Vancouver student entrepreneurs learn new ways to launch ventures
A small pop-up shop on the edge of Chinatown seems like an unusual location for a postsecondary business-education class. But here at 434 Columbia Street between Pender and Hastings on a Sunday afternoon, Emily Carr University of Art + Design master’s students Andreas Eiken and Maia Rowan are teaching more than a dozen undergrads.
Half are from their institution and half are from SFU’s Beedie School of Business. The undergrads are hunched over laptops, chatting in groups, sitting near a sewing machine, or being filmed for a documentary.
In an interview outside the store, Eiken explains that five groups of design and business students are working here for a week trying to sell products, most of which were created to promote greater sustainability.
“There’s a kit to help people learn about how to repair their clothes themselves,” he says. “Another project is to help people do laundry while travelling so…people won’t bring as much stuff with them. There’s an app to help people connect with the community.”
Another product, called the Box Band, secures home-cooked food in containers that don’t leak. A product called Jayde enables single-use bathroom products to be composted rather than sent to landfills.
Rowan points out that design and business students worked collaboratively at the outset, rather than coming up with ideas separately.
“They did their research together,” she says. “They generated ideas around what their product would be and also looked into what the business model would be to get those products into the world.”
It’s part of the platFORM program bringing together Emily Carr and SFU students, which was developed by Lisa Papania and Sarah Lubik of the Beedie School along with Eiken and Rowan. It's one of many imaginative postsecondary initiatives advancing entrepreneurship across the Lower Mainland.
Whether it’s learning about the “lean launchpad” movement for startups at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, enrolling in a 10-week accelerated venture program at the B.C. Institute of Technology, or taking part-time courses at Langara College on owning a business, there’s a plethora of educational opportunities for would-be entrepreneurs.
Sometimes the students come from abroad. In October, for instance, Douglas College will host 10 young people from Zambia who will learn entrepreneurial skills. It’s part of the college’s Zambia Global Leadership Program, which also offers Douglas students a chance to do three-month practicums in the southern African country.
Sarah Lubik, a lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation at the Beedie School, tells the Straight by phone that SFU is emphasizing an interdisciplinary approach to education in this area. The platFORM program is just one example.
Lubik, also SFU’s director of technology entrepreneurship, mentions that the school is close to gaining final approval for a grad certificate for postdocs and PhD students in science-and-technology commercialization. This fall, SFU will introduce a 200-level introductory course on entrepreneurship and innovation that will open upper-division classes to everyone from every faculty. It will emphasize team-based approaches to bringing together people from different disciplines.
“The reason I keep saying ‘team’,” she says, “is because traditionally, business schools have tried to teach entrepreneurship to business students, not realizing that as soon as you get out into the real world, you’re going to be working with people who don’t speak that language—who are completely different from you, who speak science or speak engineering or what have you. Not having any real experience at working with those kind of people doesn’t give you a realistic experience.”
Lubik, who’s involved in a diving-related startup, points out that you don’t have to take courses in business fundamentals—such as economics, managerial finance, or accounting—to learn about entrepreneurship at SFU.
She adds that students can study marketing, project management, product development, and resourcing skills, including where to obtain financial help. While economic factors influence some students to want to launch their own companies, she says others draw inspiration from famous entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg.
“When we’re talking about entrepreneurship at SFU, we’re not just talking about starting your own business,” Lubik states. “We’re talking about whether you want to be an innovator in a big company, whether you want to start your own business, whether you want to start a not-for-profit, whether you want to be some sort of change maker—environmental or social change maker. We want to make sure our students have the tools to tackle whatever is their burning desire.”
Over at UBC’s Sauder School, entrepreneurship and marketing instructor Paul Cubbon says education in this area is evolving rapidly.
“Until two years ago, you couldn’t major in entrepreneurship in our MBA program,” he tells the Straight by phone. “Now, you can. I think I have eight students this summer who, instead of doing paid internships, gave up the opportunity to earn good money through the summer so they could go and start ventures. We’ve been working with them.”
Next month, Sauder School undergraduate students can begin majoring in entrepreneurship. And a year and a half ago, Cubbon says, the business school at UBC created a “lean launchpad accelerator program” offering a noncredit program in entrepreneurship for graduate research teams in the sciences that lack a strong business background.
“They come in often with a technical idea,” he says. “We take them through a boot camp.”
The lean launchpad movement was pioneered by Steve Blank, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of California at Berkeley. According to Cubbon, this approach acknowledges that a startup is “an organization working under high degrees of uncertainty trying to find a basis and a pattern for building a business”.
“Really, the teaching of entrepreneurship now in progressive schools is saying we have to do something different than how we teach business skills for steady-state businesses,” he says.
For example, startup ventures must quickly develop hypotheses that can be tested to determine if there’s demand for a product.
Cubbon, a former marketing and advertising executive, says entrepreneurs are usually wrong from the start, which means they must be nimble enough to adjust their thinking in response to market realities.
Borrowing a phrase from former U.S. secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, Cubbon says the key is discovering the “unknown unknowns”.
The approach at the Sauder School impresses Fraser Pogue, who’s about to enter the final year of his MBA program there. He’s developing a product designed to save lives in avalanches and improve safety in the backcountry.
Over the phone, Pogue says he was part of a search-and-rescue team in Revelstoke last year and he’s had friends of friends perish in avalanches. He appreciates the free business mentorship he receives through the school.
“They’ve given me advice on patents, startups, evaluations, pitching, and there’s been a lot of good professors in the class that have been very helpful and have a lot of connections here in town,” Pogue says.
However, not every would-be entrepreneur has the time, money, or patience to attend a two- to four-year university program to sharpen their skills. Vancouver violinist Charlotte Forbes initially wanted to study business at the University of Calgary, but she soon discovered it wasn’t to her liking.
“It was more about statistics and math in the business program there,” she tells the Straight over the phone.
So she enrolled in BCIT’s accelerated 10-week venture program for those seeking to start their own business. The 19-year-old has created an athletic-apparel company called Allez Active Wear.
She’s working with a designer on prototypes and hopes to open her first store later this year. Between years three and five, she plans to open more stores in Edmonton and Calgary, and by the 10- or 11-year mark have retail outlets in Toronto and Montreal. Beyond that time, she’s looking to expand into the United States.
“There are some big stores around here like lululemon, of course,” Forbes says. “Everyone mentions lululemon right off the bat. They’ve all got great clothing, but I feel there’s still some need for better-priced clothing and a greater variety of colours and designs. So that kind of sparked my idea to start my own company.”
She reveals that she developed an independent frame of mind at a young age. At eight or nine, she was too young to get a job, so she began busking on Granville Island, playing her violin.
“It gave me some of the confidence,” Forbes says. “Also, my grandpa was an entrepreneur. He ran a boat business. I thought that was pretty cool.”
At BCIT, she received an overview of important areas of business, such as finance, marketing, and legal affairs.
“The teachers who came in all had experience in business or entrepreneurship of some sort,” she adds. “Of course, they were passionate about what they did. They could give us that little extra insight that you couldn’t get from a textbook written by somebody who had just gone to school but hadn’t started a business.”
The business adviser for BCIT’s venture programs, Jim Smyth, tells the Straight by phone that when he speaks to prospective students at information sessions, he always tells them that people can no longer assume they’ll have job security in perpetuity.
“You have to make your own future,” he declares. “You can’t rely on big business to be there for you. So people are more inclined to take chances on themselves.”
Like other business-education programs in the region, BCIT’s venture programs draw upon the expertise of previous graduates. Smyth adds that sometimes, alumni return to the school to consult instructors 10 or 15 years after graduating when they’re considering launching new businesses.
Another young entrepreneur, Ashley Wiles, tells the Straight by phone that she appreciates how BCIT put her in contact with mentors living in this region. Wiles says this was instrumental in helping her launch Sole Girls, an empowerment program for girls between the ages of eight and 12.
“I had to prepare my business plan, first of all, but then you have to pitch it—two things I had never done before,” she recalls. “That [the BCIT program] definitely helped my business.”
For those who want to keep their jobs while learning about entrepreneurship, Langara offers part-time courses. When reached by phone, the school’s business management program coordinator, Oren Lupo, says core courses focus on how to start a business, sales and marketing, and operations. Electives address bookkeeping and finance, and it usually takes students two semesters to complete the program. According to Lupo, students learn about company structures, information technology, record-keeping, small-business accounting, regulatory issues, and tax aspects. Courses are offered in the evenings and on weekends, which means people don’t have to quit their day jobs.
“We go through quite a long process in helping them build up the marketing plan, the operations plan, financing, doing a financing-options proposal, and working on their financial documents so they really have something in hand when they leave the program,” Lupo says.
He adds that people who enroll in Langara’s program are often interested in businesses in more traditional fields, such as retail, food, importing goods, or distribution. Some sign up because they want to learn more before taking over control of a family enterprise.
For those who are interested in the razzle-dazzle of technology, UBC, BCIT, and SFU might be more to their liking. The British Columbia Innovation Council has a mission of developing entrepreneurial talent in this area. Its website lists several technology-oriented educational programs.
Back at SFU, Sarah Lubik emphasizes that entrepreneurship can be incredibly rewarding and exciting, but it’s not easy. It’s often said that an entrepreneur works 70 hours a week to avoid working 40 hours a week.
“You need that drive and that passion to put in the kind of work it takes to be successful,” Lubik says. “So you need to care at the end of the day. We need to help students find not only the skills that they need but also to find the thing that they care about that would be worth working that hard for.”