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Social entrepreneurship gains ground on Canadian campuses

An array of new programs gives students an opportunity to tackle issues of importance to their local communities.

By ANQI SHEN | OCT 24 2018

Hillary Scanlon didn’t plan to be a global studies major, nor did she set out to be an entrepreneur. In high school, an affinity for math and science led her to the health sciences program at Wilfrid Laurier University. Finding more of a calling in the global studies program in her second year, Ms. Scanlon took an introductory course through Laurier’s social entrepreneurship option through the faculty of arts, where an idea lit a fuse.

The idea was born out of another unplanned event in Ms. Scanlon’s life, which was a loss of vision. By the midpoint of her undergraduate studies, she had lost almost all of her eyesight due to a rare neurological condition called opsoclonus-myoclonus syndrome. A lot changed in a short period of time. “You’re just kind of thrust into this world that’s no longer accessible to you,” Ms. Scanlon says. “The very simple tasks that I was able to do on my own, independently and quickly, became a challenge.”

One of those tasks was being able to properly dispose of waste, compost and recyclable containers in public spaces. Out of a sense of challenge and frustration, Ms. Scanlon began work to address the problem. She was sure she didn’t want to do it alone. “I tell people, ‘I’m still learning how to be blind. I’m not an expert in the experience,’” she says.

To create a product designed to make waste bins on campus more easily detectable to people who are blind, Ms. Scanlon consulted with staff and clients of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and other experts, including custodial staff who deal with garbage and recycling units regularly. By May 2017, a few months after she took the introductory course, Ms. Scanlon successfully applied for $4,500 in seed funding from Laurier. A year later, after developing the project through a capstone course in social entrepreneurship, she secured $30,000 in funding from the office of sustainability to bring the idea to completion on campus, with a rollout that began this fall.

All of that work makes Ms. Scanlon a “social entrepreneur,” a term that is gaining traction on Canadian university campuses. This past summer, going into her fourth year, she was hired as Laurier’s first “student social entrepreneur in residence.” The position was created as a peer mentorship component of the social entrepreneurship (SE) option.

Established in 2014, the SE option is open to all students at the university, though most come from the faculty of arts where the program is housed, according to program coordinator Edmund Pries. That’s in part because faculties such as engineering and science have stringent credit requirements, and there are other paths such as the Science Maker Lab, that form the lattice of entrepreneurship options at Laurier, says Dr. Pries. The SE option includes three core courses – including the capstone course – and other course combinations offering a global studies experience and hands-on learning opportunities with community partners in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.

Definitions abound when it comes to social entrepreneurship, in part because it is a relatively recent term (even more so in the context of higher education). There are some well-established academic programs in social entrepreneurship in the U.K. and the U.S. And, in the past decade, there’s been a groundswell of programs and initiatives taking shape on Canadian campuses, both within and outside of the formal curriculum. While entrepreneurship is traditionally understood as a business concept, social entrepreneurship – particularly in a campus context – can straddle many disciplines.

“A social entrepreneur, in the broadest sense, is someone who is starting things for the social good, and the container – be it a business, co-op, not-for-profit or charity – is secondary,” says Chad Lubelsky, program director for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation’s RECODE initiative. Launched in 2014, RECODE provides funding for universities and colleges in Canada to improve social innovation and social entrepreneurship initiatives on their campuses. Among its recent activities, RECODE has joined with Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) to develop shared metrics and a digital platform to create an inventory of “social infrastructure” services and programs at Canadian universities.

“On some campuses, [social entrepreneurship] is already strong and very present,” Mr. Lubelsky says. “Its role is to provide students with what’s sometimes called a 21st-century education, a real-world application to their learning on real issues, and building core skillsets. It also helps create a more permeable boundary between the campus and community.”


At the start of her second year as a business student in 2016, Kimberley Venn entered the Change Lab at Simon Fraser University, an interdisciplinary, 13-week course that’s billed as a “once-in-a-degree experience.” Students in a small cohort team up to develop and test a venture-based response to a chosen problem. In this iteration of the course, students were tasked to address a health-related challenge in the Vancouver community.

The Change Lab is offered through SFU’s venture accelerator and social innovation incubator called RADIUS (which stands for Radical Ideas Useful to Society), one of many such spaces that have cropped up at Canadian universities over the years. “I was really wanting a hands-on learning experience,” says Ms. Venn. “All of my classes throughout university had been stereotypical in terms of their lecture style. I heard about this program and thought it’d be a really great change of pace.”

Ms. Venn and two science students in her cohort, Iman Baharmand and Alec Yu, took their in-class collaboration to another level, winning the Oxford Global Challenge last year with a research project on reducing medical waste in Vancouver hospitals. The international competition, organized annually by the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, challenges students to “map the system” of a social, economic or environmental problem by researching all factors at play instead of going straight to the solution.

Kimberley Venn (second from left) and her team reacting to the news that they had won the Oxford Global Challenge.

“We had brought this gigantic container full of medical waste to drop on stage, to show everybody how much was being wasted in one surgery or one room visit,” Ms. Venn recalls. “It was pretty nerve-wracking because there was a time cut-off and Q&A.” In the end, it was all worth it. The team took home top prize and got to attend the 2018 Skoll World Forum this past April, a gathering to address global challenges through social entrepreneurship.

Another organization dedicated to supporting students in developing entrepreneurial responses to community needs is the international non-profit Enactus. More than 1,700 Enactus groups exist worldwide, with 64 located on Canadian campuses. Student teams are guided by faculty and business leaders to develop projects that address challenges in their community. Each year, Enactus hosts a series of regional and national competitions showcasing students’ team projects, leading up to a final international contest. In 2016, the team from Memorial University won the Enactus World Cup, held that year in Toronto, beating out 34 other teams from around the world.


Student pitch competitions designed to foster entrepreneurial ideas have been a mainstay for several years now in the faculty of engineering at the University of Ottawa. Kevin Kee, dean of the faculty of arts at U of Ottawa, saw a similar need for arts students to have exposure to these types of opportunities. “We all know the world of work is changing, and universities have the opportunity to take up that challenge,” he says. “We saw a special opportunity for us in our bachelor of arts for our students to develop entrepreneurial thinking in a social entrepreneurship context.”

To that end, the faculty of arts created an option in entrepreneurship, in partnership with the faculty of management, whose students in turn take courses on business ethics through the faculty of arts. In addition, this fall, a $1-million gift from an anonymous donor is being used to launch an initiative, Ventures, that will give arts and social science students access to hands-on learning opportunities in entrepreneurship and social innovation. By the end of five years, 30 courses in arts and social sciences will have project-based learning components where student teams will be asked to develop solutions to challenges identified by community partners. The donation has also opened up funds to hire a social innovator-in-residence to help professors with events like pitch competitions in these classes.

Memorial University, in September 2019, expects to welcome the first cohort of 20 students into a new MBA program in social enterprise and entrepreneurship. The program had an ambitious launch date set for this fall after being approved in December 2017, but the admissions period has been extended. “From an academic standpoint, it is going to be the only MBA program in which social enterprise is going to be intertwined with the entire curriculum,” says Isabelle Dostaler, dean of the faculty of business administration at Memorial. “We want to use this concept of a living lab. We’re bringing the reality into the classroom and sending the classroom out there,” she says.

The 12-month program aims to prepare students to become leaders “for a new way of doing business” focused on sustainability. In the wake of marketing efforts, applications have come in from as far away as Belize, Cameroon, Egypt, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Incoming students are required to have two years of work or volunteer experience and by the end of the program will complete a four-month internship.

Over the past decade, social enterprises have played a larger role in the economy of Newfoundland and Labrador, to which Memorial has a formal responsibility in its mandate. “The program is so novel and so well aligned with what our faculty and university are good at, but it’s also well aligned with Newfoundland. This is a society of people who really look out for each other. It’s a province with its financial struggles,” says Dr. Dostaler.

In May 2018, the provincial government released an action plan to increase the number of social enterprises in the province, defined as organizations that sell goods or services to “further a social, community, cultural or environmental purpose.” Social enterprises, the government notes in its action plan, reinvest profits into their core mission, generating a return on investment that is both social and financial.

Memorial’s Centre for Social Enterprise is noted as one of the key partners in the province’s strategy. Founded in 2016, the centre brings together undergraduate students and social enterprises in a range of sectors, from fisheries to poverty reduction. The centre also has a strategic alliance with the university’s school of social work, school of music and faculty of business administration, providing students with work-integrated learning placements in community organizations.

“The experiential learning aspect is quite important. Part of that is career exploration, ‘What could this mean for me?’” says Nicole Helwig, founding manager of Memorial’s CSE and a social innovation fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge University in the U.K. “We’re really trying to nurture social entrepreneurs and, in many cases, the word ‘entrepreneur’ doesn’t really resonate with students,” she says. “It’s interesting that we’re able to broach these kinds of skills in a way that may be more accessible to students.”

In addition to making social entrepreneurship a viable option for students across disciplines, universities are recognizing the importance of engaging students from diverse backgrounds in these opportunities. Saint Paul University, for example, has established 10 scholarships, each worth $10,000, to encourage Indigenous students, first-generation students and students from developing countries to get involved in social innovation. Over the past few years, the higher education and business sectors have been keen as well to promote Indigenous entrepreneurship in ways that will benefit First Nations communities.


To get from Lianna Spence’s village of Lax Kw’alaams to Prince Rupert, B.C., a municipality of 12,000 people, you would have to take a seaplane or boat. Prince Rupert is on Kaien Island at the mouth of the Skeena River, 725 kilometres west of Prince George and at least a 17-hour drive from Vancouver. It’s in this small port city that Ms. Spence, who is raising a young daughter, has established a business – called Art from Ashes – as a carver, jewellery maker and tattoo artist.

Lianna Spence.

A turning point in her life, says Ms. Spence, was taking part in a program called Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs, or ACE, a partnership between the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business and the Haida-owned and operated Tribal Resources Investment Corporation. “Artists are very introverted. But taking that course, I was like, the world is my oyster,” says Ms. Spence. “It gave me the courage to go out there and really talk to people.”

ACE, which operates in 26 First Nations communities in B.C., provides business education to Indigenous participants looking to launch or develop a startup venture in the region, while building skills that can be useful for employment or to further their education. The program
received a $1-million donation in April from the Bank of Montreal to expand its programming to First Nations communities on Vancouver Island.

When projects come to the north, many of them resource-based, “that brings in a tide of employment,” says Brent Mainprize, a business professor at UVic who co-developed the program several years ago. However, “when the tide ebbs, there’s unemployment. One of the aims of the program was having Indigenous people provide a skill they already have. Those businesses sustain themselves over the long term.”

When a spot came available in the ACE program, Ms. Spence jumped at the opportunity. “Someone just dropped out and there was a seat open,” she says. “Learning how to be in class every morning before 9:00 and having that schedule, meeting different professors every few days, it definitely tests your strength.”

The program imparts a “cash, culture and community” framework to developing a business, Dr. Mainprize says. “In Indigenous communities, we know from a number of elders and business leaders that were part of designing this program, the success of bringing the individual along in the venture’s success is paramount. It might mean employing people in the community … giving back.”

Many strides have been made to reduce barriers to entry into the program and to tailor its goals to each First Nation in which it is offered. “It became really clear that if we’re just another university creating another entrepreneurship or Indigenous program delivered on beautiful campuses, we’re actually by design creating a barrier to about 80 percent of people in rural or remote communities,” says Dr. Mainprize. “We heard loud and clear, we need to come into the community upon invitation and bring the community the program they want.”

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  1. Lianna / October 26, 2018 at 21:11

    Art from ashes on Facebook… or Sacred_linez on Instagram!

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