Photo: Xiaopu Fung for Communitech NewsVidyard launches Plugin, declares war on gentrification apathy Phil Froklage March 16, 2016 Columns, Events, Tech About Town Photo (from left): Devon Galloway, Laura Flatt, Michael Stark, and Michael Litt of Vidyard; Berry Vrbanovic, Mayor of the City of Kitchener; and John Neufeld, Executive Director of the House of Friendship at the launch of Plugin. Last Thursday, March 10, 125 of Waterloo Region’s tech community descended on the Apollo Cinema in Kitchener with a mission: help underserved people in the community by watching Clueless, and playing catchphrase bingo. It was the official launch of “Plugin,” an event series hosted by Vidyard that organizes “charitable, fun, and memorable events that unite the area’s professionals.” We caught up with Vidyard Co-Founder and CEO Michael Litt to find out where the idea came from, his family connection to poverty, what Plugin is doing to tackle the problem and how social justice can be a competitive advantage for Waterloo Region: Q: Where did the idea for Plugin come from? A: We had a leadership retreat last summer, and we did two days of planning: one day for product, another for culture. The company’s leadership brainstormed and came up with the idea for a series of events that we could have for our team, but also for the greater community of young professionals and tech workers in the region. We ended up with Plugin: one social event per month — a pub crawl, a movie, something that helps a group of people connect — with proceeds helping a local charitable establishment, like the St. John’s Kitchen, House of Friendship, or any number of charities and public services that exist in the downtown core. Q: Why now? What got you interested in this? A: We decided to do this because our companies are here, and growing, and it’s having an impact on businesses downtown. Restaurants, clothing stores — all types of businesses that can now succeed are popping up because they’re getting traffic. But there’s an unfortunate impact, too. This is potentially displacing people who have lived here for 15 or 20 years, who are now facing high housing costs and so on. This is something Vidyard watched happen in San Francisco, and we really didn’t want to see it happen in Kitchener. At the end of the day, we’re all here only because we believe in the value of this community and the people — from all walks of life — who live and work here. It’s what makes this such a great place to build a creative business. That was the spark of the idea, but the more we looked at it, the more the win-win scenarios popped up. Q: Why is this a passion for you? A: Well, my mom’s family had nine children in it, and two of my uncles have gone through various experiences. One of them is downtown now. He has often benefitted from the services of St. John’s Kitchen, House of Friendship, and a number of other public services that he has access to here. My other uncle, while he isn’t homeless per se, certainly benefits from these services because of his income bracket. Both of these guys are in their late sixties now. They’re here and benefitting from these outlets. I have a big fear that these forces we’re seeing, that we’ve seen play out in San Francisco, will start to impact these guys too. I’m not saying it’s happening right now, but it’s started in that direction. Q: What are your thoughts on the San Francisco situation? A: I think about this a lot. I’m there twice a month at least, and I’ve seen the problem grow over time. One thing I recognize is that San Francisco didn’t really do enough to get in front of the problem while it could still be managed. Of course, it’s a large responsibility of the municipality to stop these harms; but municipalities aren’t all that well set up to support all classes. They seem very well set up to support gentrification, but not really to counter the harmful effects of it. If Vidyard, one of the bigger companies in the downtown Kitchener area, can think proactively and do something about this, then other organizations can get involved more easily. New businesses can build it into their culture from day one. In San Francisco, it’s a capitalist culture. Build, build, build; grow, grow, grow. That’s great, and it’s something we need to be concerned about, but not at the expense of the community. Community is what creates a great culture for everyone to live, work, play and exist. I want to encourage all startups to get involved. Even just by coming out to these events we’re hosting at first. We just saw that that can have a big impact. Q: Why should Waterloo Region try to be different from the Bay Area? A: Well, think about it: we have the potential to be the city, the startup city, that got in front of this problem at the right time. The town that kept it from becoming such an issue, that thought about it in a new and invigorated way. That could bring really unique cultural value to this community, as it relates to startup and technology development. We care. We really care, and one of the reasons why people would come and work for a company like Vidyard versus a business in the Valley is that they can see the huge impact that they have on the community. You actually feel like you’re developing something. Making something awesome. And if you want to make something awesome, you have to look at every single angle of it. Q: What was the most surprising thing that happened while you were putting this together? A: The biggest surprise was how easy it was to get everyone involved. This is the kind of thing that, ultimately, everyone thinks is a good idea…but few want to actually raise a hand and get involved. I thought I’d have to be pulling at heartstrings a little bit to get people on board. Laura (Flatt), who I work with, took the project on and really ran with it: she approached BMO, Gilt, Apollo, and everyone just threw the doors open for her. They saw the benefit, they got it, wanted to get involved, wanted to support the House of Friendship and the amazing work they do downtown. Laura’s hard work really paid off. I think people have begun to see how big this can get. This is just one of many initiatives that are already underway. The community’s appetite to get behind this kind of thing is really exciting. I think pretty soon we could be looking at 500-plus people coming to something like this. At that scale, we could have an event that’s a show at Centre in the Square where we convince an act to come in or add an extra day for a charity concert that’s a Plugin event, supported by the tech community. Then we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars coming into these charitable organizations. Wouldn’t that be a dream come true? I can’t wait to see it explode. This interview has been edited and condensed. •••••• I see and hear that . . . March 16-18 you can check out “Cinderella CEO” at the Registry Theatre, by local playwright Amy Neufeld. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children and $5 for EyeGo . . . Curious about the Hermit Kingdom? Wilfrid Laurier University is putting on an “Inside North Korea” panel discussion March 17 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are free if you register . . . Did you know that Boyz II Men will be playing Centre in the Square, March 19? Because BOYZ II MEN WILL BE PLAYING CENTRE IN THE SQUARE ON MARCH 19. Who cares how much tickets cost!? ($50-$80 range).