B.C.’s Best Cities for Work 2017: Kelowna rising

The urban heart of the Okanagan—up seven places on this year's list to No. 4—is attracting droves of young workers. Thank the pull of a burgeoning tech sector and the push of Vancouver's affordability crisis

Credit: Darren Hull

YOUNG AND ABLE | (From left) Ryan Campbell and Justin Goodhew recently launched Biznas Innovations, a software development company, in Kelowna

The urban heart of the Okanagan—up seven places on this year’s list to No. 4—is attracting droves of young workers. Thank the pull of a burgeoning tech sector and the push of Vancouver’s affordability crisis

In 2014, Justin Goodhew was working 60-hour weeks in Silicon Valley building his first business, Blue Perch—a job-seeking app. About three months into it, the startup fizzled, and Goodhew returned to Vancouver to consider his options. The UBC business grad received several job offers, including a position in sales development at Edvisor—an education tech company based in Vancouver—but Goodhew didn’t want to stay in big, bustling city. He wanted to buy a home and to eventually start a family with his girlfriend, Alexandra Reid.

When Reid was offered a job at UBC Okanagan, the couple decided to pack  up and move to Kelowna. Goodhew had his doubts. First, he didn’t have a job to go to. Second, he was worried that there wouldn’t be any like-minded tech entrepreneurs there who wanted to make a global impact. “I came from Silicon Valley, where there’s crazy tech people everywhere, and Vancouver is a good balance,” says Goodhew, now 26. “I was worried Kelowna wouldn’t have enough.”

Soon, however, Goodhew found his groove—launching 1 Space, a 12-person co-working office designed for entrepreneurs in their early stages, in January 2016. It was at 1 Space that he met Ryan Campbell, 33, who built software for Blackberry and AT&T as a contractor with digital agency Universal Mind. By March, the pair had launched Biznas Innovations Inc., a software develop­ment company that builds mobile apps, and within four months Biznas had hired seven full-time staff and generated $220,000 in revenues. Goodhew anticipates upward of $600,000 in revenues by the end of 2016.

While still a relatively small enterprise, Biznas is part of a growing tech hub in the Okanagan, where combined revenues for the sector now top $1.3 billion annually, trailing only Vancouver’s ($23 billion) and Victoria’s ($3 billion) tech hubs. The principals of Biznas are typical of the Okanagan’s burgeoning tech scene, which is injecting a youthful vigour into the once-grey region. According to Accelerate Okanagan, a nonprofit technology accelerator, 52 per cent of the local tech workforce is now under 35 years of age—up from 38 per cent in 2013.

Colin Basran, the 39-year-old mayor of Kelowna, thinks his community of 100,000 will continue to be a draw for young talent, thanks to the city’s combination of low taxes, affordable housing, and new tech infrastructure such as a 13-kilometre underground fibre optic cable providing high-bandwidth data transmissions.

“People who don’t know Kelowna well would have thought of  this as a retirement destination. Over the last five years that has changed dramatically,” says Basran, adding that he thinks Vancouver’s affordability crisis presents an opportunity for local tech employers.

“The biggest thing that’s holding back the growth of the tech sector in Kelowna is a lack of skilled labour. We need to grow our own—so that’s where the post-secondary institutions come in—and then attract skilled labour from elsewhere. And we need to ensure we have a high quality of life, because we know that many of these jobs are mobile and they can be done from anywhere.”

For Goodhew and Reid, living in Kelowna means that, unlike in the Bay Area or Vancouver, they can actually afford real estate. This past July—almost two years after moving to Kelowna from their cramped Kitsilano apartment—the couple bought a two-bedroom bungalow, steps from the beach where they spent summer weekends with a new boat. There’s even a taste of their former big-city life in Kelowna, says Goodhew: “There are these new restaurants coming in, new breweries. It reminds me of Kits, of Main Street, of Commercial Drive.”

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