Bright + Early wants to help Toronto’s scrappy startups embrace HR

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The Toronto tech ecosystem is getting attention in many areas; companies are reaching their next phases of growth, attracting international tech giants, and entrepreneurs that have found success are supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs.

But as these companies grow, so too does the need to keep a healthy culture in check. Seeing a desire from Toronto companies to avoid becoming the next Uber story — but not knowing where to start — former Wealthsimple director of people operations Nora Jenkins Townson launched Bright + Early, an HR consultancy targeting Toronto early-stage and mid-stage companies.

“Seeing things like how excited people were for Lyft to come to Toronto, it proves that people — Canadians especially — want to support companies that are great to work for,” said Jenkins Townson.

Bright + Early’s program is specifically targeted to each company it works with; Jenkins Townson finds that a lot of traditional HR handbooks don’t speak to the creative culture of startups. It works across the spectrum of HR, from compliance basics, building plans for internal talent to scale up, and talent branding to get companies telling their stories. The company’s clients so far include Wealthsimple, Tulip Retail, and CrowdRiff.

nora jenkins townson

Nora Jenkins Townson, founder of Bright + Early

“I see companies earlier and earlier wanting to have things like parental leave policies and harassment policies, and they feel uncomfortable without those things in place. In the past you used to see companies bragging about not having HR, even in companies over 100. And I think the tide is turning on that,” said Jenkins Townson.

She’s particularly keen on working with startups; while she has 10 years of HR experience under her belt, she hasn’t worked for a corporate office, instead preferring the experience of the early-stage where her efforts have the most impact. “I would say that it’s really the pace. These companies are looking to grow from 10 people and in a basement to 150 people or more in a year, and usually they have to build everything at once.”

Bright + Early also provides workshops on creating inclusive workplaces — a major topic of interest in an industry that generally struggles with representation. From the language in employee handbooks to ensuring that careers pages have inclusivity statements and parental leave policies, there are a lot of seemingly small ways startups don’t realize they’re giving people the wrong signals.

“I’m really inspired by product design and management when building the types of programs that we do,” said Jenkins Townson.

“There’s a lot of people in business that might believe you can’t lead with kindness or have a culture of kindness and achieve your business objectives.”
 

Bright + Early also collects data on how employees are using the programs. Collecting data is likely one of the most basic calls to action from diversity advocates, as it allows companies to measure where they have gaps in retention or hiring, and make pointed steps toward improvement. In the past year, companies like Hubba have launched free frameworks to survey diversity in a sensitive and effective way, while Feminuity and Fortay urge companies to go a step further and consider metrics of belonging — or whether employees feel they can be their authentic selves.

For Bright + Early’s case in particular, collecting data accomplishes two things: It allows the company to tweak as necessary to ensure that programs aren’t just falling by the wayside, and it establishes a “line of trust” between the company and the leadership team. Like sharing funding and growth milestones, involving the team in the process of building responsible companies gets people motivated, Jenkins Townson says.

In the end, the hope is to help companies realize that it’s possible to build the next rocketship business without losing sight of the people that helped you get there.

“There’s a lot of people in business that might believe you can’t lead with kindness or have a culture of kindness and achieve your business objectives. I really disagree with that. I think the top companies, performance-wise, in the future will be those that are building kind workplaces.”