meeting entrepreneurs where they are

Stacey J Young, Senior Consultant, Deller and Young, Canada

This article was first published in 2021 in the Entrepreneurial Mindset Network eZINE Volume 4 no 2

Stacey J Young is a consultant working in Canada in the education and training space, and also supports teacher training initiatives through the Belgium-based Bantani Education foundation. She is former director of impact and government relations for The Learning Partnership, a Canadian charity that designs and delivers entrepreneurship and invention education for teachers to deliver in classrooms across the country. In this article she examines where entrepreneurship programming and support is located, in relation to those who need it most, with a focus on the Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem  

Over the last forty years, public investment in building a supportive infrastructure for entrepreneurs, inventors and small business owners has emerged as a major public policy goal.

With respect to the post-secondary education scene, North American universities began to focus on developing more elaborate infrastructure to support commercialisation in the 1980s. 


Image credit: Pixabay

Spurred on by the passing of the American Bayh-Dole in 1980, US universities responded to the call by establishing technology transfer offices (TTO), with Canadian universities fairly quickly following suit. 

Such TTO offices were designed to help academics file patents and trademarks, and commercialise their  research. 

As the understanding evolved of what is needed to build a comprehensive innovation ecosystem, public policy turned its attention to … students. 

In the last twenty years, programs aimed at cultivating invention and entrepreneurship in the pre- and post-teen set have been established in a number of jurisdictions, such as Canada’s The Learning Partnership, the UK’s Skills Builder and the EU’s entrepreneurial competency framework, EntreComp.  Universities began creating hubs in support of student innovations that combine and amass the necessary supports to form potentially viable enterprises. 

On this front, Canada is holding its own. UBI Global, a Sweden-based organization that ranks university-based business incubators, identified Canada has having a number of outstanding examples, including Ryerson’s DMZ, the University of Toronto’s network of incubators and accelerators (collectively known as U of T Entrepreneurship), Centech (Ecole de Technologie Superieure of Montreal), and TEC Edmonton based at the University of Alberta (UBI Global Benchmark Study, 2019-2020). 

That certainly sounds like it covers everyone – through the widespread distribution of entrepreneurship education for young people, to the residents of post-secondary education. However, upon closer inspection, we cannot fail to see gaps when we consider who are the most likely establish and run a small business.

So what do we know about who becomes entrepreneurs? Apparently not enough. In Canada, the data on, and knowledge of, who our entrepreneurs are is scant. That prompted one national advocacy organisation – Start Up Canada – to issue a survey to find out who exactly they represent.

Survey results showed that the scene in Canada is increasingly dominated by newcomers, members of Canada’s Indigenous communities, women and people of colour, all scattered across a lot of geography and quite different sectors, including the service, the arts and the tech start-up sectors. 

If the results from the Start Up survey suggest, there is likely a gap between where the supports for entrepreneurs are, and where the entrepreneurs are. Although Canada has the highest post-secondary education participation rate of 18-to-24-year-olds in the world, there are huge opportunity gaps to fill. 

Those gaps are in the disproportionate participation rates of Indigenous students and students of colour, and women still number in the minority in those faculties where entrepreneurial opportunities abound. A study of the distribution of such programming at the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest and most prestigious university, showed that engineering and business faculties had the greatest access to such programming and support, and it is in those faculties where women have yet to make the big breakthrough (although this is changing!). 

What else do we know? Self-reported data also shows two additional realities: first, that the majority of students who graduate from arts institutes – the creatives -- are self-employed for the majority of their careers; second, as the Start Up survey results show, newcomers are highly likely to start their own business. 

Although the Canadian immigration system is premised on the “points system” – the more money, education and language skills you have, the more points you get – newcomers are not likely to carry on with the career they had prior to immigrating, at least initially. This means newly arrived Canadians look for other opportunities where Canadian certification is not relevant. 

In the Canadian context, and perhaps throughout the world, we need to know more about who our entrepreneurs are, what they need, and how to build this inclusive eco-system. Until then, we can only hazard well-intentioned guesses and waste finite public resources doing so. ◼️