Shawn Smith didn’t follow a conventional path to becoming a business-education innovator. Growing up in White Rock, he took the B.C. secondary-school curriculum by correspondence while working full-time, starting at the age of 15.
“The original intention was to sort of Doogie Howser it and finish it all very early,” Smith told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I made a conscious decision partway through that I would focus time on saving money.”
Because he didn’t obtain all the necessary credits, Smith never obtained the Dogwood Diploma. However, he was still permitted to enroll at the age of 19 at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (then known as Kwantlen University College) as a mature student, and he later transferred to the business program at SFU.
It didn’t take long for SFU business professors to realize they had a young star in their midst after Smith and some friends created a nonprofit organization called Global Agents for Change, which ran cross-continental cycling tours to support social-purpose startups. That helped Smith win a prestigious Skoll scholarship to Oxford University, where he obtained a master’s in business administration in 2010.
At that point, the then dean of the Beedie School of Business, Daniel Shapiro, encouraged Smith to apply his insights on spurring social innovation back in Vancouver. This led them to cofound SFU’s social-innovation and venture hub, RADIUS, whose name is an acronym for “radical ideas useful to society”. The RADIUS ventures programs work with social entrepreneurs to test and validate their ideas.
It’s one of several SFU initiatives designed to promote an entrepreneurial mindset on SFU’s three campuses—even among students not enrolled in the Beedie School of Business. In the process, Smith and his faculty colleagues, including director of entrepreneurship Sarah Lubik and associate dean Andrew Gemino, are reinventing how business education is delivered at SFU.
Smith said that at the outset, RADIUS had two major goals. One was to influence SFU into becoming more of a “change-making institution”. The other was to enable students who wanted to engage with real issues to acquire skills and experience.
“A big part of our mandate is to help develop social entrepreneurship and the social-venture ecosystem in B.C.,” Smith said.
RADIUS recently moved into the second floor of SFU’s new Charles Chang Innovation Centre at 308 West Hastings Street in Vancouver. There, students enrolled in a variety of programs can connect with people in the community to come up with entrepreneurial solutions to vexing issues.
Chang, founder of Vega protein drinks and an SFU alumnus, has committed $10 million over 10 years to promote entrepreneurship at SFU. According to Gemino, Chang’s goal is to create a “kick-ass army of innovators” who will help transform the province.
“We decided our job is actually to create entrepreneurs,” Gemino told the Straight by phone. “So we focus on generating the opportunities and experiences to allow someone to develop an entrepreneurial mindset.”
This manifests itself in encouraging students to launch entrepreneurial ventures. But it can also extend into social innovation, which has been defined by the Stanford School of Business as a “novel solution to a social program that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions”.
“We have a moral obligation to be telling our students there’s not a job at the end of the rainbow,” Gemino declared. “That is not the way the world works anymore. You really have to generate your own opportunity.”
This philosophy led SFU to appoint Lubik, a young business lecturer, as its director of entrepreneurship. Like Smith, Lubik was an SFU undergrad before attending graduate school at one of England’s great postsecondary institutions: Cambridge University. In a phone interview with the Straight, Lubik emphasized the importance of defining entrepreneurship as going well beyond launching startup companies. “Entrepreneurship is the ability to create sustainable, valuable change and sustainable economic and social value,” she said.
She suggested that this broader definition of entrepreneurship can appeal to students across different faculties. And to encourage the spread of entrepreneurial thinking, SFU’s senior staff are eagerly breaking down walls between departments.
One way is through the Charles Chang certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship, which is open to any undergraduate. It starts with an introductory course, called Business 238, which is a prerequisite to 300- and 400-level courses in topics ranging from craft brewing to entrepreneurial policy to interactive arts and design. The first cohort will graduate next year.
“We’re not creating a silo with entrepreneurship and innovation,” Lubik explained. “We’re creating an ecosystem where people with these skills know how they will fit into the world and how they can use their skills to make change in the world.”
The graduate certificate in science and technology commercialization is one example. It provides management and business skills to master’s and PhD students, as well as to postdoctoral researchers and people from industry. It covers finance, creating a business plan, pitching an idea, and figuring out how to match a product with market opportunities. It’s offered at the Segal Graduate School of Business and will be based later at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre.
“It’s put on by the business school and it is one night a week for a year,” Lubik said. “You’re taken through how to commercialize the research that you’re working on.”
The Charles Chang Innovation Centre will also host Change Lab, which is led by Smith and health-sciences lecturer Paola Ardiles. Currently at the Surrey campus, it offers 400-level course credits in business and health sciences to undergrads who design an innovative and entrepreneurial solution to a complicated health challenge.
Some other dramatic entrepreneurial initiatives are also taking place at the Surrey campus, including Innovation Boulevard. It was founded with the City of Surrey and Fraser Health to create a cluster of high-tech health-related businesses along King George Highway. In addition, Surrey is the site of SFU’s mechatronics systems engineering program within the faculty of applied sciences. Lubik said that students enrolled in SFU’s technology entrepreneurship program work with mechatronics engineering students. Another interdisciplinary program at the Surrey campus, the business of design, brings together students from the Beedie School of Business and SFU’s school of interactive arts and technology.
Expect SFU’s Surrey campus to become an even bigger player in the future. On November 8, the federal and provincial governments announced a $90-million investment to help fund a new five-storey building. It will be home to a sustainable-energy and environmental-engineering program—yet another example of the university’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education. SFU’s mechatronics systems engineering program will also move into the new building.
At the root of SFU’s entrepreneurial education is the belief that innovation is not just about business, according to Gemino. He said that once business students go into the workforce, they must work alongside people from various other disciplines, which is why this approach is being replicated on campus.
In the past, he noted, entrepreneurs were seen as solo operators who protected intellectual property. “Now it’s about sharing ideas and gathering strength,” Gemino said. “Actually, the more you share and the more you network, the stronger your idea becomes.”
SFU students are encouraged to do entrepreneurial work as part of their education rather than simply examining case studies from industry. “Almost all of our courses have an element where you’re outside creating something with a group of people and learning—and pivoting and trying new things,” he said.
Gemino recognizes that not all ventures will succeed, so in one course, students are not allowed to finish with the same idea that they started with. “If you talk to entrepreneurs, they do that all the time,” he said. “They’re always changing their idea and adapting it to the next thing, so pivoting is a really core aspect to it. We try not to say ‘failure’.”
Back at RADIUS, Smith and his colleagues are incorporating the principles of social innovation and working in teams with indigenous people through the RBC First People’s enterprise accelerator program. “We’ve done some work in Alert Bay with Reconciliation Canada,” he stated. “We’re just launching a big research project with the Sto:lo [Nation] out in the Fraser Valley trying to understand how a lot of these approaches apply to the First Nations communities where, in many ways, you see these values underpin the entrepreneurial work that’s going on there anyway.”
SFU is also applying its model of community engagement to enhancing the inner-city economy. According to Smith, 30 graduate-student internships will be deployed to work with leading social enterprises.
So how are students and SFU professors able to create bonds with groups that have traditionally been disenfranchised from the mainstream?
“We try to show up with a lot of humility,” Smith said. “But once you’re in, it’s a tight network and all the pieces are connected to each other.”