lot of excitement building around that. The boundaries of where this thing could go really could be phenomenal.”
Sidebar: The Ritonja File
January 2006-present: Vice-president, Alcatel-Lucent’s fixed access product unit, North America
May 2009-present: Board member, Invest Ottawa
2001-2006: Vice-president, DSL product development, Alcatel
1998-2001: GM, commercial wireless business unit, Lockheed Martin