We Do Cool Stuff x Holly Gordon

Career and experiential learning 
Entrepreneurship Hub
Faculty of Arts
Photo of Holly Gordon.
We Do Cool Stuff has made it possible for us to celebrate the innovators and trailblazers making the University of Ottawa an epicentre of creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship. In honour of Earth Day, we’re taking a closer look at a sustainable entrepreneurial initiative happening right here on our campus.

Holly Gordon is the senior officer of sustainability at the University of Ottawa. She manages student and staff-focused sustainability programming and various initiatives, including the Period Project, community gardens, Green Reps and edible landscapes. She’s also fortunate to work on our largest program with the most impact, the Free Store! That’s what we spoke about.

Many people are doing cool things on campus. What entrepreneurial endeavour are you currently working on?

The Free Store is an entirely donations-based store on campus, where everything is free for students, staff and alumni. You can find clothing, school supplies, home décor, kitchenware, linen and much more. We collect donations through our bin, which is accessible year-round in the CRX building. Every May, we also lead a program called the Dump and Run, where we collect the thousands of items left behind in residences. Previously, all of these items were being thrown out, which is expensive, and it’s also so much unnecessary waste! Over the 15 years the Free Store has been operating, we’ve diverted over 170,000 kg of materials from landfill! 

How does interdisciplinary collaboration and/or innovation play a role in your entrepreneurial endeavour?

The Free Store is primarily supported by a committed team of student volunteers. Each term, we have 20 to 40 volunteers who help to keep the store running. Some volunteers participate as part of a course and are completing community-service learning hours, and others are extracurricular volunteers. These volunteers are supervised by two part-time student co-ordinators.

The volunteers help collect donations from the bin, and wash, sort and put out items for customers to take. They also are quality control, to determine if the items are good enough to go out or if they can be recycled or go to textile waste. Lastly, they also help us find more community partners to donate items that aren’t taken at the store. We’re proud to have over 10 community partners where we donate items to other groups, including food banks, shelters and animal rescues. We try our best to ensure that everything can find a home.

Other support has also come from specific courses. We’ve worked with arts students who analyzed our communications strategy, engineering students who have created racks for clothing and administration students who have calculated our social return on investment. The Free Store is truly a uOttawa community effort.

What impact do you hope to make through your entrepreneurial endeavour?

We hope to reduce unnecessary waste on campus, contributing to uOttawa’s goal of becoming a zero-waste campus. It also allows us to contribute to helping make university life a little more affordable for students, while at the same time promoting item circularity. That’s a fancy way of saying we try to promote the reuse of second-hand items. It permits students to furnish their spaces, find some of their course books or even pick up some winter gear for free.

We strive to make the Free Store a welcoming place and a great introduction for the uOttawa community to sustainability.

We’re proud to have influenced the establishment of over a dozen other free stores on campuses across Canada. We hope to continue to be an example of a waste diversion initiative that has so many positive benefits to the community! 

What advice would you give to those who are eager to follow in your entrepreneurial footsteps and make an impact through their own initiatives?

Though the Free Store has been running for over 15 years now, it didn’t start out as such a big, established initiative. It started as a group of three passionate volunteers who saw a problem (the mountain of items left behind at move-out) and they wanted to contribute to a solution. If you see a problem in your community and you think you have a solution that can help, just start! Talk to friends, colleagues or family and find someone passionate about this issue too. A small group of passionate people really can make a difference!

Get involved

The Office of Campus Sustainability is looking for volunteers for its Dump and Run event, from May 1 to 3. Help the office save thousands of items left in residences from going to landfill unnecessarily!

Students can sign up via the Community Engagement Navigator (reference #17). Staff or alumni should email the Office of Campus Sustainability

Your nominations

The We Do Cool Stuff series is all about showcasing the inspiring work, projects, and innovations that students, researchers, alumni, faculty and staff are passionately pursuing. We want to share their stories, their journeys, and their visions with our University community and the world. Do you know someone who fits the bill? Send your nomination to: [email protected]