Entrepreneurship: building curiosity in Canadian higher education

Entrepreneurship has become such a staple at Canadian postsecondary institutions that it is now surprising to see a college or university without an entrepreneurship offering. At Ryerson, the Digital Media Zone hosts impressive companies like Senssasure, an innovative and rapidly-transforming healthcare company; at the University of Alberta, eHub hosts dynamic startups like No Lemon and Alieo Games. The University of Calgary has recently jumped into the entrepreneurship scene and is now home to the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which is already spurring innovation and growth across one of North America's most exciting cities.

Recently, Canada has been criticized for its inability to innovate and compete globally, such as when zero companies made the 2014 BCG Most Innovative Companies list. In the same year, Canada received its worst ranking in 9 years on the World Economic Forum world competitiveness index, slipping to 15th place. In a world where the pace of change is stunning, and where companies like Tesla, SpaceX, and Google are transforming entire sectors, this lack of entrepreneurial spirit— the ability to "jump the curve," as Edmonton Economic Development CEO Brad Ferguson puts it—is worrisome. 

Canadian entrepreneurship centres are a recent phenomenon, but they have already begun to inspire a new wave of students looking to turn their ideas into reality with the advantage of strong community support behind them. In Edmonton, for instance, Startup Edmonton and TEC Edmonton— two of Canada's leading organizations fostering entrepreneurship— have shifted the mindsets of many students. In this regard, Ken Bautista and Chris Lumb have been local game-changers. These leaders, along with others from the local entrepreneurship community, inspired us to turn down offers in the consulting industry and build our own company, Gen Y Inc. We have since hired many graduates from the University of Alberta and University of Calgary. 

As students, we each served as students' union vice-presidents, where we learned that mastery, flexibility, and autonomy are fundamental qualities in our long-term career aspirations. When we founded Gen Y Inc during our university studies, our aim was to establish a sufficiently broad client base so that by the day we graduated, we could jump into our jobs without hesitation. And we accomplished this goal. One day following graduation, Gen Y Inc. held prospective joint partnership meetings for government projects with Deloitte, and within several months, we were travelling, presenting, and pursuing clients across Canada. Entrepreneurship was, and continues to be, a deeply meaningful experience. 

If the purpose of higher education is to foster intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, providing a student with academic and social experiences that fundamentally transform their lives, then entrepreneurship has a role to play in this conversation.

But job creation is not what makes student entrepreneurship matters. Certainly, the economic outcomes of entrepreneurship are important; we cannot ignore the importance of a healthy and resilient economy. But there is something more fundamental to the entrepreneurial journey. If the purpose of higher education is to foster intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, providing a student with academic and social experiences that fundamentally transform their lives, then entrepreneurship has a role to play in this conversation. And in a Canadian higher education where most senior administrators and government officials have difficulty seeing beyond short-term metrics such as employment, this role is valuable. 

It is clear that entrepreneurship is not for everyone; the ups and downs can be a challenge for even the most seasoned businesspeople.  Combining full-time entrepreneurship with the requirement to attend courses and complete assignments can be very difficult. However, full dedication to entrepreneurship provides lessons and experiences that far exceed what can be learned in most lectures. To be an entrepreneur is to be fully alive and present in the learning experience, an important aspect of higher education. 

If Canada's university startup companies are to succeed, then their young leaders must display a combination of curiosity, intellectual flexibility, poise and drive. Higher education must provide students the opportunity to grow these qualities and develop their entrepreneurial skills on campus, and these are the skills that Canada must promote if it is to become a truly innovative country on the global stage. 

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