The entrepreneurial seeds of Isaac Wanzama's heritage have borne fruit that now supports a large staff inhabiting the former nightclub space at 129 Brock North.
In order to expand his business, Isaac Wanzama knew he was going to need more room.
His company, geekSpeak Commerce, had recently moved out of the basement in his house and into a rented space in The Chronicle Building, a historic building at 173 Brock Street North in downtown Whitby. However, the risk involved in taking on the overhead of physical office space paid off, and both his client base and the size of his staff continued to grow. The gamble was being rewarded with increasing levels of success, and the team soon needed more space to come together to collaborate and focus on serving their clients. At the same time, Wanzama and his team enjoyed being in the neighbourhood.
“I remember we went to play pool this one time [at 129 Brock Street North] when it was a nightclub and a music hall,” he recalls. “There was always this turnover. And then one day, there was a sign in the window that this place might be going up [for rent]—and we just happened to be [as a company] in a position where we were financially stable enough to say ‘hey, let’s take another big chance.'”
That was in 2015. They took another giant leap and acquired the building. It took a bit of visualization to imagine what it could be like for an e-commerce company that is, according to its website, focused on developing programs, strategies and solutions that help companies to sell more online. The location was well known for hosting a string of short-lived havens for various kinds of fun nights out on the town.
“We came in here, and there were nightclub chairs and tables, and a bar … disco balls hanging all over the place,” he laughs. “And we saw the vision, in terms of what the space could be like.”
geekSpeak Commerce started out in 2003 when Wanzama, a youthful yet experienced hand in the marketing world, landed a contract as a freelance technical writer with the provincial government after leaving the employ of a major Toronto agency.
“From that, it became clear to me that people pay for writing,” he said. Once he got that first client, he realized that he could get more. “From there, it turned into helping small businesses create content for their websites, their brochures—and before you know it, you’re actually doing quite a bit of work.”
By doing good work and providing valuable service, his client base kept growing. Through skillful management, taking a few well-timed calculated risks, and applying key lessons from his youth, geekSpeak has become a central player in Durham Region’s burgeoning technology sector, serving well-known brands like Canadian Tire, Walmart, Staples, New Balance and Best Buy.
“I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’m from Africa, and it’s part of African heritage and culture—you grow tomatoes in your garden, and you go and sell them. So, I think it was something that was very much a part of me.”
The seeds of Isaac’s heritage have borne fruit that now supports a large staff inhabiting the former nightclub space at 129 Brock North. Still, geekSpeak is about more than a great backstory on its office space and employing talented people to serve its e-commerce clientele. They’re also deeply invested in participating in the growth and development of the sector and its workforce here in Durham Region. For starters, Wanzama was recently asked to join the board of directors for 1855 Whitby, the region’s first technology accelerator.
“Because I’m a tech person and I’m all about start-ups, I think it’s very, very exciting. I think there’s a lot of wealth and opportunity and growth in technology— certainly this is what I tell entrepreneurs, and that’s what I tell entrepreneurs of colour. There’s a lot of money in technology; now there’s the opportunity for you as an entrepreneur to realize that.” He also understands that developing a fuller ecosystem of businesses will take time, collaboration, and an all-hands-on-deck approach for those with a stake in the sector’s long-term success. “You start with two, and then three, then four, and as that happens (and 1855 is a great reason for this), you see this ecosystem happening, and then people think of Whitby and Durham differently. We begin to be able to tell different stories about what we’re good at as a community: All of a sudden, you can work in the tech industry in Durham without having to go to Toronto.”
The team at geekSpeak gives back to the community in other ways, too. Their popular hackathon event, Hack for Good, brings talented people and local luminaries into the space for an event that energizes youth interested in tech, while facilitating the creation of new and innovative ways to make positive social change. They also contribute to community services by helping out with Habitat for Humanity and serving meals to the homeless in Oshawa. Wanzama takes geekSpeak’s corporate social responsibility very seriously. “Giving back is a very important part of our culture as well, and I think that’s something that’s part of all the team members that work here.”
As one of the few prominent Black entrepreneurs in the region’s technology sector, Wanzama understands that people may be curious about whether that’s impacted how he’s established his place in the industry. “I wouldn’t say overtly or directly ‘this happened because of that’,” he shared. “I’d say the challenge I faced was having credibility. Early on, you have to win clients so people can see proof that you know what to do. That’s not to say or to dismiss the fact that there aren’t [issues] faced by people of colour in terms of winning and growing. You can see from the data, in terms of how fast these companies grow, where funding goes and things of that nature, that it’s inherently part of our experience.”
Wanzama found that the best remedy for him to overcome this challenge, and every other obstacle the company has faced, was to put his head down and outwork the competition. To focus, produce superior products and services, so then “people have no choice but to pick the best company and the best agency.”
“And ultimately, that’s what geekSpeak Commerce has become.”
NOTE: At the time of publishing, Durham Region and the Province of Ontario are in Step 2 of the Roadmap to Reopen; the Province’s three-step plan to safely and gradually lift public health measures, based on ongoing progress of provincewide vaccination rates and improvements of key public health and health care indicators. Residents are encouraged to follow health guidance when safely exploring their local communities, wash hands frequently, wear a mask and physically distance from others.