People over profits

Leah Skerry, Eyeread co-founder and CEO.

Community builder. Philanthropist. Entrepreneur. There are far more Nova Scotians who fit into these three categories than you’d think.
Sean Sears runs a small merchant bank called Ogden Pond Group. But he more than dips a toe into the companies he invests: he jumps in with both feet. “There’s an expression, ‘activist-investor,’ that means you’re really involved in your investment but we’re really a step further,” he says.
Take for example sageCrowd, an e-learning software firm that wants to reinvent how large corporations train massive swaths of employees. Sears joined the management team.
He also gives a lot of his time and money to groups including the Local Food Fund, 100 Men Who Give a Damn South Shore, and the Awesome Foundation South Shore. He says entrepreneurs like him are community building just by doing what they do: growing the economy and their communities.
Only about five per cent of people are in it solely for the money, he says, and he wouldn’t consider them community builders.
“We’ve created this picture of philanthropy as giant, gracious thing, …whereas I think of it as community building,” he says. “I think it has many more aspects than the giant gift. I would think that almost everybody contributes to it.”
Then there are companies like Eyeread whose products do good while also incubating a corporate culture of giving back.
Eyeread, a spinoff of tech company Norex, launched its first app for free in February. It’s a game-based e-reader that provides parents and teachers with detailed reports on whether children are ready to read. Later this year, the company will launch a paid version that uses infrared to track eye movements to analyze how children read.
Eyeread evolved out of Norex’s efforts to track the usability of its applications. The company learned that eye tracking that wasn’t all that effective, and looked for ways to improve it. Add this developing technology to news about declining literacy rates and Eyeread was born.
“When you’re building a company, especially in the early days, you have to really know why you’re doing it, putting in the long nights and weekends,” says Leah Skerry, Eyeread co-founder and CEO. “We know this goes beyond just building an application. It’s really revolutionizing how kids learn to read. We believe we can have an impact on the world.”
Skerry says a while back she implemented an innovation time for Norex employees to “get their hands dirty,” try new things, or create something they were passionate about. They came up with a crowd-funding site, Pursuit to financially support high-performance, amateur athletes in many different ways. For example, it sent eight athletes to Sochi.
“I think it’s always been a part of our culture in the technology firm,” she says.
There’s the world, and there’s also home turf: Skerry says all seven Eyeread staff volunteer regularly with children. “One of our developers right now is volunteering at Joe Howe Elementary School,” she says. “He’s a lunch monitor. We have another developer who teaches code to children.”
In addition to the community building aspect, this initiative creates empathy for the end users of Eyeread’s products.
“I know some of the staff says it’s their favourite day to be able to work with children,” she says. “I think we’re lucky that we get to work with five and six-year-olds because they say the funniest things and they’re fun to be around.”
Getting out of the office for a day here and there isn’t so bad either.
Nova Scotia businesses give much more than donations and volunteer hours, says Angela Bishop, executive director of the Community Foundation of Nova Scotia. Many business owners and employees sit on advisory boards to lend their knowledge and expertise in countless ways.
“It’s extremely valuable. If we were purchasing that expertise on the market, it would be quite costly for a non-profit organization,” she says. “Law is another area where businesses make an incredible contribution. I wouldn’t be surprised if almost every lawyer in the larger law firms wouldn’t be sitting on some form of board.”
Bishop says she sees businesses wanting to become even more involved contributing their know-how to creating solutions in their communities.
“That kind of thinking starts at a global level and starts to play out in smaller communities,” she says. “There’s a huge movement that’s sometimes called philanthrocapitalism where businesses are investing where they may get a lower return on the dollar but have greater social impact.”
Business leaders know they need vibrant communities to attract and retain employees, and to ensure a local customer base. She added that business owners are acutely aware of the link between prosperous communities and their own success.
“Entrepreneurs often are bigger givers than the average donor,” she says. “Part of that is they feel this great sense of gratitude towards the communities where they’ve been successful.”
Fred Fountain is a lawyer and owns Great Eastern Corporation, an investment firm. His family name graces the Fountain School of Performing Arts at Dalhousie University because Fountain and his wife Elizabeth donated $10 million in 2013. That same year they donated $1 million to the QEII Health Sciences Centre mental health program.
But he’s not so fond of the philanthrocapitalist label when it’s used to describe business leaders who make donations and volunteer.
“People in business, like anybody, like to be helpful and do what they can to help their community, at least most people feel that way I think,” he says.
And when donating, people generally want to make sure it’s effective, he adds, so they get involved with stewardship, management, and follow-up.
Beyond all the donations over the years, Fountain also volunteers his time on a number of boards. Volunteering is important because there is a lot to be done that a government or corporation can’t, he says. “It’s not just money and giving, a big part of it is the people,” says Fountain. People, he adds, make things happen and that’s a sense of community.
Donors don’t just throw money at a cause and forget about it, and they don’t normally give to something unless they really understand it, he says. Most of his donations have been directed to the post-secondary and healthcare sectors because Fountain says that’s just where his interests lie.
“I’ve been involved with universities as a volunteer as well as a donor, a number of universities, for a long time,” he says. “I think we need as much good education as we can get.”
There’s always room for more people to get involved and to give more, but Fountain says in his experience Halifax is very generous.
“The business community is very community-minded and active. I say that because I often run into people from other parts of Canada and they’re sometimes surprised how active our volunteer, our philanthropic and giving community is.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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