The question of how best to cultivate the next generation of entrepreneurs was the subject of a lively uOttawa Chancellor’s Debate on November 17. This was the second in a series that convenes thought-leaders and opinion-makers for spirited discussions of timely topics. The series was conceived by uOttawa Chancellor Calin Rovinescu, who was joined on stage by six panellists, including two student entrepreneurs. Below are seven lightly edited takeaways from their conversation.
#1 Embrace failure
Calin Rovinescu, President and CEO of Air Canada, and Chancellor of the University of Ottawa
One of the basic characteristics of an entrepreneur is courage. Most start-up ventures expect to fail. And most venture capital investors who invest in start-up businesses expect to have one successful investment out of 20. So have the courage to try something new on for size, and don’t be afraid of failure – in fact, embrace failure. There are many failures on the path to success.
#2 Invest early in inspiring children’s passion
Richard L’Abbé, Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist
I had the entrepreneurship gene injected into me as a child – my father was an entrepreneur – but a lot of people don’t have that ecosystem at home. I think you have to start in primary school. You can start as early as Grade 3 – and you see an evolution in kids. Their eyes light up when they realize, “Wow, I could become my own boss and do fascinating things that I could be passionate about!” Once they’re in high school, they get to build a virtual company that they run for three or four months – and when you listen to their debriefs, they sound like I did 10 years after I started in business. We need to get this funnel of budding entrepreneurs into our university system, to stimulate [that enthusiasm] even more.
#3 Help students rebel
Hanan Anis, NSERC Chair in Entrepreneurial Engineering Design
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review reported that out of 1,000 employees in different organizations, 90% felt stifled in terms of innovation. The key, they thought, is to create a rebel mentality, a constructive non-conformity in an organization. Whether we are talking about an innovative or entrepreneurial mindset, challenging the status quo is a key ingredient. As a professor, I face the challenge of how to foster this and bring out the best in students. How do I understand the abilities of each student, because they all have their own strengths, and actually help them rebel and ask the difficult questions?
#4 Build your support system
Scott Bonham, co-founder of GGV Capital and Intentional Capital
Mentoring needs to be a two-way street. The best mentorships are deep relationships, and both sides get something out of it. So start today. Every day you should be building your network and doing favours for people. When I look at the most successful entrepreneurs, they are adding more to the universe than they’re taking. So don’t expect anything back from this, but the universe will pay you back over time. And the moment you need help, hopefully you will have built the support system you need.
#5 Address specific challenges for women
Barbara Orser, Deloitte Professor in the Management of Growth Enterprises, Telfer School of Management
Regardless of sector, women-owned firms are less likely to grow, in Canada and around the world. Females are less likely to launch ventures in the university space, or to leave an employer to commercialize their intellectual property. Women are far less likely to be either funders or seekers of equity capital, less likely to take on debt and more likely to finance a business with savings and credit cards. This has huge implications in terms of opportunities for growth. How you respond to that is even more important. Part of what we are trying to do at Telfer is to create an online knowledge domain around women’s enterprises.
#6 Talk to people and listen to feedback
Midia Shikh Hassan, chemical engineering student, involved in Dextra, a company that provides affordable, 3D-printed prosthetic arms to war amputees
Take risks – and talk to people. Dextra founder Antoine Machaalani travelled to Lebanon to meet with Syrian refugees and organizations. People tried on the prosthesis and told him that it was very robotic looking. Amputation carries a stigma for them: they try to hide it and that’s something we had not even considered. There was no way we would have figured that out without talking to them. So now, we have modified our design to come up with the most human-looking hand in the 3D-printed prosthetic market.
#7 Combine business and social purpose
Corey Ellis, commerce student, President of Enactus uOttawa and co-founder of the Growcer project, which aims to help Inuit communities grow affordable produce with a containerized hydroponic farming system
People in Iqaluit are paying exorbitant amounts just to feed themselves on a daily basis, so in response, we came up with this turnkey solution. We are now able to provide these communities with something that allows them to become more self-sufficient and resilient and, ultimately, to feed themselves more affordably. As much as Growcer is a business that needs to make money to survive and grow, we’re really focused on trying to help as many people as possible. These two ideas – business entrepreneurship and social purpose, or socially-driven ideas – don’t need to be mutually exclusive. They can work really well together and co-exist.