Ten Budding Entrepreneurs Selected In Socially-Minded Business Contest

By Jordan Adler 6/6/11 | www.samaritanmag.com

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Project Wildfire workshop with youth contestants
An online calculator that helps companies reduce their carbon footprint. A cleaning business run entirely by the autistic community. A tutoring website that pays youths to do their homework. These are just a few of the captivating business ideas for a new, entrepreneurial, youth-oriented contest that is catching like wildfire.

Project Wildfire, a Toronto-area competition for 19 to 29-year-old entrepreneurs, whittled down many potential applicants to 10 finalists this weekend. The participants had created ideas — ones that are profit-generating but with a social mandate — and marketed their proposal through a 90-second video clip, while harnessing their concept through social media to garner votes from the public. The finalists, chosen by a combination of public reaction and the Project Wildfire jury, now have six weeks to work with an experienced team of mentors to construct a solid business plan.

Project director Mike Brcic, himself an entrepreneur as the founder/executive director of Bikes Without Borders, believes in the contest as an illuminating package that helps combine business and charity. “We’ve seen the world of business as something that exists to make money and, for the most part, doesn’t do a lot of good in the world. It often does a lot of harm,” he said at the press conference June 6 at the Centre for Social Innovation. “And I do know that it’s possible to create a lot of good in the world and make money… The reason [Project Wildfire is] youth focused is because I believe a lot of [youths] are full of energy and passion and great ideas.”

(L-R) Grace Poon, Nate Gerber, Dorothy Attakora, Ian Casterton (director of StartMeUp Ryerson), Donovan Brooks, Mike Brcic, and
(L-R) Grace Poon, Nate Gerber, Dorothy Attakora, Ian Casterton (director of StartMeUp Ryerson), Donovan Brooks, Mike Brcic, and Suzanne Narain.

On August 4, the entrepreneurs will pitch their completed proposal to the Project Wildfire jury. One group will walk off with a $25,000 grant to fund their idea, while four others will take a $2,500 consolation fund; regardless, all five recipients will get a full year of mentorship to help refine their business idea.

Samaritanmag spoke with several of the finalists, who discussed their ideas, their inspirations and future aspirations in helping to give back to the local and global community. The finalists and their projects include:

Nadia Hamilton – Clean Planet: 

 Inspired by her younger autistic brother, University of Toronto grad Hamilton hopes to create a cleaning business that employs people with autism, a community that is offered very few career options. She has volunteered to help local individuals at the Geneva Centre for Autism and wanted to contribute further. “I chose a cleaning company because it’s something that they can do that’s not stressful psychologically,” she told Samaritanmag. “A lot of people with autism don’t like to interact socially. It’s something that they can do and they can see right away the ramifications of their physical work.”

(L-R) Marc L. and Aaron K. from School Crack Inc.
(L-R) Marc L. and Aaron K. from School Crack Inc.
Aaron K. and Mark L. – School Crack:

Founded by two Ryerson students who struggled to make it through high school due to the lack of homework help and the ballooning cost of paid tutors, School Crack Inc. offers a website for students to tutor other students and get paid to help them with homework. Volunteers for the site will be paid to help provide homework help, at a rate of two cents per answer. “So basically, we’re trying to take down a $5 billion a year industry,” Aaron joked.

Dorothy Attakora, Suzanne Narain and Nadia Kenisha Bynoe – Global CIRCLE:

The three Toronto teachers and activists want youths and adults to venture on travel experiences outside of their own communities as a way to engage in the culture and society around them. Narain grew up in the Jane-Finch suburb and did not get many chances to journey from her home turf. “When [people from my community] finally got an opportunity to travel, it really gave us a new outlook on life,” she said. The revenue gained from the cost of the trips will further go toward funding for cultural experiences for underprivileged communities in the GTA.

Donovan Brooks – Great Heights Home Repair:

Brooks wants to train and employ young people within his Lawrence Heights community in repair work, in order to assist the neighbourhood during a revitalization period planned for 2012 and help give underprivileged families an extra source of income. Brooks was inspired to pursue this project after returning to this neighbourhood after five-and-a-half years in jail, only to find a similarly dismal existence. “When I came home, I realized that a lot of the young kids in my neighbourhood have dreams but… there’s nothing else that somebody can offer to them that will actually give them an opportunity,” Brooks said. “Basically, I’m trying to change that by giving them an opportunity.”

Howard Swartz – Carbon Savings: 

 As a Queen’s student, Swartz helped to run an eco-friendly coffee shop on campus. With a passion for sustainability, he wants to further his fire for social change by focusing on big companies and help them become more environmentally-conscious. With his Carbon Savings business, he uses more than 25 calculations to help estimate savings and environmental benefits of certain products to help organizations curb their carbon footprint. “There are many products that are good for the planet and can save the user money,” his online business description states.

Lisa Cousins and Mladen – Sceneopolis: 

 As culture vultures who love to take in the Canadian art scene, Lisa and Mladen want to combat the decreased funding of the arts in Canada by helping to promote greater engagement within the creative community for young adults ages 18 to 40. “There’s a sense that young people don’t want to go in the arts,” Mladen told SamaritanMag. Sceneopolis is a subscription service that ensures a greater inclusion into Canadian culture through discounted tickets, greater widespread promotion of smaller festivals and events, and more. With this service in place, the duo hopes to add $10 million in revenue annually to Toronto’s arts scene.

Grace Poon, Nate Gerber and Michelle McCune – Whiteboard Room: The three friends, all design and business consultants, see dozens of business ideas get tossed around every day, and now want to help create a greater accessibility for small companies and big corporations to meet up in one place and share ideas. “It could be anyone from freelancers or consultants who just want to come in and have a coffee and network, or it can be large corporations that just want to get out of the regular boardroom and be in a space that fosters creativity,” Poon told Samaritanmag. The Whiteboard Room is a collaborative space for all people and businesses to work and connect their own ideas together, through visual thinking on floor-to-ceiling Whiteboard surfaces.

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Project Wildfire workshop with youth contestants
Robyn Brophy – The Nest Bakery:

With much experience as a baker, as well as working with children and young adults with learning disabilities, Brophy dreams of creating a social firm mainly consisting of employees with disabilities. She hopes to train and employ these youths to help integrate them within a busy, workplace setting and prepare them for greater job opportunities. The Nest Bakery’s workers “will be able to take ownership of their work and be proud of what they accomplish,” Brophy’s online business description says.

Nicci Laizzo and Erica Lemieux – City Seed Farms:

Laizzo and Lemieux are already planting and growing fresh vegetables in 11 yards in the High Park/Junction area, but they hope to expand even further, selling their products to local markets, restaurants and others around the city. Of course, to be eco-friendly, they also plan on transporting the goods and tools by bike. Laizzo told Samaritanmag that they’re still deciding whether to grow just greens or other vegetables that may take longer to farm. “I think there can be so much more food produced locally and organically,” she said.

Elisa L. Iannacone and Joshua Demers – Live One Peace:

Iannacone and Demers are filmmakers who aspire to inspire others to connect with each other through the power of film. Live One Peace is a production company that is in the works to help create and distribute films with messages for positive social change, and the filmmaking team hopes that these films have the power to bridge the gap between NGOs and other not-for-profit businesses. “People forget that this isn’t a world of countries, it’s a world of people,” Iannacone said. “What if we actually were able to connect with these organizations that are trying to get that message out there, and help them connect to those people.”

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