3 Shifts in the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem since Founding VFC

By Scott Stirrett

In May 2013, I graduated from Georgetown University and shortly afterward moved to Jersey City to set up my first “adult” apartment. One day while arranging Ikea furniture, I thought about an acquaintance who was participating in the Venture for America Fellowship Program and wondered to myself, “why isn’t there a Venture for Canada?” 

Little did I know then what that casual thought would snowball into over the years. 

As an undergraduate, even though most of my extracurricular and work experience was entrepreneurial, I chose to work at Goldman Sachs after graduation. The Venture for America model resonated with me, as I wish that a similar program existed in Canada to better connect and train youth for employment at startups. 

On July 18th, 2013, I incorporated Venture for Canada as a federal Canadian non-for-profit. Seven years later, VFC is now a community of thousands of Fellows, Fellow alumni, interns, employers, staff, volunteers, and supporters. What started as an organization focused specifically on connecting recent graduates with startups has evolved into a national charity with the broader mission of accelerating young Canadians’ careers by fostering work-integrated learning opportunities and entrepreneurial skills development.

 As July 18th approaches, I’ve been reflecting on the past seven years, which have seen many evolutions to the Canadian entrepreneurial ecosystem, including today’s global pandemic. In this post, I’ll focus on three trends that I think are particularly important: the rise of entrepreneurial work-integrated learning experiences, side hustles, and the importance of developing human skills. 

 

Entrepreneurial Work-Integrated-Learning Experiences 

Since 2013,  the recognition of the importance of work-integrated learning (WIL) experiences has significantly increased. In fact, a study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario observed that recent grads who participated in WIL earn 24 percent more than individuals who did not participate when entering the workforce.

In the early years of Venture for Canada, I often received feedback from professors and students that they would love VFC to launch an internship program.  In 2018, because of the recognition of the importance of WIL, Venture for Canada received funding from Employment and Social Development Canada to launch the VFC Internship program, which supports entrepreneurially focused internships for post-secondary students. We are now operating this internship in eight Canadian provinces.

From an initial cohort of 29 interns in September 2018, we forecast supporting over 1,000 students in 2020. The growth of the Internship Program has also helped increase the pipeline for the VFC Fellowship. And, as I’d always hoped in the early days, employers are beginning to recognize that students who’ve participated in entrepreneurial internships are better prepared to support Canadian startups upon graduation. 

 

Side Hustles

In many ways, it’s easier today to launch a business than ever before, even in a pandemic. Social media removes barriers to reach potential customers worldwide, and companies like Shopify allow you to start an online storefront almost instantly. 

Nevertheless, according to the Bank of Canada, the number of small businesses created each year has consistently fallen over the past three decades, even while the Canadian population has significantly increased. Some researchers suggest that this doesn’t bode well for entrepreneurship in Canada. From where I sit, leading Venture for Canada, I think differently.

Instead of giving up their day job paychecks, more and more people are launching informal “side hustles,” which they run on a part-time basis while concurrently employed. We’ve seen this firsthand at Venture for Canada as close to 50% of VFC Fellowship Alumni have active side hustles. 

As the cost of living continues to increase and debt levels rise as the world deals with new challenges like a pandemic, pursuing a side hustle is increasingly the most natural path to test an entrepreneurial idea or inclination. The rise of the gig economy and remote work also contributes to the increase in side hustles. 

At VFC, students and graduates participating in any of our programming get introduced to the VFC Entrepreneurial Skills Roadmap, a framework of fifteen competencies, that all of our skills development training is based upon. Most of this training can be accessed 24/7 as needed, which means that program participants can use it, and are, to support the development of their side hustles, while still engaged in either a VFC Internship or Fellowship. 

 In the future, perhaps we will all think less of “jobs” and more of “income streams.” But, whatever we call income earning, these entrepreneurial competencies will be more and more important.

 

Human Skills 

Seven years ago, much of the narrative around the future of work focused on developing technical skills. If everyone knew how to code, there would be zero unemployment, the logic often went. 

Fast forward to today, and there is far more of a recognition that Canadians need to focus on developing not just technical skills (coding, engineering, data science, and others) but also essential transferrable  – or what I refer to as human – skills.  Technical skills like data science are still critical in many roles, but it is increasingly important to pair them with human skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, and creativity. 

Over the last seven years building Venture for Canada and working with successful entrepreneurs across Canada, I have seen first-hand the importance of having essential human skills like self-efficacy, grit and comfort with ambiguity. These skills from our competency roadmap align with the World Economic Forum’s ten skills needed for the future of work. Thus, it is increasingly necessary for all workers to be entrepreneurial to succeed in the future, which means our work at Venture for Canada is more important than ever before.

 

Closing thoughts

Thanks to the Venture for Canada community for your engagement with our programs and the amazing community that we have today. Getting to know our employers, students, graduates, staff, board, funders and other stakeholders has been one of my greatest joys of the past seven years. 

Onwards to the next seven years of Venture for Canada!