School for Social Entrepreneurs – Meet the Fellows

I’m a social entrepreneur and I have an inside track to the new School for Social Entrepreneurs here in Toronto, the SSE-O, as I am a part of the first cohort of twenty social entrepreneurs in the school’s 9 month fellowship program. Today I want to introduce you to three of my classmates. Meet Chris, Tom and Diana.

Chris Blackwood is the Program Coordinator for The Boys and Girls Clubs of Weston-Mount Dennis. In this role, Chris has developed two successful programs for youth who attend the club. For boys there’s Gentlemen Hats and for girls there’s Prettier than Pink. Both workshops challenge youth to think differently about their futures. For example, both address the sometimes glamorous images some young people have of illegal lifestyles.

Through training and mentoring, Chris is working to expose youth in the Jane/Finch area to adults from the neighbourhood and beyond who are successful professionals and positive role models. At the SSE-O, Chris is working to leverage the success of these programs and develop a social enterprise called Helping Neighbourhoods Implement Change (H.N.I.C.).

Chris is a Concordia University graduate who grew up in the Jane and Finch area. He is starting HNIC because he believes in the young people of the area and wants to give them every opportunity to build thriving futures. Chris’ dream is to turn what is now a project into a stand-alone non-profit.

Chris applied to the SSE because he liked the fellowship model and saw some real parallels between work being done by SSE Fellows in the UK, where the first SSE was founded, and what he’s trying to do here. Chris recently had the opportunity to meet Junior Smart, SSE Fellow and the Founder of the SOS Gangs Project in London, when Junior joined our class via Skype. Like Junior, Chris hopes that his work will shift attitudes and behaviours that often lead to a criminal lifestyle.

Tom Murphy is a veteran of the construction industry and Managing Director of Self-Reliance Solutions (SRS). SRS is a commercial cleaning and repair business, originally started in the late 1990s by Regent Park residents. Now run by Tom and growing steadily, SRS provides job opportunities to more than 20 people from marginalized Toronto communities, 75% of whom live in Regent Park.

Tom is a former resident of Regent Park and at one time ran the Regent Park Food Bank. It was his mentor Carmel Hili who started the original Self Reliance group of workers. When Carmel retired from the Christian Resource Centre three years ago, he offered Tom the opportunity to take over the group. Tom jumped at the chance and has leveraged his construction expertise and his enthusiasm for helping others to turn SRS into a thriving social enterprise. This year, SRS is on track to do almost $700,000 in business. Tom believes they could double those revenues in 2013.

With his business based in Regent Park, Tom heard about SSE-O soon after it became an idea that was percolating in Toronto. He and SRS were already up and running, and growing rapidly by the time the school launched. So while he hasn’t needed the program to get his business off the ground, he’s found it particularly helpful in building his confidence as a business leader. Right now, he’s honing his pitching skills, and while he’s never needed a loan, or even a line of credit before (bank managers take note), he recognizes that, as he continues to grow, this will be inevitable. He’s counting on good advice and support from SSE-O faculty and mentors as his business expands.

Diana Grimaldos is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Working Women Community Centre in Toronto. Diana is also a passionate artist and crafter and has been a member and volunteer leader with Eco Artworx. Originally started as a drop-in program at the centre, Diana is working hard to turn Eco Artworx into a sustainable social enterprise. Under her leadership, Eco Artworx now provides employment opportunities to low income, immigrant and refugee women through the creation of ethical, eco-friendly accessories and jewellery.

Diana is a driven community organizer. Over the past 5 years with the Eco Artworx group, she has seen both the talents of the group’s women, as well as the opportunities available, expand dramatically. She has made it her mission to help establish a formal business structure, so that more women from challenged backgrounds have opportunities to explore both their artistic side as well as their full potential as working women.

In Diana’s case, she could see significant business potential for Eco Artworx, but told me she was afraid to ever describe herself as an entrepreneur before the SSE-O program. Two months in, she says she’s proud to call herself a social entrepreneur and to be working to build both a profitable business and measurable social impact.

Any surprises so far?

While all of us have experienced some surprises over the last eight weeks, I’m going to give the last words here to Diana. The thing she’s been surprised about most has been her own passion for her burgeoning business.

Since joining SSE-O, she wakes up each day dreaming about how she wants Eco Artworx to take shape. As both a SSE fellow and someone writing about our cohort, I’m not surprised. There are 17 other social entrepreneurs in this cohort just like her; full of ideas and passion, all committed to helping change the world.

What about you – are you looking to create change through a social enterprise? We’d love your comments below. To find out more about the SSE-O program, visit the program website.

Photo credit: Photos used courtesy of Chris Blackwood, Tom Murphy, Diana Grimaldos (courtesy of Mark Calaminici).

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