Building a thriving entrepreneurial eco-system

Students mingle with industry representatives at ‘Schmoozapalooza,’ an annual BCIT school of business networking event. BCIT\Scott McAlpine

Students mingle with industry representatives at ‘Schmoozapalooza,’ an annual BCIT school of business networking event. BCIT\Scott McAlpine

By Susanne Martin, Managing Editor

When it comes to early-stage entrepreneurship activity – the percentage of working-age people either starting a new business or involved in one that’s less than 42 months old – Canada ranks second in the world and closely behind the United States, according to the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM).

This comes as no surprise to Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan), who says colleges and institutes are instrumental in equipping the country’s entrepreneurs with the means to succeed.

In addition to a solid knowledge base, she believes that “passion, patience, resilience and the ability to connect with others” are defining characteristics of successful entrepreneurs.

While colleges increasingly build “entrepreneurial approaches” into their curricula, they already have the advantage of  small, hands-on classes, says Ms. Amyot. This coupled with strong industry connections can help budding entrepreneurs determine whether there is a viable market for their ideas.

Part of the training for students at the British Columbia Institute for Technology (BCIT) in Burnaby involves networking, says Harj Dhaliwal, associate dean, marketing management and business administration, BCIT school of business.

He mentions frequent “mingler events” where students meet one-on-one with industry representatives in a trade show format. In situations such as this, “students get to know the industry and industry gets to know the students,” Dr. Dhaliwal says, adding that while some of BCIT’s graduates are expected to go into business for themselves, entrepreneurial skills are also useful in an employment setting.

To prepare graduates for the demands in the workforce, much of BCIT’s programs “mimic real work experience,” says Dr. Dhaliwal. “Many students also work with industry partners on real-life problems, and they have access to internships and practicums where they can practice their skills.”

One of the success stories coming out of BCIT involves Procurify, a Vancouver-based cloud procurement software firm that made the cut for the Deloitte Fast 50 Companies to Watch. In the past year, Procurify’s user base grew to include clients in more than 53 countries worldwide, some of them high-profile companies like Hootsuite.

Aman Mann, BCIT alum and co-founder and CEO of Procurify, says that while his entrepreneurial inclination was already evident in high school, his college experience helped to hone his skills for taking his ideas to the next level.

Mentioning teamwork and the practice of presenting in front of industry as important elements of his education, Mr. Mann adds that he appreciated the college’s climate where learning was considered to be more important than “passing or failing.

“To be successful as a startup, you can’t be afraid of failure,” says Mr. Mann, who views success not as a goal, but rather a place from where he can “reach further.”

Dr. Dhaliwal sees this kind of “attitude and the willingness to go the extra mile” as essential for finding success as an entrepreneur. “We try to embed an entrepreneurial approach across all of our programs. It really is part of our DNA,” he adds.

Integrating entrepreneurship skills into numerous programs is something many colleges do, says Ms. Amyot. This gives their graduates the option of going into business for themselves. “For instance, if you go into a trade, an apprenticeship can lead to ownership of a business, where you need those skills,” she explains.

Olds College in Alberta, for example, requires every student – no matter what stream – to take an online course called Discover Entrepreneurship that teaches entrepreneurship skills.
The Discover Entrepreneurship app was designed by a company headed by Michael Sikorsky, co-founder of Robots and Pencils and a 2013 Ernst and Young  Entrepreneur of the Year recipient.

“The startup environment is very much a lottery,” Mr. Sikorsky says. “Because any entrepreneurial endeavour is not probabilistic, it’s important to always take steps to reduce your business’s or product’s risk. The best entrepreneurs are CROs or chief risk officers, taking on risk-reducing activities to increase their chances of success.”

In today’s market, creativity is a valuable currency, he believes. “In entrepreneurial settings, you often have no additional resources other than your idea, so you have to be creativity-driven,” Mr. Sikorsky says. He also suggests “making sure your ideas and products are constantly vetted in the marketplace.”

Mr. Sikorsky will be a keynote speaker at CICan’s national symposium “Colleges and Institutes: Enabling Entrepreneurship” in Quebec City, Quebec, in March.

The event will reflect the recognition that Canada’s colleges and institutes are central to the entrepreneurial eco-system, says Ms. Amyot, adding that there is evidence that both faculty and students are embracing the growing focus on entrepreneurship.

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