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Many young Canadians resorting to entrepreneurial route

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Neil Sandell  |  Special to the Star

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In a world where young job-seekers feel powerless, a growing number are taking matters into their own hands, and handhelds.

They are starting their own businesses.

Many will fail. A few will keep trying until they succeed. Along the way, they will create jobs not just for themselves but for others, too.

It is one answer for the young and jobless. And, in fact, researchers at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that among all new enterprises that survived after three years, the highest employment growth was in companies started by people under 30.

A look at two vastly different programs trying to build the next generation of entrepreneurs:

Friday evening in Toronto. Queen St. W. is buzzing with twentysomethings primped and primed for a night out. I pause to check the invitation for a young entrepreneurs event called Startup Weekend. I imagine a dull affair, a haven for a dozen dateless commerce students. How smug I am, and how wrong.

I walk up two flights in a building more shabby than chic. The room is a wall of noise. A crush of 25- to 35-years-olds are laughing, swapping business cards and sketching their ideas on iPads. They are software developers, designers, marketers and, yes, commerce grads. Three hundred of them. And they have paid $99 to be here.

Soon they will have 1½ minutes to take the open mike, pitch their business concept and rally a team around them.

This evening more than 90 make a pitch. Judges choose the 20 most promising ideas. The 300 attendees then join a team to develop one of those 20 ideas.

And in the next, sleep-deprived 54 hours, they will try to create the next killer app, taking it from drawing board to demo. The prize is $60,000 worth of free services — a marketing video, legal advice, office space and mentoring.

This is Alyssa Richard’s second Startup Weekend. She tells me it is a place to spot talent, what organizers call “co-founder dating.” Working under pressure of a tight deadline you quickly find out who you can work with. At an earlier Startup Weekend she met a designer who is now a colleague.

Richard, 26, strains over her laptop. With a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Queen’s University, she has already founded a business called RateHub. It connects home buyers to the best mortgage rates. At the Startup event she’s trying to launch MyClosingCosts, a one-stop shop offering buyers home inspections, legal advice and online tools for calculating costs.

Richard says entrepreneurship is not for everyone. “You have to be very comfortable with ambiguity, (with) taking on risks. You have to be confident. But you also have to allow yourself to be turned on to entrepreneurship. Once you’ve lived through the process from idea to product creation to money in the bank, you start to believe in the system a little more.”

Chris Eben organizes Toronto’s Startup Weekend in co-operation with a non-profit organization in Seattle. Launched in 2007, Startup Weekends have attracted 56,000 attendees in over 300 cities worldwide. Sometimes viable businesses are created. However, Eben sees the weekends’ primary purpose as offering the curious a chance “to dip their toe in” entrepreneurship. “They are getting to experience a condensed version of start-up life.”

This explosion of energy in start-ups is driven by two things. Recent technology has dramatically lowered the entry costs. Building an app is not that expensive. Second, according to Richard, “people have always been passionate about feeling the results of their work, and building products. For some people, that’s been lost in big corporations where you specialize in one thing.”

Robert Jackiewicz, a 26-year-old engineer, is just such a person. After he finished a consulting job at a corporate giant, he was in no hurry to return.

“Big companies don’t make you matter,” he says. “You don’t feel like you’re making a difference.”

Now he’s here working all weekend without sleep because he wants to gain new skills, and to pursue something other than a profit.

“I don’t care if I make millions of dollars. I want to work on something that changes the world.”

One week later , the first stage of another young entrepreneurs’ event reaches its climax in downtown Toronto. If Startup Weekend was take-all-comers populist, this one is unabashedly elite.

At 8:59 a.m. this Saturday, the Earth moves for 36 of Canada’s brightest and best.

Having sweated through eight intense, one-on-one interviews the previous day, they have been selected for The Next 36, a program designed to forge Canada’s next generation of entrepreneurial leaders.

They were chosen from 1,003 applicants, all university undergraduates. Seventy-three of them had been flown to Toronto for the final round of interviews.

The next morning, after a nervous breakfast, the 73 finalists were asked to find their names on one of two lists, and to file into their designated room.

One group is thanked, offered some words of encouragement, and sent home.

Behind closed doors in the second room, the group puzzles over what it means to be in the company of the 21-and 22-year-olds around them.

That girl over there is a star athlete. The one at the next table has two patents pending.

They are commerce, marketing and engineering students mostly, with a sprinkling from pharmacy, architecture and history. They wonder, is this the final selection or yet another test. Then they hear it.

“You’re in.”

The room erupts in applause, then hugs and handshakes. They are The Next 36. They will become friends and business partners. They will be lavished with CEO mentors, start-up capital and an entrée into a network of movers and shakers.

It is a moment to savour. But it is short-lived. After lunch they are placed in teams of four and given a pressure-cooker assignment: create a viable business concept, then pitch it to a room peppered with Canada’s top business leaders the next morning.

They pull the first of countless caffeinated all-nighters.

As it turns out, the pitches are polished, but the business leaders ask tough questions. Only a handful of the original business ideas will survive in the months ahead. By design, The Next 36 will taste repeated failure.

From December to April, the 36 juggle their university studies while working long distance on their businesses. In May, they take up residence at Innis College at the University of Toronto, forgoing a summer job.

In exchange, they get an exclusive three-month entrepreneur’s boot camp that includes lectures by business faculty drawn from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Wharton School, Western University and the University of Toronto.

All the while, the teams work with their CEO mentors to get their venture off the ground and raise seed capital.


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