EarthHour@MaRS: Words shining in the dark

On Earth Hour, Saturday, March 27th, 2010, something momentous happened at MaRS: the atrium filled with over 100 young leaders who came together following the first day of the inaugural Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada re:Vision conference to celebrate Earth Hour.

Guest speakers Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, Tonya Surman and Nathaniel Whittemore provided inspired insights into entrepreneurship and change and keynote David Bornstein provided the final spark with words that shone in the darkened MaRS atrium.

Each speaker talked about their personal motivations, along with the trends they are currently seeing in social innovation. MaRS CEO Dr. Ilse Treurnicht spoke about the history of the MaRS building and development of MaRS as a social enterprise, pointing to the office where insulin was discovered as part of the legacy that MaRS embodies. She applauded the group on their interest in social entrepreneurship and wished them well on their journey forward. When I presented on day two of the conference, there was a positive vibe about the whole event and one person stated that Dr. Treurnicht’s comments had fueled at least 100 future social entrepreneurs.

The keynote speaker was David Bornstein, author of several works, including How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and The Power of New Ideas, and the founder of, a new media site set to launch in March 2010. Bornstein identified the evening as a microcosm for social change, recognizing the convergence of time, place and people as an indication of the possibilities for social entrepreneurship to bring about social change through the involvement of community.

Bornstein drew on Dr. Treurnicht’s reference to insulin to underline the need to not only develop medicine, but the importance of changing behaviour. He noted that while we have insulin, type-2 diabetes is still a worldwide problem and recognized MaRS services for science, technology and social entrepreneurs is an indication of its commitment to the broader determinants of health. Bornstein’s newest book, Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored with Susan Davis, will be published by Oxford University Press in April 2010.

Nathaniel Whittemore, lead writer on social entrepreneurship for and founder of Assetmap, drew on the abolitionist movement as an example of how broad-scale social change can be brought about by creatively empowering people. He provided a recent example related to ROCKSTAR energy drinks, which has huge sales in the gay club market, but was seen to have a homophobic corporate position. worked with a coalition of LGBT groups and the company eventually issued a release that affirmed its support for LGBT rights, expanded the LGBT-friendly corporate policies in its offices and announced $100,000 in donations to LGBT rights organizations.

Centre for Social Innovation executive director, Tonya Surman, provided a view from the trenches, sharing her personal stories of success and failure as a social entrepreneur. CSI leases shared space to 180 social mission groups and acts as a community centre for social innovators.

YSEC’s program director and conference co-chair Nogah Kornberg says, “The challenge for youth isn’t about finding the resources; it’s that we don’t have the proper channels built for effective collaboration – yet. Youth are already working to take their rightful place in this movement.”

MaRS and YSEC, among others, are demonstrating that Toronto has the tools, ability, infrastructure and energy to become the hub for social enterprise and social innovation on the continent. Whittemore adds in his Change.Org post this week, “Even if the ecosystem is young, it’s clear that there is a ton of energy here. This is an innovation ecosystem to watch.”