There was a definite buzz in the air as I walked into the MaRS Auditorium for the final day of the MaRS Future Leaders camp last Friday. Designed to expose teens to the world of entrepreneurship, the weeklong camp challenges youth ages 13 to 18 to start a company in one week. The program culminates with a pitch competition during which the future leaders present their ideas in front of a panel of judges.

This year, MaRS hosted teens in two cohorts (junior: ages 13-15 and senior: ages 16-18). The future leaders had worked extremely hard on their projects all week and on Friday they were tasked with presenting their ideas to the judges, as well as to representatives from the Toronto District School Board and to their family and friends.

2015 Future Leaders cohorts (top: Junior cohort; bottom: Senior cohort)
2015 Future Leaders cohorts (top: junior cohort; bottom: senior cohort)

The day began with a talk by Elliott Bayev, one of the co-founders of OpenMat Mixed Martial Arts, who connected with the future leaders on multiple fronts, as OpenMat is a social business. In addition to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai and other martial arts programs, OpenMat also offers a free women’s self-defenceprogram called Fight Like A Girl. The organization uses this program to assert the idea that a world where every woman can defend herself is still not an ideal world, because women should never be in a position where they have to defend themselves. The organization also offers a Fight Like A Man program, teaching boys and young men that emotion is not a weakness and that women should be respected.

According to Elliott, martial arts contain many attitudes and teach many skills that are transferrable to entrepreneurship.

“Martial arts are not about fighting people—they’re the practice of facing challenges,” he explained. “Every day you’re learning, you’re winning and you’re losing. How do you respond to success? Do you puff your chest out and belittle others or do you see others as vital to your growth and thank them for the opportunities they offer you? How do you deal with loss? Do you let it defeat you or do you see it as a lesson? The mats are a laboratory for life.”

Future leaders pitch
Future leaders present in front of the competition judges

After a few hours of practising, it was time for the future leaders to pitch their ideas. As someone who has seen a few dozen presentations in my time at business school, I was blown away. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these students could easily compete with people twice their age. The judges were equally impressed, with MaRS senior associate Aislinn Malszecki saying, [inlinetweet]These students unleashed their inner entrepreneur at MaRS Future Leaders[/inlinetweet]—they demonstrated resourcefulness, “innovation and a growth mindset.”

Leslie Symonds, Head of Strategy at SAP Canada and another judge on the panel was also on the panel. “What was incredible to see was how far these students had come in just one week.  From ideation through to their pitches, the work they’d done on everything from competitive market analysis to prototyping and revenue modeling was truly incredible.  What a great way to encourage innovation, teach business fundamentals and help develop future leaders.”


Checkmate Charms
Checkmate Charms won in the junior competition for the group’s alert notification jewelry

The winners of Future Leaders 2015 were Checkmate Charms in the junior category and Botany Bottle in the senior category. Checkmate Charms produced an inconspicuous piece of jewelry that allows women to immediately alert the police if they are being harassed or assaulted. Botany Bottle is an organic juice product that comes in a biodegradable bottle, allowing kids to learn about the circle of life.

Through the late nights and early mornings, past the fears of failure and meeting new people, and thanks to sweat, tears and some amazing mentors, the 2015 Future Leaders cohort has delivered impressive results.

Botany Bottle
Botany Bottle won in the senior competition for their specialized juice bottle

If there’s one thing that this week has proven, however, it’s that “future leaders” is an inaccurate description of this group—they’re all leaders right now. Applications for next year’s camp will open in 2016.

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Jeremy De Mello

Jeremy is an intern with the Venture Services and Entrepreneurship Programs teams at MaRS. He is studying towards a dual-degree in business and political science at Western University and the Richard Ivey School of Business. See more…