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Accelerate Okanagan can help any business be a tech company

Brea Lake is the CEO of Accelerate Okanagan.

Brea Lake is not your typical high-tech leader.

First of all, she’s a woman.

Secondly, she’s young (not yet 30).

Thirdly, she’s the CEO of Accelerate Okanagan and redefining what the term “tech sector” means.

“Many of the meetings I go to, I’m the only woman there and I’m the youngest person there,” Lake told

Currently, women make up about 18 per cent of tech sector workers. The ratio in Kelowna is better at 26 per cent and while she’s determined to do more to encourage female entrepreneurs in all fields, she knows it will take five to 10 years to get closer to a gender balance.

Lake was officially named CEO of Accelerate Okanagan a month ago, replacing founding CEO Raghwa Gopal after he moved on to become president and CEO of Innovate B.C.

She grew up in Summerland, got a business degree at Okanagan College, travelled, then came back to work for Disney before joining Accelerate Okanagan as its community manager in 2014.

In those days, it was a small operation focussed on helping start-ups – usually composed of only one or two people – get up and running. It developed a mentorship program where, for a small fee – currently starting at $200 per month for four hours of consultation – to help them grow (accelerate) their business.

At that time, it focused on what was termed tech industries, typically things like animation, games and software developers.

While Accelerate Okanagan didn’t fund start-ups, it did connect people who could support each other and teach each other how to develop business plans, seek funding and, as companies grew, to determine the right mix of creativity and business management skills since the person with the ideas is not necessarily the best person to market those products.

It got to the point where they were offering around 250 workshops and seminars each year that were broad enough to include all types of business, not just tech. Now, there are so many other organizations offering training that Accelerate Okanagan has scaled back its own programs and will direct people to other organizations.

And the definition of tech has evolved.

A prime example is Piscine Energenics, a company that harvests Mysis shrimp in Okanagan Lake, flash freezes them on board and sells them as fish food. They went to Accelerate Okanagan for help.

“What we would do is pair them up with a team of mentors to understand what their processes currently are, to dive in a little bit deeper with their team to see where there are inefficiencies and help to coach them on what those opportunities could look like in bringing in new technology, restructuring teams, different sales partners,” Lake said. “It’s more on the business side and not so much on the actual technology side. We will help them make those connections but, really, it’s about how to take that business model of the flash freezing and develop either a new product for it or create a business revenue stream.”

That’s where the lines get blurred between what is a tech company and any other business. It also shows the growth of Accelerate Okanagan from an organization helping businesses get started to one that helps grow those businesses.

A good example of that is Banana Tag, which was a two-person operation developing email tracking systems when Lake started at Accelerate Okanagan. Now it has 60 employees in Kelowna, another 30 in Vancouver and a global client base.

A recent study Accelerate Okanagan commissioned found there were close to 25,000 people employed in the Central Okanagan tech sector with an economic impact of $1.7 billion.

Lake suspects if that study is replicated in a few year’s time, it will be impossible to separate tech out from other employment sectors, given that technology is such an integral part of every business.

So, what is tech?

“Software and apps are definitely examples (of what is tech) so check that box,” Lake said. “What we’re looking at is: what is innovation? So, are you taking a current process and revamping it using technology to make it more streamlined and more efficient?"

“This is where our mandate has broadened now. We’re working more with existing businesses that have been in the community and are established. Like in advanced manufacturing. Someone doing manufacturing here was already using technology and machinery. But now they’re starting to automate the processes. You wouldn’t technically think that, at their core, they’re a tech company, but the types of technology they’re using on that machinery starts to embed and they start to become a technology company at their core.”

Whatever the definition of a tech company is, the reality is employment has grown so dramatically that recruitment is becoming a challenge.

Okanagan College and UBCO are doing a great job of turning out entry level workers, Lake said. It used to be that a four-year computer science degree was the basic requirement to break into the industry. Now, computer languages are changing so quickly that eight to 12-month “Boot Camps” is the preferred training.

Because Kelowna is competing on an international scale for workers, entry level salaries can be in the $60,000 range.

The real challenge is to recruit for mid to senior management positions where people need to have five to 10 years of experience.

Until recently, college and university grads left the Okanagan for places like Vancouver so local employers are now looking to draw them back to Kelowna. The difference in housing costs between Vancouver and Kelowna work in the Okanagan’s favour but finding rental accommodation is still a challenge, she said.

In order to draw workers, there also needs to be amenities that make it an attractive place to live. That not only includes nice restaurants and pubs, but essential services like a good supply of family doctors and good health care, she said.

Young people are also more interested in work-life balance. That means breaking away from the image of people in tech working 60-hour weeks.

While the entrepreneurs and senior managers may still be driven to work long hours, more and more firms are seeing the value in providing shorter work weeks and stressing a better work-life balance.

Accelerate Okanagan’s mentorship program works with about 40 to 50 companies a year so about 250 to date out of more than 700 such companies in the region.

That mentorship program is now being sold as a training program to other organizations that recognize Accelerate Kelowna as a leader in this field.

Unlike some other “accelerators,” Accelerate Okanagan is a non-profit that doesn’t invest or ask for equity in the companies it works with. Instead, it gets significant government funding and sells its services to a rapidly expanding client base.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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