Each year, the Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Board of Trade recognize the accomplishments, professional experience and community involvement of 40 of the region's rising young business stars.
Ahead of this year's Forty Under 40 celebrations, OBJ is sharing stories from this year's recipients of achievements, obstacles and inspiration – as well as the lessons they've learned along the way.
In this group of Forty Under 40 profiles, we meet this year’s recipients from the tech sector:
Darryl Arvai, corporate controller, Shopify
Born: West Lorne, Ont.
Biggest business achievement: Helping the company raise billions of dollars in financing, including its 2015 IPO.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Continuously scaling finance operations in the face of massive merchant, vendor and employee growth.
Biggest influences: My parents – they both modelled for me the value of hard work and family. My father has grown a small concrete business he started 35 years ago to more than 100 employees today. My mother worked full-time at a factory and managed to feed and support me and my three amazing siblings.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Try and find positives in hard situations. Working from home has afforded me the opportunity to have lunch with my wife and kids, Facetime distant family more often and have greater ownership over my time.
Charitable involvement: The Ottawa Centre Minor Hockey Association and the Ottawa Sting Minor Hockey Association
First job: Planting tobacco on my grandparents’ farm
Advice I’d give the younger me: Plan for the future but live in the moment.
Favourite pastime: Playing, coaching and watching hockey
Sarah D’Angelo, director of people operations, You.i TV (a WarnerMedia company)
Business: Software that powers streaming app experiences
Biggest business achievement: Led You.i TV on all HR-related matters through a successful acquisition by WarnerMedia in December 2020.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Starting my role at You.i during the pandemic and working 100 per cent remotely with three young kids at home. Then, navigating through an acquisition after only being with the company for a few months.
Biggest influences: My dad, who passed away in 2009. He worked extremely hard, always looked for ways to give back to the community and instilled in me a sense of confidence and determination.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Be patient and compassionate with those around you, and also with yourself. Asking someone how they’re doing, and being flexible, really goes a long way.
Charitable involvement: iSisters Technology Mentoring
First job: Working the concession stand at Ottawa 67’s games
Advice I’d give the younger me: Aspire to be like the leaders who show empathy, and aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know all the answers.
Favourite pastime: Reading a good book.
Kurtis Funai, chief technology officer, Fullscript
Business: Supplement dispensing technology platform
Biggest business achievement: Building and scaling the Fullscript platform, playing a major role in growing Fullscript from a small startup to a company with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of employees.
Biggest obstacle overcome: I’ve struggled with anxiety, but try to see it as an asset rather than a limitation by channelling it towards better performance at work.
Biggest influences: Court Ewing, a senior engineering manager at Elastic. He helped me grow as a person, software engineer, manager and leader.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Being deliberate about creating connections in a distributed environment should be a top priority for healthy and successful teams.
Charitable involvement: Ottawa Ruby
First job: Unofficially, delivering phone books to businesses in Orléans with my parents, who owned and operated the Orléans Cumberland Phone Book. Officially, I began as a dishwasher – then cook – at a local restaurant.
Advice I’d give the younger me: Listen to your intuition, and take more vacations.
Favourite pastime: Cycling, guitar and walking my dog.
Shawn Gandhi, world wide head of AI/ML solutions, Amazon Web Services
Business: Cloud platform
Biggest business achievement: After growing the AWS enterprise business in New York and Boston, I returned to Canada as the first AWS Canada employee tasked with building out the AWS Canada business and solutions architecture practice coast to coast.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Building out the global AI/ML solutions program, hiring a new team and opening up an office partnered with Invest Ottawa at Bayview Yards.
Biggest influences: My kids are slowly becoming my biggest influence. Seeing the world through their eyes really helps me focus on what really matters, understand what’s really possible and be grateful for what I have.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: We don’t really have to fly around the globe as much as we used to in order to drive meaningful business and impact.
Charitable involvement: Bishop Hamilton Montessori School
First job: Delivering the Pennysaver door to door
Advice I’d give the younger me: Your choices are your most powerful weapon; choose wisely.
Favourite pastime: There’s nothing better than building Lego with Thing One and Thing Two!
Jason Kealey, vice-president of strategy, FranConnect
Business: Franchise management software
Biggest business achievement: Founded a high-tech startup named FranchiseBlast that supported more than 100 franchise brands before being acquired by FranConnect.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Starting with no money right out of university, managed to bootstrap the company to its exit with no outside equity funding.
Biggest influences: Becoming a teaching assistant for Daniel Amyot (and later doing my master’s under his supervision) marked a pivotal moment in my self-confidence, which was critical in my development as an entrepreneur.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Even as many of our clients were being shut down by governments, we decided to take our time before making any major decisions. In the end, we made no layoffs and staff appreciated our transparency.
Charitable involvement: I’m a big fan of kiva.org, helping other entrepreneurs help themselves.
First job: Phone surveys in a call center
Advice I’d give the younger me: Surround yourself with people who excel at your weaknesses, but don’t be afraid to learn their skills and apply them yourself.
Ashleigh Kennedy, co-founder and CEO, Neurovine
Business: Digital health company combining AI and wearable technology to help brains heal
Biggest business achievement: Founded a neuro-tech startup that has grown to 10 employees and partnered with clinics across Canada and the U.S. to improve concussion recovery.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Delivered a novel and effective medical technology to concussion patients who were isolated due to the pandemic.
Biggest influences: Dr. Heidi Sveistrup, CEO of the Bruyere Research Institute, encouraged me at every stage of my career. She was my PhD supervisor and demonstrated that you can be a strong female leader while also raising a family.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Communication builds resilience. Working from home has increased our team’s communication and I’ve witnessed a collective increase in the resilience of our team.
Charitable involvement: Society for Canadian Women in Science & Technology
First job: I started a gymnastics summer camp for kids in my hometown.
Advice I’d give the younger me: Be patient with my growth and confident in my abilities.
Favourite pastime: Running
Diego Matute, founder, Cyphercor Inc.
Born: Lima, Peru
Biggest business achievement: Founding and bootstrapping a high-tech startup – which has grown to millions of dollars in annual revenues – while working with an incredible team and helping to increase the security posture of organizations of any size, worldwide.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Maintaining a strong culture and work ethic while simultaneously scaling the solution, capturing market share and growing our team.
Biggest influences: My father, Hernan Matute – the co-founder of Cyphercor – inspired me to relentlessly and purposefully pursue my passion and become an entrepreneur. He passed away in 2017.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Appreciation and gratitude
Charitable involvement: The Ottawa Hospital Foundation and The Matute Legacy Endowment Fund
First job: Paperboy for the Ottawa Citizen
Advice I’d give the younger me: Believe in yourself. Never give up.
Favourite pastime: Quality family time
Dave McCann, managing partner and Canadian consulting leader, global business services, IBM
Biggest business achievement: Making partner at IBM at the age of 29.
Biggest influences: My grandmother was one of the kindest – and strongest – people I have ever known.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: How resilient, patient and strong people can be.
Charitable involvement: IBM’s Employee Charity Fund
First job: Working at a local grocery store, bagging groceries
Advice I’d give the younger me: Working hard while being passionate and kind to people is at the heart of many of life’s accomplishments.
Favourite pastime: Traveling with my wife and young kids, Emmett and Stella.
James Nguyen, Co-Founder and CEO, Quantropi
Business: Quantum communications
Biggest business achievement: Co-founding Quantropi, raising more than $5 million in seed funding, employing more than a dozen “cyber heroes” and being recognized globally.
Biggest obstacle overcome: The pandemic forced me to upgrade, grow stronger and pivot to ensure the company’s survival, while being present to my family’s needs.
Biggest influences: My parents taught me being successful is being a happy person. They instilled in me to do good, as only through doing good can one truly be happy.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Be kind and strong enough to do the right thing, especially in the worst of times.
Charitable involvement: OCCSC, In-TAC, and Ottawa Community Foundation
First job: Started a carwash business with my brothers and friends at nine, but my first real job was a Harvey’s garnisher when I was 13.
Advice I’d give the younger me: Always leap forward and the only thing that can ever stop you is your mindset. Change your mindset to where you want to go and do it sooner than later.
Favourite pastime: Travelling and seeing the world
Kailin Noivo, chief revenue officer, Noibu
Business: Software company that helps retailers detect checkout errors
Biggest business achievement: Founded Noibu at 23 and grew it from zero to millions of dollars in revenue while creating more than 25 high-paying jobs in Ottawa.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Fully bootstrapped, no external funding.
Biggest influences: My mom is my biggest hero. She embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and taught me to never give up on my dreams.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Spend more time with your family – life moves so quickly.
Charitable involvement: Startup Garage
First job: Restaurant dishwasher
Advice I’d give the younger me: Drop the ego and work harder.
Favourite pastime: Reading and cycling
Sergey Poltev, founder and CEO, CAPITALTEK
Business: IT services
Born: Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Biggest business achievement: Founding a high-tech firm that’s grown to $1 million in annual revenue, employs 12 people and helps more than 1,000 computer users work efficiently and stress-free.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Coming to Canada with only $500 and a student visa, working two jobs while studying and eventually launching a company without any capital.
Biggest influences: Elon Musk – seeing how he created multiple companies inspires me to do more each day and set higher goals for myself and my company.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Realizing we are not only a local company, but global and can provide services Canadawide.
Charitable involvement: Ability First Ottawa.
First job: Delivering newspapers
Advice I’d give the younger me: Hire a lawyer before signing important documents and use the services of other key business professionals.
Favourite pastime: Riding my electric bike; restoring vintage computers
Ronald Richardson, director, Calian Group and Tundra Oil & Gas
Business: Customer experience, feedback and contactless communications as a SaaS offering.
Biggest business achievement: Founded Benbria (and more recently founding investor of Brokrete Inc. and Hyperion Global Energy). Personally won several Fortune 1000 customers and partnerships at Benbria.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Managing the team, investors and customers through a pivot from Benbria’s original emergency notification product lines to the current customer experience SaaS offering.
Biggest influences: Terry Matthews, founding investor at Benbria and longstanding board chair. Infectious and enduring energy, grand vision, tireless persistence, loyalty and keen business sense.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Be amongst your buyer’s top-three must-have priorities, or find a new buyer. Shutdowns in travel and hospitality decimated budgets and forced reconciliation, including churn of an eight-year key account for Benbria after a zero-based “rethink” of their business plan post-pandemic.
Charitable involvement: Queensway Carleton Hospital Foundation
First job: Instructor at a seasonal sailing club.
Solmaz Shahalizadeh, vice-president of data science and engineering and head of commerce intelligence, Shopify
Biggest business achievement: Grew the Shopify data team from a handful of people to hundreds. The Shopify data team has implemented and scaled the company’s machine learning portfolio from one product to hundreds, empowering ambitious entrepreneurs with powerful tools typically reserved for enterprise-level businesses.
Biggest obstacle overcome: As a woman leader in tech, who is also an immigrant, I’ve had to overcome a lot of barriers to entry and growth, working hard to create space for myself and others.
Biggest influences: Too many to name, but top of the list would be my parents for instilling the value of hard work and believing in me from day one.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: The power of communities coming together. From Shopify's millions of merchants thriving during a pandemic to the scientific community creating vaccines in less than 12 months, we are all more powerful when we come together.
First job: Math tutor
Advice I’d give the younger me: Believe in your capabilities and focus your energy on what matters the most. True impact always wins the long game.
Favourite pastime: Hiking, swimming and reading.
Charitable involvement: Backbone Angels
Trevor Szutu, senior director of corporate development, Descartes Systems Group
Business: Logistics technology
Biggest business achievement: Leading the value capture stream of a transformational acquisition that resulted in more than $100 million of annual run rate synergies.
Biggest obstacle overcome: Acquiring and integrating strategically important companies, including Mitel’s purchase of ShoreTel and Descartes’ acquisition of ShipTrack.
Biggest influences: My father. He taught me the work ethic and grit required to achieve goals at our family restaurant, where he worked 363 days a year.
Biggest lesson learned during COVID-19: Always order another drink for last call, because tomorrow could be the start of a pandemic lockdown! On a serious note, I was reminded that the most valuable thing to me is not just time, but time spent with family and friends
Charitable involvement: I spent more than eight years volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa
First job: Takeout packer at family restaurant
Advice I’d give the younger me: Things rarely work out the way you plan, but they will usually work out. So enjoy the moment a bit more.
Favourite pastime: Travelling and foodie adventures