Penny Farinha, VP of human resources (HR) at ecobee, is one of our most passionate leaders. Penny has built the HR departments from the ground up at not one, not two, but three tech companies: ecobee, FreshBooks, and VarageSale.
We recently sat down with Penny to learn more about her career journey, her passion for building community, and her life as a busy mother of two.
Can you share how you started your career journey and the opportunities that led you to ecobee?
I was in the middle of a one-year post-graduate program in HR when the instructors went on strike. Unfortunately, after a while, it didn’t seem like it would end any time soon, so I started looking for a job.
After I submitted my resume online, a recruiting firm called The Laudi Group contacted me for an interview. I was hesitant at first because I had planned on working in an HR department, but after the interview, I realized I would learn a lot and would love to work there.
I accepted the role and ended up staying there for five years. I enjoyed the people I got to work with, and our clients were start-ups in Toronto and Waterloo, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about the tech industry. It opened my eyes to a whole other world of what it felt like to have a fulfilling career.
How did you transition back to HR?
I was so happy to recruit people for these tech roles, but once I found them, it was over, and on to the next role. While I loved recruiting, I knew I wanted my next experience to be in-house at a tech company.
One day I was assigned the search for a VP of Marketing. I called Mitch Solway, VP of Marketing for FreshBooks at the time. While he wasn’t interested in the role I was offering, he continued to talk to me about why FreshBooks was the next best thing and why he loved it. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, ‘Oh my, I want to work there.’
Months went by, and suddenly I found a job posting for a recruiter position with them. I applied and didn’t hear back for a few weeks — but then they called! I went in for an interview and got the job.
I started as a recruiter and reported to one of the co-founders, Levi Cooperman. One day, he came by my desk and said that he remembered me having an interest in HR. They didn’t have an HR department, but they were rapidly growing. They took a chance on me to start the HR department, and for the next five years, I helped the company grow from 50 to 250 employees.
What led you to ecobee?
After FreshBooks, I went to a new start-up called VarageSale as head of HR. But about just nine months in, someone I had worked with at FreshBooks — Casey McKinnon, then VP of product at ecobee — called me and said they were looking for a director of HR.
Initially I said no, but just before the final interviews started, he asked me one last time to come in. So, I did, and it was exactly what I was looking for. I presented my case study, and they hired me. ecobee had about 75 people at the time and no HR department.
What energizes you about working at ecobee?
I've been here for almost six years. The HR team has more than 15 people now, and we have more than 500 employees based in offices in Toronto, Leeds, UK, and remotely in the U.S. Last year we were acquired by Generac.
It’s been amazing to see ecobee’s growth and to see my own personal growth. I was hired as director and promoted to VP after a couple of months. I've learned so much since then.
Today, I’m energized by a ton of different things. Coming into it, I thought I understood what the planet positive mission was, but it’s so much more than what I could even conceptualize. What I love the most about working at ecobee is that we're solving challenging and meaningful problems for customers. There are many cool tech companies, but ecobee has set the bar high for me when it comes to meaningful tech.
I’m also energized by the people and the team that I get to work with. It's been great to see people grow, learn, and develop. There are so many talented people here, and they really go the extra mile to share their knowledge and expertise.
Finally, I love that we make a physical good. I get to work somewhere that designs, manufactures, packages, ships, and sells a real product. Even as a consumer walking through a store, I can see now how it all comes together.
Tech has historically been a male-dominated and led industry. What does ecobee do to encourage mentorship, advancement, and leadership for women and non-binary individuals?
We make a conscious effort and value different voices at the table. As Stuart Lombard, our CEO, always says, great ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.
In recruitment, there are metrics that we have been following for years. We know how many women are going through the process for different jobs and departments, and the percentage of women that we're hiring. We also look at the percentage of women at each level in the organization and in our co-op program.
Plus, we make a conscious effort when we're reaching out to people online. Often, women feel they need to meet 100% of the requirements to apply, so we reach out to those who meet most of them on LinkedIn. We have to make an effort if we want things to change, and we do.
We also offer a top-up on our educational budget for the Ascend Leadership Program, which has been very well received. Our goal is to help identify growth and development paths for women and other underrepresented minorities to advance to senior leadership roles. We make sure that people have these programs and resources, and trusted managers to help guide them along that journey.
Before the pandemic, we used to work with high school organizations focused on girls learning code. We would have senior female leaders run programs in the office to teach these girls. If we can help mentor the younger generation, more young women will be interested in these roles in the future.
On that same topic, what is ecobee doing to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion?
I’m proud that, in the past few years, we have established several impactful programs. For example, our diversity survey will be running for the third time this spring, and our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) working group runs meaningful programs year-round. We have a guest speaker series, and we provide additional training for the executive team. We’ve developed a mentorship program and offer ThinkLab, which houses our educational resources.
We also run the Laptop for Kids program, providing laptops for ecobee employees’ families, which has been crucial in the past two years, with more children and youth doing online learning.
A big conversation right now is employees being able to bring their full selves to work. How can HR leaders, and leaders in general, work to create this type of welcoming environment? Especially in a remote or hybrid-first model?
If we, as leaders, bring our own authentic selves to work, then I think that we can influence others. It’s important for employees to know we all have good days and bad days. When you have an off day, that's okay – I think that's part of bringing your whole self to work. I’m proud that we offer wellness days so employees can take time off for their physical or mental health.
We have also listened to employees about the future of work and have provided them with remote, hybrid, and in-office working options beginning in the spring.
I love and embrace the different types of personalities we have at ecobee. I think it makes us all better.
We have to make an effort if we want things to change, and we do.
You have built out multiple HR teams. Do you have any lessons or advice for other HR leaders based on that experience?
Learn about the business: how it works, how the leaders operate, how decisions are made, and who makes them. And how does the People function fit into that? How are people valued? Finally, I would say join an organization with a mission that resonates with you.
What is your go-to advice for someone interviewing at ecobee or in tech?
At ecobee, and in tech in general, we hire heavily on values. We post our values on our website. My advice is to spend the time to get to know those values.
We also hire based on potential, not just on what you’ve already done. So don’t sell yourself short if you don't meet every single requirement in the job description.
You are also an advisor for mello, a company (founded by two former ecobee employees!) focused on helping people identify and avoid burnout. Do you have any advice for avoiding burnout?
Try to track your burnout and spot the warning signs. Pace yourself as much as you reasonably can. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees, so be mindful of how much you commit to, and how you use or share your time. Make sure that you create good boundaries. Feel empowered to push back and say no. Reach out to your leaders or peers if you need help saying no or prioritizing your workload.
And, of course, have good, proper downtime. Try to turn off when you can.
Speaking of downtime, what do you do for fun in your spare time?
I spend a lot of time with my husband and our two kids. This winter, our kids have gotten into skiing, which I'm thrilled about because I've been a skier ever since I was young. I’m thrilled to get out and do that again.
We also go camping in the summertime. I grew up on a dairy farm, so I love going back there, where my family still lives and works. It’s great to see my kids have those similar experiences.
During our conversation, it was clear how passionate Penny is about building the community at ecobee and helping to develop tomorrow’s leaders. Her journey is an example that the relationships you make throughout your career can have a tremendous impact on your future career and help shape how you mentor the next generation.
Did you enjoy this article?
Thanks for letting us know!