Arts and Culture will keep Young Innovators in our Community

Today was the Creative Enterprise Forum at the Waterloo Inn (if you weren’t there, it would be good to read The Record’s coverage and Julianna Yau’s notes) and I was asked to speak to why it was important to young professionals. It’s an interesting topic, because the economic importance of a vibrant arts and cultural sectors seems so, well, obvious. How was I to elaborate on what was already said?

However, as I started to dissect the points and goals, there was a consistent theme: the agenda speaks about attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent to live and work in Waterloo Region, but it was always in the context of creating jobs. Perhaps it was assumed, but regardless the agenda didn’t speak to retaining entrepreneurs – people who create ventures be they festivals, theatre companies, films or businesses.

Similarly, as many people at the forum pointed out, the agenda did not do enough to emphasize nurturing the talent that already exists in our region, or that is already coming to our region on its own.

So, to re-frame the goal, I put forward that the agenda should be aiming to nurture the existing in and attract the best creative talent to Waterloo Region.

But this goal still does not sufficiently address the entrepreneurs and innovators, and so I encourage everyone to keep these people in mind. Here is a dissection of my argument.

Why my focus on innovators and entrepreneurs

They are critical because of the economic impact they can have. For example: funding for a contract position or re-training an individual employs one person at a time. Inspiring an innovator or entrepreneur to launch a new festival or keep their software company in Waterloo Region can employ dozens if not hundreds. By specifically nurturing young creative leaders, we are planting the seeds for continued growth here in the region, rather than simply just trying to attract employees from other communities. By attracting people that are passionate and able to attract others to their cause, our efforts will be magnified.

Why focus on talent already here?

Many bright minds are already attracted to our region by our world-class educational institutions and our unmatched entrepreneurial clusters – however once they graduate we’re losing them. For some it happens immediately, for others it happens a couple years out. But either way, we have a pattern of attracting ambitious and innovative people, then loosing many of them to other communities.

It’s not that they dislike Waterloo Region – it’s that we can’t help them create the life they want.

We have already successfully built a community that attracts bright minds – we don’t need to change that process. Rather, the issue is our execution once they arrive. To use a business analogy – our marketing is great, but our customer care program could use some help.


Why is a vibrant cultural scene important? Wouldn’t these people create one?

We intuitively know that a vibrant cultural sector makes our community more attractive to potential employees, and we know that a vibrant cultural sector will naturally support an increased number of creative jobs. However, what is just as, if not more, important is that a vibrant cultural sector is required to engage and inspire the creative innovators I mentioned above.

The reason is that a vibrant cultural sector can apply a uniquely compelling argument at a critical point of a young professional’s life. There are two elements to the argument: a sense of home and a sense of opportunity.

First, cultural activities build relationships and ties to the region. Things like having a favourite local band, regularly attending events in a public square, ethnic festivals, hot clubs, familiar pubs and volunteering help make a place feel like home. This sense of home is important to both business and arts innovators. If we can make Waterloo Region feel like home to these people, we will retain more of them and those that leave will have a higher likelihood of returning.

Second, beyond a sense of home, young leaders look for opportunity. They go to where their ideas can take root and flourish. Not just ideas about building businesses and careers, but also their ideas about music, about theatre, about hobbies, about community! And this is where we’re not doing enough.

For example, we have a strong sense of tech and entrepreneurship. If someone wants to launch a tech start-up, the support systems available are awe-inspiring and it only makes sense for them to stay local. However, if someone wants to write movie screenplays, where would they go? If someone wants to start a band, where would they go? If someone wanted to start a street art club, where would they go? Our creative sector, as it is, doesn’t have the capacity to support, or in some cases the exposure to reach, the people who have these ideas. And so, these innovators determine that to create the lives they want, they have to leave Waterloo Region.

If we can build a more nurturing environment for these ideas on top of helping the region become the home of our young innovators, we will retain an incredible pool of passion and ambition: passion and ambition that will lead to cultural and economic growth.


VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.

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