The Enactus Saint Mary’s team celebrates at the National Exposition in Vancouver in May 2019, where they finished in the top 3 in the country.

“Our job is exposing people to what can be and what’s possible”

By Erin Elaine Casey | fall 2019

Saint Mary’s University has been in the business of entrepreneurship education and scholarship for more than 25 years — much longer than the vast majority of Canadian institutions. And the Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre (SMUEC) is the beating heart of entrepreneurship, on campus and off.

“Entrepreneurship has a long history at Saint Mary’s University,” says Harjeet Bhabra, Dean of the Sobey School of Business. “We’ve offered it as a major in both the Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts programs for many years, and we now offer the very popular Master of Technology Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Saint Mary’s and the Sobey School of Business have also developed a reputation for engaging with the community to share our knowledge and help develop the capacity of businesses and organizations. The Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre is a recognition that these two aspects of our work have grown in importance in terms of our ongoing impact on the province and region.”

“Our goal is for all students, regardless of discipline, to receive an entrepreneurial experience before they graduate,” adds Michael Sanderson, Director of the SMUEC. “It’s about giving them opportunities to leverage what they’re learning in the classroom in the real world.”

The SMUEC provides multiple services and opportunities for students. The Spark Zone, in partnership with NSCC, MSVU, King’s, NSCAD, and the Atlantic School of Theology, brings together students and community members to develop and launch business ideas; the Pipeline (a social innovation accelerator) helps students and community groups launch sustainable social enterprises; and the Student Consulting Program allows business owners to access quality business advice at an affordable price. Students can also complete internships and co-op work terms at the SMUEC.

Our RBC Talent Hub connects students with work opportunities in start ups,” adds Sanderson. “Or if students are running their own businesses, they can work here in the Centre. We have a dedicated Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and we’re creating an Entrepreneurial Success Certificate that will eventually be available to all students.”

SMUEC services for business include the Innovation Assessment and Growth Matters tools, The Runway entrepreneur incubator at Halifax Stanfield International Airport, and expert business coaching. The RBC Talent Fund and Access Ability help companies grow by providing employers with a wage subsidy, coaching, and additional supports to hire recent graduates. Finally, a SMUEC membership connects students, new graduates, and early stage entrepreneurs to advisory sessions and the SMUEC community of innovation and support.

A couple of key collaborations help keep the entrepreneurship momentum going at the SMUEC. One is with Enactus, the largest student leadership organization in the world. The Saint Mary’s chapter is one of 73 nationally, and with more than 130 members, one of Canada’s biggest. Bachelor of Commerce students Leena Chowdhury and Bethany Ripoll are co-presidents this year.

“Enactus Saint Mary’s is a society on campus that aims to improve the lives of others through entrepreneurial actions,” says Ripoll, who’s been involved for four years. “We do this by running projects that improve people’s lives.”

“It’s the world’s biggest experiential learning platform,” adds Chowdhury, a Finance major in her third year with Enactus SMU.

Enactus SMU runs several programs, three of them related to Square Roots, a social enterprise that redirects perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown away by farms and restaurants. The Square Roots Bundle Service purchases produce, considered to be "seconds," in bulk and sorts it into ten-pound bundles, which are then sold for $10 or $5 in a dozen communities across Nova Scotia by local community managers. With the Square Roots Token Service, you can purchase a $5 token and redeem it for a delicious meal from any of 17 participating restaurants in six communities.

Square Roots has also developed a product line that includes dog bone broth (Beer for Dogs); and 14 Carrot Gold beer, brewed by Boxing Rock. “The beer was made of ‘ugly carrots’ that can’t be sold,” laughs Chowdhury. “There are 1.4 carrots in each bottle! We sold 2000 bottles in two weeks at the NSLC last April.” Other products under consideration are juice, kombucha, and baked goods.

Enactus also runs employment and skills programs. In partnership with Service Canada, Options Youth provides a significant wage subsidy to employers to facilitate hiring youth in Halifax between the ages of 15 and 30 with barriers to employment. “We hire youth who have barriers like a criminal record or non-completion of high school, for 20 weeks,” explains Chowdhury. Access Ability is a similar program, but supports inclusive hiring through federal wage subsidies to employers in the Atlantic region. “We help youth who self-identify as having disabilities find a job or start a business,” says Ripoll. “Our goal is to help them become independent.”

In addition, Enactus coordinates Options Nova, a program that works with previously incarcerated men to help them reintegrate into society. “The men plant ten garden beds behind the Jamieson Community Correctional Centre. We teach them to plant, harvest, and maintain the vegetable beds throughout the summer, and then they eat them,” says Ripoll. “They’re experiencing new things, learning new skills, forming healthy relationships, and working as a team. We pay them with help from a grant from Correctional Service Canada.”

Finally, with an investment from RBC, Enactus is building a platform to take their employment training online. “Youth will be able to sign up for free and get access to those workshops,” says Chowdhury.

“At the SMUEC, we’re equipping students with skills that most people don’t develop until much later in life,” says Sanderson. “Social enterprise and social innovation resonate a lot with youth. That’s why Enactus is so popular, because it’s about changing people’s lives and solving real problems that need solving in the world.”

“Students can also be assigned to Square Roots to complete their service learning at Saint Mary’s, so we have undergrads running a business that our service learning students can work for! That kind of capacity building and leadership is incredible.”

Saint Mary’s University also has a notable collaboration with Volta, Canada’s East Coast innovation hub located in downtown Halifax. Entrepreneurship students can now book office and meeting space there.

“I believe we should transcend our physical space and be part of the larger ecosystem,” says Sanderson. “We’re the beginning of the funnel. Seeds are planted here, and we want to formalize connections with other organizations. Faculty teach classes at Volta, we get tickets to all Volta events, attend workshops, and rub shoulders with startups.”

All these keen entrepreneurial students have to come from somewhere. In fact, they come from across the university, from all faculties and backgrounds. “We have varsity athletes; local, international, science, and arts students; and people who are running their own businesses already. They’re from BC to Boston to Bangladesh,” says Dr. Ellen Farrell, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital at the Sobey School of Business.

“We actually have 17 separate courses focused on entrepreneurship,” she explains. “Everyone goes to university to learn how to solve problems, but it’s the entrepreneurial thinkers who can see and define those problems. Most people see change as a threat. Entrepreneurs think broadly, creatively, and flexibly, and see change as an opportunity.”

“The students in our programs end up at the SMUEC doing all the other things we want them to do,” adds Dr. Farrell. “We are totally integrated. A strong academic record and participation at the SMUEC are closely intertwined. It’s our living laboratory.”

Making sure students get out of the classroom to places like Volta, Digital Nova Scotia, pitch and innovation competitions, and work opportunities ensures they’re building a network that will serve them after they graduate. Not surprisingly, alumni with an entrepreneurial mindset are highly valued by employers in all sectors. “We are not necessarily always trying to create new businesses,” explains Dr. Farrell. “We’re trying to create people who have that capacity to look at things and say, ‘This is how it can be done better’.”

Sanderson agrees. “You expose students to things they never knew existed in Halifax and our region — and they stay here. Our job is exposing people to what can be and what’s possible, and then support them as they get there.”

For Dr. Bhabra, the Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre brings the essential pieces of a meaningful entrepreneurship education together: “The SMUEC allows us to keep developing student-centred entrepreneurial learning and experiences while helping foster a culture of innovation in the community at large.”

For the students who work and learn at the SMUEC, it’s a family. “This is definitely a safe place to work and grow as a person, as a student, and as a professional,” says Ripoll. Chowdhury agrees. “The first time I met the team here, I thought ‘I belong here, I’m going to be here for life’.”

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