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Margin Notes

Turning students into socially conscious entrepreneurs


As I’ve pointed out before, entrepreneurship is all the rage at Canada’s universities. Barely a week goes by without a new announcement. This week, for example, York University announced the start of its LaunchYU campus-wide entrepreneurship program.

An announcement from last week, however, was of a somewhat different nature. On Nov. 6, the highly regarded J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, based in Montreal, launched a new $10-million initiative named RECODE. It too aims to encourage students to become entrepreneurs and innovators, but in this instance the focus is squarely on the social realm.

As the McConnell Foundation describes it, RECODE “is a call to social innovation – to redesign public institutions from the inside out; to disrupt business as usual; to found and grow new social enterprises; to create partnerships across institutional and sectoral boundaries – in short, to ‘recode’ our culture’s operating systems in order to achieve a more just, sustainable and beautiful world.”

RECODE is a collaborative effort of the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, with a strong campus component. Among its goals is to “provide opportunities for students to learn about (and experiment with) social innovation and entrepreneurship through experiential, cross-curricular and multi-disciplinary learning on campus, MOOCs and other online learning platforms, student clubs, conferences and competitions, exchanges and events.”

Eighteen universities and colleges received funds in RECODE’s first round. The universities are: University of Victoria, Royal Roads University, Memorial University, University of Guelph, École de technologie supérieure, OCAD University, Mount Royal University, Simon Fraser University, Ryerson University, University of British Columbia, University of New Brunswick, Wilfrid Laurier University and Concordia University.

UBC prepared its own press release for the announcement, noting that the university “is set to become a leading hub for social entrepreneurship and innovation focused on solving the world’s toughest challenges.” As part of this initiative, the university plans to develop a five-week “social venture boot-camp” as well as a “UBC Impact Seed Fund” to invest in the promising social ventures originating at UBC.

The university also, helpfully, provided a definition of “social enterprises”:

They can take a variety of structures, including non-profits, for-profits, co-ops, partnerships and more. Like other businesses, social enterprises aim to be economically self-sustainable. They earn enough money to pay employees a fair wage, cover all of their expenses, and support the business’ growth. But unlike other businesses, social enterprises have incorporated improving social, cultural, community or environmental outcomes into their business model. As their enterprises grow – so too do the benefits to society.

I first became aware of the McConnell Foundation through its support of community-service learning, or CSL, a model of experiential learning that combines classroom learning with volunteer work designed to achieve community goals and to instill in students a sense of civic engagement. As Margo Fryer (formerly of UBC) recounts in 2012, CSL “began emerging as a force in Canada about 10 years ago” when the McConnell Foundation awarded funds to 10 universities to build CSL programs. Because of that funding and its spin-off effects, there are now more than 30 colleges and universities in Canada with CSL programs.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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