A First-Hand Glimpse into Ontario’s new School for Social Entrepreneurs
It’s been just over a year now since I joined forces with a friend of my husband’s to help start a social venture in the local, sustainable food space. After hearing the story and seeing the pictures of his work in Mexico, I was hooked; and so began my journey to become a social entrepreneur and support the growing of local food in Canadian cities.
As I helped to lay out plans for a Canadian version of the business, I went knocking on doors looking for advice, help and social enterprise expertise. Behind one of the doors I knocked on was Ontario’s new School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE-O). It wasn’t long before I was attending an information session for the launch of the program and then officially applying for a spot in the first cohort. What appealed to me about SSE-O’s Fellowship Program was their balanced commitment to both the social entrepreneur and his or her enterprise:
- SSE-O’s Fellowship Program is a 9-month course centered entirely on you and your project.
- You will learn how to set up and secure funding for your social venture, how to improve your working methods, and how to communicate your initiative and work effectively.
- You will develop and acquire skills and knowledge that will add to your confidence (as a leader).
- Beyond fostering these core skills, the program provides you an opportunity to achieve deeper social impact and to undertake significant personal growth.
As a new social entrepreneur, but an experienced business professional, I was looking to build on my existing business skills and to develop specific knowledge around running a social venture. As a student, two elements of the program really appealed. The first was the school’s focus on self-directed learning (meaning that each of us in the program can build on in-class presentations and discussions with further exploration and research as we desire; help from the Learning Manager and experts will be there if we need it). Second, the emphasis is on practical, actionable lessons versus simply theory. As someone who’s trying to get a business up and running while immersed in the program, this is particularly helpful.
Fast forward a few short months and I’m now part of the first cohort of SSE-O Fellows. Making the decision to be part of this first group was something of a leap of faith. The program had no track record here. However, I remember very clearly what made me jump. I liked the non-traditional educational approach. I also liked that SSE Ontario is building on the successful track record of the original School for Social Entrepreneurs in the UK, which has been graduating skilled and passionate social entrepreneurs since 1997.
Also, I was simply blown away by the business ideas and personal stories of the other social entrepreneurs I met at the information sessions. In addition, the enthusiasm and commitment of the School’s Director, Marjorie Brans and Learning Manager, Omar Ramroop, is contagious. Hearing why they each took their jobs and what they hope for the school made me say, “Yup, I’m in.”
And finally, there’s the Regent Park Community itself, where the school is located. I’m not only impressed by the architecture of the redevelopment, but even more so by the positive energy in the neighborhood. Whether it’s the new public space, theatres and Paint Box Bistro in the Daniel’s Spectrum Building, or the plans for the new Hugs and Kisses Garden at the Christian Resource Centre on Oak Street, this is a neighborhood that’s excited and exciting. It’s a great place to be as a social entrepreneur.
We’re now nine weeks into the curriculum, and we’ve already had the benefit of lived experience and expert advice from the founder of Cultivate London, the co-founder of Free the Hikers. We also recently went on a site visit to Toronto’s St. John’s Bakery, where they not only bake outstanding artisan breads, but also provide training and employment for those struggling to find or return to work.
Most importantly, the 21 of us in the program are starting to tap into the wealth of skill, knowledge and perspectives in our group. I asked Marjorie the other day what long term success looks like for the school. There was no hesitation in her response, “SSE-O would consistently graduate Fellows who are doing really important things for their communities; changing lives in tangible and sustainable ways.”
We won’t graduate until June 2013, and we’ll certainly have our stumbling blocks along the way. But now that I’ve had a first-hand opportunity to learn about the social enterprise plans of my classmates and to be immersed directly in this first cohort, I’d say that it’s just a matter of time for Marjorie and all of us to see this success taking shape. The partners behind SSE-O did the right thing in bringing this school to the province, and in making a tangible commitment to social entrepreneurship here in Ontario.