By Bronwyn Kienapple, The Toronto Standard, May 17, 2012
a Pit Stop In Toronto
“The cavernous space that is the Centre for Social Innovation’s Annex location was packed last Monday night with entrepreneurs new and seasoned. These bright 20 and 30 somethings gathered to talk social enterprise, something that anyone who’s ever set foot in CSI’s headquarters north of Queen and Spadina is well acquainted with.
For the uninitiated, social enterprises are businesses whose primary source of income is derived from creating goods or services that have environmental, cultural, or social value. Incubators such as MaRS and CSI have helped grow a substantial culture of social innovation in Toronto and with CSI set to open a new Regent Park location this fall and the federal government looking to institute a new “startup visa” program for foreign entrepreneurs, the future is looking bright for social ventures.
Still, social entrepreneurship isn’t exactly in the popular lexicon. And that’s why StartUp Canada, a volunteer-run movement, is touring Canada to solicit feedback from entrepreneurs as to their priorities and needs, bat around ideas on how to foster innovation, and drum up support for social entrepreneurship, all while building a stronger brand and greater public awareness.
Said co-founder Victoria Lennox, “It’s really about bringing together the entrepreneurial community nationwide, the technology sector, the social sector…in order to get that critical mass to influence real change.”
It’s a heady objective, especially since StartUp is touring over 30 cities for six months. It helps that they’ve already amassed powerful friends–Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird appeared at StartUp’s Ottawa launch on May 2 and Prime Minster Stephen Harper issued a statementsupporting the organization.
Social enterprise is a broadly inclusive term; Tuesday’s event brought together organizations well-versed in lobbying the government and applying for grants, and others that barely graduated the incubator stage. What did dominate was a palpable desire to connect. It was the kind of place where people were finishing each other’s sentences.
Liam O’Doherty of TakingITGlobal had already connected with Calgary-based SoJo Ventures, a digital media company that provides resources for those looking to start social businesses, and was eager to engage with other innovators.
Frontier College’s bookstore coordinator Casey Sabawi was also looking to getting empowered. Of the most potential use to his budding social business? “The critical mass, so we don’t get lost in the market, so to speak,” he replied. “I think having a label, pulling together our resources…so that the general public can be aware and make the important decision about who they should vote for.”
Guest speakers echoed this call. ”I think there’s a secret sauce to success with social entrepreneurs and that’s having the right mentors with the right knowledge, at the right time,” said Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation.
Draimin highlighted the number of boomers with high levels of entrepreneurial experience and a desire to “make good,” and an equal number of aspiring business leaders. He suggested a national portal that matches the two groups.
Tonya Surman of the Centre for Social Innovation also highlighted the need for a Peace Corps-type program that would give youth the experience and tools they need to become social entrepreneurs.
Knowledge sharing is just one part of the puzzle–integration into the broader business community is essential for the health of social enterprise. The Toronto Enterprise Fund’s Anne Jamieson passionately defended building community benefit clauses into pubic sector procurement contracts.
Put simply, this could mean that the successful bidder might be required to hire a certain number of youth, or to purchase cabling from a social enterprise. Her words drew a hearty round of applause. While this idea could cause social business to grow like dandelions in a ditch, this directive approach might draw considerable ire from contractors.
And yet, not a dissenting word was spoken. Light brimmed from the bulbous hanging lamps overhead in the soothing barn-like space, just as its inhabitants were full to bursting with enthusiasm–the hallmark of people who think they’re next in line to save the world.
“The sector has grown considerably because the sector is forming an identity, the sector is finally recognizing itself as a contributor to civil life, civic society,” enthused Sheetal Lodhia, who works in communications at the Ontario Nonprofit Network.
What may really be turning do-gooders’ heads these days is the opportunity to make good and make good bank.
“You don’t have to sacrifice revenue by being green, you don’t have to sacrifice financial return by investing in social responsible investments. They are actually turning good profits,” said Ben Marans, the Manager of Social Innovation for the Toronto Atmospheric Fund. “The clean tech sector is booming, the solar industry is booming. There’s money to be made.”
If the right kind, greed really is good.”
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