My Mother’s Mentorship

Nick Burka

A Mother’s Day tribute to my mom, Martha Burka

Woman's face, with short hair and earings

I’m writing this as part of silverorange’s “20 years of silverorange” series because I’ve been thinking lately about how my mom inspired and mentored many of us when we launched our company. She also had a major impact on the lives of many people beyond me, my siblings, and my co-founders. She was a force of change and an inspiration for the large group of people who encountered her.

My mom died of cancer in 2006. She was 51 years old, and saw silverorange through its first seven years. She knew we were doing well and had been successful, but I wish she’d been able to see how far we’ve come as people and as a company. Much of what we’ve become is due to her.

My mom had four kids by the time she was 23. She quit her degree in biology at the University of Guelph to raise us. She was an active parent who took us on outings, participated in school, and encouraged and supported us to try new ventures. As siblings, we sold pussy-willows around the neighborhood, fresh bread (that she baked) at our local campground, and flowers and melons that we grew ourselves. We always felt like we were the ones to run the project, but it was her who guided us throughout the process.

Family standing by trailer with canoe
My mom, sister Martina, me, father, brother Peter, and twin brother Daniel

When I was in elementary school, my mom went back to university and earned a degree in history. She parented full time, took classes at night, and won the Governor General’s Medal for top marks in UPEI’s entire graduating class. Sometimes I would sit with her in the back of her university class and work on my homework while she took notes. It was hard not to be influenced by her work ethic and determination.

Woman in dress shaking hands with man in suit
Receiving the Governor General’s award from Roméo LeBlanc

My family wasn’t the only one that was influenced by her. She also earned a teaching degree and taught special-needs classes to kids with family problems, behavioral issues, or both. The parent of one of her students was so affected by her work with her young son that she named her next child Martha. When my mom later said it was important to find meaning in work as well as enjoyment, her example hit home to me.

When I was about 12 years old, my mom asked me if I wanted to go camping with her—just the two of us. With four kids in the family this was extremely rare, it had never happened before. I said yes. We didn’t go far, up the road 25 minutes to Strathgartney Provincial Park. It was a simple evening: we went for a short hike, cooked something on our old Coleman stove, sat and talked during a sunset, and slept in the tent. It was one night, but it’s so extremely memorable to me. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I felt special, and supported, and connected with her. When I came home I knew I could do anything and that she’d be there to support me.

In high school, my brother Daniel and I became friends with Nathan Fredrickson, Isa Grant, and Jevon MacDonald. Together we printed off the HTML 2.0 Spec and made a simple website in the Mosaic browser. My mom picked up on our interest and helped us create Whitelands Inc, a little company to make websites. We worked out of the attic of our farmhouse outside Charlottetown. She incorporated the company, opened a bank account for it, and helped us get set up. On our behalf she applied and won an Industry Canada grant to make a website about the Charlottetown Conference of 1864—our first big contract. Instead of the usual process where an institution would apply for funding and hire students to do it, my mom took the initiative to go for it herself. Her attitude to make an opportunity happen (and not wait for something to fall in your lap or do calls-for-submissions for contracts) would become a core principle for our later business decisions.

Screenshot Charlottetown Conference website Team Members page with scanned faces
Yes, we took those photos by putting our heads in a flatbed scanner…

After the success of the Charlottetown Conference site, we got more grants and more contracts to do more sites about war photos, potatoes, and later client sites for conferences, dog breeders, and more.

Her hand was in everything. She helped write grants, line up meetings, make connections, and do all of the paperwork. She was essentially the CEO, CFO, and COO, but let us reap the rewards and recognition. She also made us dinner. As a young person, it was hard to give her all the credit I now wish I could.

Group of people sitting on deck chairs in summer
The Whitelands crew celebrating the end of a project outside our farmhouse. L-R: Nathan Fredrickson, Isa Grant, my brother Daniel, Matt McRae, Me, Jevon MacDonald, Jill McRae, Mom

In 1999, the Whitelands team met up with Steven Garrity and Dan James who ran a little company called Meta Media. That summer we combined our teams to form silverorange. Again, my mom was there to offer support, advice, moral guidance, a boardroom table, and more.

Group of people around dinner table
Jevon, Nathan, Isa, Daniel, and my sister Martina at an impromptu “business” dinner.

My mom’s energy to help others and the power of her personality reached deep into her community. She volunteered for many charities and served on the international board of Ten Thousand Villages. She also touched the lives of coworkers, friends, and neighbors. Every few months, I’ll get a note out of the blue from someone who asks me if I knew how much she had helped them. She was a mentor to many others and supported people with their issues of love, kids, divorce, illness—essentially the big issues in life. She fiercely advocated for acting morally, and was also there to give a long, supportive hug when it was most needed.

The legacy of her guidance can’t be overstated. My sister is an active mother of two and a pastry chef. My older brother is an expert programmer at TwoSigma in Manhattan. Daniel, my twin brother, who is still an active co-owner of silverorange, joined Digg, then GV, and now Resolve to Save Lives. I’ve been proudly helping run silverorange for 20 years. Us kids, my cofounders, and so many other people who my mother met have all been shaped by her.