Small business has long been the backbone of the Canadian economy. According to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) roughly 98 percent of Canadian enterprises are small businesses, and they employ 70 percent of the nation’s private sector workforce. In January 2019 Stats Canada reported that roughly 54 percent of Canadian businesses are micro-enterprises with less than five employees. Small wonder then that institutions like Fanshawe College are embracing innovation and entrepreneurial culture, providing tools to help people explore the reality of running a small business and resources to support those who decide to take the leap.
Since 2014 Fanshawe’s LEAP Junction has been offering entrepreneurial services to the Fanshawe community, including current students, alumni and others who are formally connected to the college. In 2017 the college added LeapIN, a part-time nine-week summer incubator program designed to help entrepreneurs take their business, service, or product from the research and planning stages to implementation. Successful applicants immerse themselves in a mix of workshops (onsite at LEAP Junction and out in the community at partner sites like Innovation Works, TechAlliance, and London Small Business Centre), hands-on collaborative sessions, and individual coaching and mentoring. In addition each LeapIN participant receives $5,000 in funding. To date 33 aspiring entrepreneurs have completed the program, with business ideas as diverse as the participants themselves.
Kelly Scott, a graduate of the Fashion Design program, is designing garments for children that can accommodate medical devices but are as stylish as the clothing other children wear. It was a need that Scott became aware of in 2017 when grandparents of a young medically complex child approached the Fashion Design faculty. Scott tackled the issue as her final year project, and since graduating in 2018 has continued to pursue it as a potential business concept – one that she feels will be as meaningful to her as it is to her clients.
“Having an IV line inserted into the chest is a standard protocol for treating children with cancer and other issues. Other examples are feeding tubes and ostomy bags. Garments need openings and other features that accommodate many types of medical devices,” says Scott. “I want to design ready-to-wear clothes that look great and are comfortable to wear. The initial collections will be geared from newborns up to age six, and I’ll build out from there in terms of age groups.”
Before she can bring her Spunky label to market though, Scott has more work to do – conduct more research with parents, source materials, contract with manufacturers, set up a sales platform, secure funding, etc. Scott says she is thankful for a stellar LeapIN experience as well as ongoing coaching and support from LEAP Junction, and has her sights set on a 2020 launch.
Sylvia Zietek is the Pierogi Queen, operating out of a food truck that she got up and running mid-May, joining the growing ranks of London region’s street food vendors. Zietek learned to make traditional Polish pierogis from her grandmother, who would come to visit for three months every summer when Zietek was growing up. After graduating high school Zietek worked, then travelled, then worked, then travelled – and wherever she went, she says, “I stayed in hostels, and I’d make pierogis to make friends. Food really brings people together.”
Taking a passion and turning it into a viable enterprise can present challenges, and Zietek says Fanshawe’s Entrepreneurship program (she graduated in 2018) and LeapIN (2019) program were invaluable to help her navigate that process. “They connected me with the right people, and made me do the proper research and preparation. It took over a year to get it all together. Marketing through social media is huge! Even if you think you know things, you find out there is still more to learn.”
That’s one of the values of a program like LeapIN, says Kelsey Currie, Entrepreneurial Curator with LEAP Junction. To be considered applicants, to the summer incubator program must have a business concept that is beyond the idea stage. “If you’ve conducted research and are now in the planning stage, or if you already have a product or service and need help to grow the business, and you have a connection to Fanshawe College, LeapIN might be a good option,” says Currie. The program accepted 10 participants in 2017, 10 in 2018, and 13 this year. Some continue to do research and prepare after the program ends, some launch or grow their businesses, other use what they learn to pivot into another type of business.
“We work hard to ensure each cohort is aware of resources and to help them access services,” says Currie. “We are always interested in partnering with other local resources as we work to help build an active local entrepreneurial ecosystem and collaborative community of practice.”