Toronto’s Pride Week has a special kind of energy. Canada has for many years led the global movement for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities. As the largest city in Canada, Toronto draws a large number of queer immigrants and queer tourists looking for a place that is welcoming and supportive. This applies equally to queer entrepreneurs or “queerpreneurs.”
Perhaps it was serendipity that aligned Toronto’s Pride Week with the launch of the School for Social Entrepreneurs–Ontario (SSE–O). As part of the launch of the SSE–O, Alastair Wilson, the chief executive of the founding School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) in the United Kingdom, was in town to congratulate the first Canadian franchise.
The SSE was founded by Michael Young, perhaps one of the most prolific social entrepreneurs of the past century, in 1997. The SSE’s mission is to address inequalities and social exclusion by supporting social entrepreneurs from all backgrounds in transforming their talent into real social outcomes in the form of sustainable solutions to poverty and disadvantage in communities. The SSE achieves this mission through the use of action learning–based programs on personal and organizational development.
I took some time to speak to Wilson about whether queerpreneurs have a particular edge in the marketplace of ideas and whether there are any unique barriers to their success.
“For all social entrepreneurial initiatives I think a motivation to change things is absolutely key to the journey of making that project successful,” says Wilson. “Therefore, having grown up in rural or isolated communities, or in countries where homosexuality is not afforded equality, lends a special insight to these people, as well as an ability and energy to say that things have to change.
“I think that, inevitably, any change driven in the LGBTQ community has to be driven by people who have that understanding themselves, in order that the change is authentic, fit to purpose, built to last and appropriate,” he continues.
Over the last 15 years, the SSE has seen many queerpreneurs take part in the school’s program, and Marjorie Brans, director of the SSE–O, hopes that Canada’s program is no different.
“Don’t doubt the importance of social enterprise in movement building,” says Wilson. “Whether a social entrepreneur is building a campaign or an enterprise, the kernels of what brave people do to stand up against prejudice become the mainstream movements that shift political agendas and galvanize voters to change things.”
However, Wilson does caution against going it alone: “In order to sustain the journey as a social entrepreneur with an LGBT project, I think it’s incredibly helpful not to be so isolated and to join a group of other social entrepreneurs in a program.”
The SSE model uses action learning: learning from doing, learning from practice and learning from peers. This model helps encourage a sense of perspective. An entrepreneur enrolled in the program encounters other people who have failed funding bids or who are involved in political battles or whose changes aren’t going through, and it defuses the personalization.
“I think you need high-quality and appropriate support structures around you to realize that, although your project may be personal, funders and agencies are not out to get you. There’s a whole lot of other agendas going on as well,” explains Wilson. “It doesn’t really matter what your project is, you will come across a lot of blockages and difficulties, problems and politics—and this helps you. Some of them will be prejudice-based and particularly inappropriate, and others will need to be held in perspective, like problems with budgets, earned income, etc.”
A recent visit by Wilson to the School for Social Entrepreneurs in Sydney, Australia, happened to coincide with Mardi Gras. The SSE–Sydney held an event called “Queerpreneurs,” where LGBTQ social entrepreneurs discussed the process of starting up a social enterprise from scratch and the positive impacts their enterprises have had on the community.
“It was an incredibly affirming experience,” says Wilson, “because it helped each of them understand that they weren’t on their own. It helped them share personal risk stories and the pain of beginning a project where a funder has said no, and to articulate that the rejection was not a personal attack.
“I do think it is more difficult if your project is built on the cause that you’re seeking to drive,” Wilson continues. “If you’ve come from that experience, it’s more difficult to sustain yourself and to sustain the rejections, to keep positive and motivated on that journey. However, I think individuals are the catalyst that can pull communities together, build momentum and get things done. It’s great for them to get support from a place like the SSE, and I think Toronto Pride is a great week to say: ‘I’m going to stop thinking about my project or idea, and I’m going to start doing and have a go and build something that will accelerate change.’”
SSE–O opens its Inaugural Fellowship Program in September 2012. The school is looking for 20 energetic, driven and passionate individuals who have a great idea for a social venture. Applications will be available soon. MaRS has been a huge supporter of the development of the SSE–O to this stage, with SiG@MaRS conducting the feasibility study, provincewide survey and funding application for its development. We congratulate the SSE–O on its launch and can confidently speak for the both of us in wishing everyone a very happy pride weekend!