An eager and ecstatic group of young entrepreneurs was out to prove that Ottawa isn’t just a government town, but a city full of big dreams worth chasing, at Friday’s 20th annual Forty Under 40 awards gala, held at the Hilton Lac-Leamy.
The prestigious awards dinner, emceed by Ian Mendes from TSN 1200, saw a crowd of 550 come together to recognize our city’s rising business leaders during an evening that offered a decidedly young and hip vibe. Popular at the cocktail reception was an oxygen bar ready to revive anyone not yet feeling the end of the week Friday-ness. And, there was no shortage of dapperly dressed men and glittering ladies.
Culling the list of 200-plus nominees for the 2017 Forty Under 40 awards was no easy task, but all applicants passed over for the honour should remember: there’s always next year (provided you're still very much thirty-something).
The third time was the charm for recipient Jennifer Stewart, 32, who landed an award after a couple of years of trying.
“I was persistent,” the plucky young chief executive of Syntax Strategic told OBJ.social at the cocktail reception.
Since starting her Ottawa-based strategic communications firm seven years ago, Stewart has hired seven employees and, in addition, become a mother of two (her husband uncommonly took the parental leave).
There have been challenges trying to grow the company while bringing in new staff and finding the right team, said the Ottawa Valley native of Renfrew. “Now we're starting to reap the rewards."
Stewart was looking forward to a night of networking and mingling with her fellow entrepreneurs, and enjoying the recognition and validation that comes along with winning such an award.
"It can be lonely sometimes when you're burning the midnight oil," she said.
As for what she’ll do with the hardware, her three- and five-year-old children have already claimed it for themselves.
Craig O’Brien, a commercial litigation partner at Nelligan O’Brien Payne, joked that he was getting his award just in the nick of time. He’s 39. He was nominated by his firm, where he began as an articling student nearly 12 years ago and where his father, Al O’Brien, is a senior partner. In his spare time, O'Brian also volunteers with United Way Ottawa on its revenue committee.
“It’s certainly humbling,” O’Brien told OBJ.social of his Forty Under 40. “It’s actually quite advantageous to be a lawyer winning this award because I get to share it with so many young entrepreneurs. They are exactly the type of people I want to be servicing as they continue to grow their business.
"It’s wonderful to build more bridges into the community.”
Recipient Chris Bisson, one of the owners of Escape Manor, shrugged off any notion that the award could mark the pinnacle of his career.
“We’re just getting started,” said Bisson of the escape room company that he and his partners began in November 2014. “We have lofty goals.”
The company is shooting for 20 locations. Currently, it has three spots in Ottawa, along with pop-up partnerships. It’s also branched out to Regina and Brisbane, Australia.
Bisson has followed in the footsteps of business partner Billy Rogers, who scored a Forty Under 40 last year. “It’s an accolade that belongs to our entire team,” said Bisson, referring the dozens of behind-the-scene employees and managers. “To say that our success belongs to one person is wrong, but I’m happy to receive the award on behalf of the company.
"I think this award helps leverage our position," Bisson also said before adding (with no pun intended),"and helps open some doors."
If anyone appreciates how much commitment goes into starting a business, it’s Jordan O’Leary. He opened his first Morning Owl Coffeehouse in 2009 on Rochester Street in Little Italy, targeting the weekday, nine-to-five public service crowd. There are now six Morning Owls in the city, three of which he owns and another three that he’s franchised out. He’s also a co-owner of the Raw Pulp + Grind juice and smoothie bar on Preston Street.
“I'm super honoured," O'Leary, 34, told OBJ.social of his Forty Under 40. "I really wanted this award but I didn’t think I was going to get it [so young]."
The most challenging part of running business, he said, is that the work never ends. “You’re always an entrepreneur, 24-7. It doesn’t shut off.”
But all the time and energy feels worth it, he added, when something like the Forty Under 40 comes along. “It shows that a lot of the hard work has paid off and that people do appreciate what I’m doing,” he said.
The gala was co-hosted by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the Ottawa Business Journal.