Shopping for innovation: E-commerce giant hinges growth on employee empowerment

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Co-op student and supervisor working together at Shopify.

In a time when technological innovation is more important than ever, a Canadian e-commerce giant isn’t losing focus on its most important asset: its people.

A global leader in the e-commerce industry, Shopify Inc. encourages innovation from its employees, including University of Waterloo co-op students, to enable the growth and success of their company.

Through programs like Hack Days and Startify, Shopify continues to innovate and improve their product. (In fact, Shop Pay, an accelerated checkout for return customers, started as a Hack Day idea.) 

The multinational organization looks to employ a diverse workforce of students, from first-year students to those approaching graduation. 

“Whether it’s through internships, club experience, hackathons, or just being around campus, Waterloo students seem to have just such a breadth of experience that really shines in our workplace in different ways,” says AJ Thompson, intern experience specialist with Shopify. 

“Waterloo students always seem to have great experiences from a vast variety of places, which really helps Shopify.”  

A global leader in its industry, Shopify is the first-ever winner of the Impact in Innovation award, which is being presented as part of the Waterloo Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) Employer Impact Awards.  

“Employers like Shopify create unique experiences that inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among a new generation of talent,” says Norah McRae, associate provost of CEE. “Enabling our students to be adaptable, resilient critical thinkers and problem solvers helps organizations thrive as they face rapid change, uncertainty and complexity in the workforce.”

“We try to encourage all our interns to think innovatively, to think about commerce and entrepreneurship in a lot of different ways,” says Thompson.  

Shopify, headquartered in Ottawa, was founded in 2006 to help entrepreneurs thrive in a world where competition occurs on a global scale and large players dominate markets through innovation.

Shopify’s e-commerce platform offers online retailers a suite of services including payments, marketing, shipping, and customer engagement tools to simplify running an online store for small merchants.  

The platform powers more than 1 million businesses in over 175 countries. 

Due to COVID-19, Shopify announced a “Digital by Default” model, which will result in most employees working from home, even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. The organization’s offices are closed officially until at least 2021. When the offices do reopen, they will look much different, with spaces configured for remote meetings and physical distancing.  

Partners in innovation

Shopify and the University of Waterloo have also partnered to help students sharpen their e-commerce skills through a free online course, offered as part of the Digital Skills Fundamental courses launched in June

These courses were developed in response to COVID-19 when many organizations have had to pivot their businesses to an online model. It helps students build technical and digital skills needed to do this work. (Learn more about this online course for students

Hack Days and Startify

Shopify office

“Shopify has been my most satisfying co-op so far,” says Azfaar Qureshi, an Honours Computer Engineering student. “Great workplace culture and benefits aside, what makes this an amazing place to intern at is the opportunity to work on industry-leading problems and challenges. Working on these projects gives you the opportunity to apply and build upon what you are learning at school.

From its Hack Days to Startify, Shopify is a standout in empowering its students and providing a lasting impact for their future endeavors.  

“(Our interns) do real things, they have to think creatively, they have to think innovatively to solve these problems,” Thompson explains. “We’re not just going to give them random busy work – they actually get to do real things that are going to affect our millions of merchants, which is really incredible.”  

Shopify puts a focus on diversity by hiring co-op students and team members with a wide range of academic backgrounds and work experiences, believing that people who think differently from one another can approach problems in more unique and innovative ways.

Meanwhile, as part of its student program, Shopify ensures strong mentorship opportunities, where weekly one-on-one sessions are held, and “lightning talks” take place where innovative ideas are shared, and students are encouraged to participate.  

Kartiki Sharma, an Honours Computer Science graduate, mentions that the most rewarding experience at Shopify was the mentorship received. 

“With their encouragement, I stepped out of my comfort zone and participated in public speaking activities such as weekly demos and lightning talks,” Sharma says.  

“It’s a company that’s becoming a lot bigger in terms of size, and it maintains a lot of that startup culture, including the fast-paced work,” says fellow Honours Computer Science student, Saumya Gupta. “Being able to work on many different projects prototyping (leads to) a lot of innovation.”  

That innovation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, has become key for Shopify. 

“We saw it months ago when COVID-19 hit and the world flipped on its head,” Thompson adds. “Stores didn’t know how they could function or what they could do. New merchants were just launching stores, (and they now) must come up with a whole new game plan. Without being innovative, without finding a way to conquer these problems daily, we’ll never succeed.”  

"Shed new light"

While Shopify provides profound impact on its students, Waterloo students bring it a wide variety of skills to the table for the company. 

“Waterloo’s standout students ‘shed new light’ on better ways of doing things, provide new ways of thinking, and help prepare Shopify for the future,” Thompson says. He says Shopify loves hiring students full-time afterwards as well. 

Q & A session with AJ Thompson, intern experience specialist