In this two-part series Techvibes examines the Canadian entrepreneurial landscape through the eyes of student startups and young entrepreneurs.
Should the Canadian entrepreneurial landscape—including governments, universities, accelerators, private or public companies—be doing a better job at providing Canada’s high-potential 18-to-20-year-olds with more resources?
Over the past two months we wrote about a few different student-based university initiatives. One student who organized Ottawa’s first Hackathon did so because “there’s little to prompt students to go out and do stuff like this." Meanwhile students at Queen’s University organized their Startup Summit. This too was motivated by a lack of existing options at their school.
When Ilan Saks was an undergrad at McGill University he had no idea that a ten minute walk would have led him to Notman House (and advice from venture capitalists, an accelerator program, startups and other entrepreneurs). The problem continues to affect today’s students, so Saks founded a micro investment fund for student startups called The Founder Project. Not only will they invest in students from all universities across Montreal, but promote dialogue and resources for any student interested in entrepreneurship.
Saks makes it clear that the resources are there but it isn’t apparent enough. “They’re not easy to find but why are they difficult to find? There’s no reason for it,” he said. “Talking to a VC shouldn’t be the most impossible thing to do. In terms of capital there are grants available, there are different miniature funds that the university has, but students don’t really know where to look.”
It’s a problem that he wants to solve over time and part of the solution is to generate more knowledge and exposure to existing resources. Now The Founder Project is organizing a university-wide competition in Montreal to generate excitement for entrepreneurship and startups.
Jordan Satok went to work at Toronto-based Rypple at just 15 years old. Throughout high school he would attend class and work during the afternoons, eventually proving himself in the company and claiming an equity stake when Sales Force acquired Rypple. At 18 he founded AppHero and became the youngest CEO to raise venture capital when OMERS Ventures, Golden Ventures and several others invested $1.8 million in him.
But Satok doesn’t think like an average 19-year-old (and he sounds more like a middle-aged adult when articulating on the phone). He insists that students need to be proactive and learn to hustle. Canada’s ecosystem does provide the resources that students need, and it’s no different from any other country
“I've always felt that if you're interested in startups, you should get out there and do it. Incubators, accelerators, and school supported programs are great, but you need to start the momentum, you can't expect it just to land on your lap,” said Satok. “If you are a passionate person, regardless of your age, you can hustle to get to the right people and build a successful business. It's just about your own desire and energy.”
Satok can fairly be described as an outlier. He’s never gone to university because he was simply too busy. He can’t relate to the average student because he isn’t average. He’s clearly always been a hyper-driven, above average young entrepreneur.
Accordingly, he doesn’t feel that universities owe their students Hackathons or Startup Summits.
“Facebook didn’t come together because Harvard put together a place for people to do startups within their university,” said Satok. “I think that if a bunch of people at a university have an idea for something the they can go and do it, there’s no real necessity for the university to support that.”
If Saks and Satok are on different sides of the spectrum, Michael Carter is closer to the middle. He works as a program director at Ryerson University’s DMZ.
Carter agrees with Saks in that Canada needs to expose opportunities to students in a clearer manner.
Take ING Direct’s Network Orange for example, where the large company bought the top floor of a heritage building in Toronto and rents out desk space to anyone, student or “older” entrepreneur, for $100 monthly. Carter himself only heard of this opportunity by chance. “And this happens on a regular basis throughout the country. There are plenty of incubators and startups and entrepreneurship opportunities yet we really don’t know too much about them,” he said.
For Carter the root of the problem goes deeper. Resources may or may not be readily apparent, but what about when teachers regularly tell high-school aged students that they aren’t cut out for entrepreneurship?
It’s an outdated system in Ontario, where academic and applied course streams label students in grade nine, effectively directing their future.
“I always find that the value and the dialogue that goes in is ‘academic skills outweigh applied skills’ and in no manner should that ever occur, there should always be an equal balance between the two,” said Carter. “I think there’s a big discussion right now from the federal government’s perspective to say maybe not everybody should be going to university, maybe they should be going to college and we need to recognize as a society that they’re both equal so entrepreneurs can be found in any facet.”
In terms of making Canada’s resources more apparent to students and young entrepreneurs, Carter says they “haven’t been collated into a single spot or a couple of spots in which interested students, both young and old could access.” How the nation can meet this challenge effectively should be on the minds of everyone involved.
Read Part Two Now: The Young Entrepreneur’s Conundrum