Rapid-fire chat with co-hosts of CreativeMornings Ottawa Sharif Virani & Maxine Patenaude

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I was really excited to chat with Sharif and Maxine about CreativeMornings Ottawa and how they see the monthly event evolving to meet the changing needs of our rapidly growing city. Sharif and Maxine are very busy professionals who are giving back to the creative community. The platform they have created nourishes the city’s thirst for knowledge and ideas while inspiring an environment where connections grow and lead to new projects and businesses.

How did you get started with CreativeMornings Ottawa?
Sharif: I am the co-founder of the CreativeMornings Ottawa chapter. We are in our fourth year now. I started it with a friend of mine, Mike Grigoriev, who went off to start Ottawa City Woodshop. At the time we were both looking for a more creative outlet for our passions. I had just come back from the west coast and was energized by the innovation, culture and vibe happening there. We wanted to create something interesting in Ottawa that would bring together people of the same ethos who are interested in creativity, social change, moving the status quo. We started to look around for models. A designer, Swiss Miss, had founded CreativeMornings out of Brooklyn. It kind of ballooned from there. There are around 200 chapters now but at the time we were only at about 30. Mike and I put in an application video together depicting why we think Ottawa deserved a CreativeMornings. Not so much why we think we should run it but why the city could sustain it and why the city deserved it.

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Sharif on the right

Why did you think Ottawa deserved a CreativeMornings?
Sharif: We thought the city was deserving for a multitude of factors: four seasons, so many mixing cultures and it’s a creative city. There are so many variables here. In a sense it’s made up of creativity.

What’s happened since you first applied?
Sharif: We have had our highs and lows. We have had to go back to the drawing board now and then. We run out of funding or it looses steam. We don’t want to force it. At the time we started it Ottawa really did need CreativeMornings and it has done a lot to push that creativity. It’s when Shopify started to gain steam. A lot of people cite CreativeMornings as something that inspired them to go off on their own. It did that for me and it did that for Mike as well. The past year we took things back to the drawing board. Max joined as the co-host. When we started CreativeMornings Ottawa we had a three year plan. We have hit those goals for every single year so where do we go from here?

What’s next for CreativeMornings Ottawa?
Sharif: Maxine and I are still talking about what that is going to be. There is definitely gong to be a next iteration 2.0 of CreativeMornings Ottawa if you will. The first three years were about getting people in the room and making creativity become a topic of conversation, something that it wasn’t before. I think that was maybe driven in part by the recession. Government funding and spending dried up and people had to figure out what to do without it. For some it meant going off to pursue their passion out of necessity. The past year to two the government is back in full steam, especially now, and creativity is taking a bit of a back seat I would say. The tap is back on.

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Maxine on the far right

Maxine why did you get involved with CreativeMornings?
I was born in Ottawa but did my schooling in public relations in Toronto. When you are in public relations your network is everything. I came back to Ottawa and realized I didn’t have a network any more. I was looking out for things I am interested in and found CreativeMornings right away. It might have been through HUB Ottawa where I was volunteering at the time. I started going to CreativeMornings religiously. I loved them. I got to meet new people. I was learning about different things I didn’t necessarily have an interest in but the way that they showcased it, that creative angle, it fed my soul on Friday morning to go to work and feel the way I never felt before. As soon as I had the opportunity to give them a hand and make it the best that it can be I jumped on it. At first I started helping them on the communication/social media side and once Mike stepped down I jumped at the chance to co-host.

You mentioned that Ottawa has matured?
Sharif: Because people don’t have that thirst any more but also because the city has reached a totally different point. We are no longer the city we were pre-recession. That same monumental exponential speed that we had is slowed down a bit. A lot of people are saying the ‘tap is back on’ meaning money is coming back from the government. You see that especially in the creative and marketing industry where a lot of firms depend on money from government contracts or spill offs from external organizations that work with government. During recession you had to look for different types of clients because you didn’t have that normal fund basis of a three year budgetary plan approved by the government to re-brand Parks Canada for example. I am pulling from my own experience because that is what I was doing.

My hope is that people are savvier in the way they perceive their creative process. We will see what happens but I think that will be part of the CreativeMornings 2.0 discussion; it’s no longer creativity through necessity but now it’s creativity because we want to be creative. We have Ottawa 2017; we have all these great opportunities where we are on the world stage. Canada is on the world stage with Trudeau mania back again so we have that opportunity to showcase to the world and rest of Canada what we can be. So how do we do that? I think that is the main question of Ottawa 2017 in a way but that will also be central to where we progress CreativeMornings.

Maxine: When CreativeMornings Ottawa started there wasn’t a platform for creative people to get together and network, make those relationships and do that cross pollination that currently exists. CreativeMornings Ottawa has served as a birthplace for many of the city’s creative projects, and that’s something we’re really proud of. There’s that returning community of talented and passionate creative people but now it’s taking that a step further and reaching out to the people that do not necessarily identify themselves as creatives but that can see creativity in a different way. This is a huge thing for our chapter because we are not in a city where you have massive heads of design agencies or large design communities so I think we find creativity in different outlets. This is reflected in the variety of the talks we have had ranging from foraging edible plants, architects, psychologists, furniture builders. This makes CreativeMornings Ottawa a little different. It taps into worlds that are not usually tapped into. Now it’s about continuing that.

Sharif: From the start we were adamant that we didn’t want to be an event just for graphic designers or marketing or programmers…

Maxine: It wouldn’t be sustainable here either…

Sharif: but also you bottleneck yourself.

Where does the funding come from?
Sharif: From different sources. Lots of the startups, Wallacks, Beau’s…

Maxine: There has been a lot of support from the community.

Sharif: Organizations that try to push the barrier a little have been great in supporting us and recognizing that there is a need for this. The City of Ottawa has been one of our biggest funding partners through the Community Arts and Social Engagement division. The Ottawa School of Art was involved with us as well.

So now it’s time to start reflecting how the city has changed?
Maxine: The city has grown in the last five years and there is so much art and culture compared to what we had. There are a lot of opportunities. We’re looking at how we can involve the community in a way that hasn’t been done before – maybe something more hands on. It will be playing and exploring to see what works and what doesn’t.

Sharif: The first three years were really about having Ottawa recognize its own creative potential. The basis of CreativeMornings is showing how your city is creative. We had to take it a step back and let the city realize that it was creative because that was missing. I think we did that and now it’s how do we position ourselves as a creative city within Canada, which I think is happening right, and how do we show that on the North American stage and international stage. There are multiple steps to that. I don’t have the answer right now. It’s not uncommon to see Ottawa ‘change-makers’ in the papers these days. Shopify has done a great job of opening that door for us with Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, etc. We have the limelight now and let’s use it as a stepping stone to showcase the other amazing people in town.

Ottawa’s identity is a topic that keeps coming up …
Sharif: Ottawa is like a confused teenager right now…

Maxine: Ten articles have come out this year with ‘Ottawa is boring’ ‘no it’s not’ ‘yes it is’ and so on. Why??? It’s ridiculous that there is this ongoing debate about what Ottawa is and what makes it interesting. There is probably a 60/40 split who do think Ottawa is boring. Ottawa is what you make it.

Sharif: We are not a city that functions on one layer. We have those people that live in the suburbs and want to live in the suburbs, and we have the people that want to live on the other side of King Edward which is like the wild wild west. Hull is a whole layer in itself. There are so many different unique layers to Ottawa and that’s Ottawa, that’s what makes it so special. There’s the French, there’s the English, there’s shawarma, pho, all those different mixing cultures and that’s what’s made us unique.

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Maxine: Its part of what we do. We don’t stay in the downtown core when we do our talks. One of the recent talks was out on St. Laurent Boulevard at the Ottawa Art Bank. A lot of people in our community were like ‘why are you going out there keep it downtown’ but if you keep it downtown you are going to get everyone from the downtown and that is not the goal. Ottawa is all those levels. There is so much to tap into. We want to avoid limiting ourselves.

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