Early in 2008, just as MaRS launched its programming to support social entrepreneurs, Sarah Evans, daughter-in-law of one of MaRS’ founders, Dr. John Evans, asked us if we had heard of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in the United Kingdom. “It seems very much aligned with what you want to do,” she said.

A call to the school’s chief executive, Alastair Wilson, ensued, and our engagement with the SSE soon began.

While visiting a series of best practice initiatives in the UK, a quick visit to the school (which was then co-located with The Young Foundation in London’s Bethnal Green community) to see the program in action led us to believe that the SSE was on to something. The school’s action-learning approach offered a unique program design to support social entrepreneurs, particularly those from marginalized communities.

As it does with many great initiatives in this province, the Ontario Trillium Foundation agreed to fund a feasibility study to see if the SSE program would, in fact, be applicable to Ontario. With this funding, MaRS hired MASS LBP to conduct a province-wide study. The results clearly indicated that, although we would need to “Canadianize” certain components of the SSE program, we should definitely explore the opportunity further.

A consortium was formed and further funding was secured from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to hire staff and launch the first cohort of the School for Social Entrepreneurs Ontario (SSEO). The school remains a SiG@MaRS client to this day, and we are proud to serve on its advisory board.

With the first SSEO cohort ready to graduate, I recently had the chance—with a few other experienced colleagues in the social impact sector—to meet with many of the students and to offer advice on their ventures and their prospects of achieving both economic and social impact. I would like to highlight a few of these ventures here.

  • Just Access is a “crowdfunding for justice” venture that is designed to find a novel way of increasing access to justice—and offering new opportunities for civic engagement and social empowerment—by facilitating crowdfunding to legal cases. This was one of the most polished of the SSEO pitches. With a strong team of professionals and a strong network of advisors, this group is well placed to use the power of the crowd to tackle the discrepancies in access to justice.
  • Gashanti Unity is made up of a group of young Somali women in Toronto whose mission is to provide girls and young women with a safe atmosphere to develop their gifts, abilities and positive relationships. One of their many accomplishments is their ability to capture weddings by training young women to act as videographers and disc jockeys. The group’s work in mobilizing support from not only the women, but also the men of their community has been nothing short of inspiring. This is a group of young women to watch.
  • The final venture is called Peopleshare and it is an innovative staffing service for non-profit organizations and small businesses that cannot hire all of the people they need. The venture’s founder is seeking a cure for the “many-hats syndrome” of many people who work in the not-for-profit sector. She not only wants to provide interim staffing support, but she also wants to change the ways that the not-for-profit sector uses limited resources to achieve even greater impact.

However, the ventures are secondary to the real success of the SSEO program. The program works with people who often have had challenging life experiences and helps them try to understand those experiences, learn from them and share their newfound perspective with others.

I was moved to tears more than once while listening to the students’ stories, their desire to help others and their motivation to understand their journey and to think about new and innovative ways to impact the lives of others who are faced with similar life challenges.

The approach used by the SSE helps the participants to not only create businesses, but also to find themselves as they attempt to find ways to make money and make an impact. As we well know, ventures come and go, and creating a venture with a double bottom line is not an easy thing to do. But if you can learn about yourself through the process and reach out to others to walk with you, then it seems as though it just might be worth the effort.

Allyson Hewitt

Allyson is the JW McConnell Family Foundation Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at MaRS, where she has been leading the SiG@MaRS program; advising social entrepreneurs; building the social innovation ecosystem; and incubating successful programs such as the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, the MaRS Solutions Lab and Studio Y. See more…