7 takeaways from U of T Entrepreneurship Week
Four days of events surfaced insights on winning in business, how increasing diversity is changing the startup game, and why founders need time to de-stress.
The University of Toronto’s sixth annual Entrepreneurship Week shone a bright light on the university’s vast and vibrant startup ecosystem. Here are some top insights for current and prospective entrepreneurs from four days of startup showcases, pitch competitions, keynote speakers, workshops and panel discussions.
There’s still no route to get rich quick
Sprinting legend and business leader Donovan Bailey shared his insights on the parallels between sport and business.
“I think the greatest [misconception] is that you can get rich overnight. You can’t,” he said. “The first thing I tell entrepreneurs is the same thing I tell CEOs and young athletes: if you don’t put the work in, you’re not going to get the results.”
Hard work, passion, discipline and focus were among the characteristics that Bailey credits for his success as both an athlete and a businessperson.
In a candid fireside chat with Globe and Mail journalist Rita Trichur, Bailey shared his lessons for in overcoming adversity. “Win or learn,” he said, adding that failing isn’t a word he likes to use.
Bailey encouraged young entrepreneurs to seek out leaders in their industry to provide mentorship. “There are such incredible successful people out there who are willing to share their knowledge.”
Toronto is on the world stage for startups
“I like to think that the U of T and the city of Toronto embody some of Donovan Bailey’s commitment to excellence and, to use a technical term, swagger,” said Meric Gertler, president of University of Toronto.
Entrepreneurs associated with U of T have launched more than 600 venture-backed companies, raised more than $2 billion and created over 9,000 jobs in the last decade. In 2021, U of T-affiliated startups Waabi, Ada, Deep Genomics, Xanadu and Cohere each raised over $100 million from investors.
“The U of T is an anchor of the city’s achievement in creating an innovation ecosystem with 10-plus accelerators and entrepreneurial hubs across the U of T’s three campuses,” said John Tory, Mayor of Toronto.
U of T was the fastest-rising global institution for startup founders in PitchBook’s 2021 rankings – jumping six places. It is also the number-one university in Canada for research-based startups and is among the top 10 university-managed incubators globally.
“Talented entrepreneurs are fostering meaningful economic and social impact, and this is one of the reasons why global investors are flocking to Toronto, and international conferences like Collision want to be hosted by our inclusive and innovative ecosystem,” said Tory.
The best entrepreneurs lift up their communities
For Jonathon Redbird, entrepreneurship is about providing solutions that benefit an entire community, not just the bottom line.
Speaking at a session called Two-Eyed Seeing in Entrepreneurship, Redbird and Christina Tachtampa of Redbird Circle focused on how Indigenous knowledge applies to the fields of entrepreneurship and business education given the long history of Indigenous innovation and entrepreneurship.
Slowing down, adding value to communities, and thinking about entrepreneurship in a way that considers the self, community and connection to the spirit of the land, were some of the key takeaways.
Supports for Black entrepreneurs are growing
Community was a topic raised throughout the week – most notably in relation to two new programs launched to support Black entrepreneurs, the Nobellum Innovator Program and Black Founders Network (BFN) Accelerate.
Built by and for the Black community, BFN was launched in the fall of 2021 to support Black founders, create more Black-led businesses and celebrate Black excellence.
Efosa Obano, BFN program manager, opened applications for the first BFN Accelerate cohort, which will accept 8-10 Black-led startups to participate in its intense three-month program this summer.
BFN Accelerate will help Black-led startups from the U of T community develop solutions to meet customers’ needs, launch a minimum-viable product, generate revenue, secure funding, and explore value chain and distribution partnerships.
The dial is moving slowly but surely on gender diversity
More than half the winners of the University of Toronto Entrepreneurship Startup Prize pitch competition that took place at Entrepreneurship Week were startups led and co-founded by women entrepreneurs.
In part, this can be attributed to the greater emphasis placed on creating new opportunities for women-identifying entrepreneurs.
ICUBE at U of T Mississauga and the Health Innovation Hub (H2i) are two U of T accelerators supporting women-identifying entrepreneurs with inspiring speaker series such as Fireside at FemSTEM and a stage to showcase ventures at the Pitch with a Twist business competition and FemSTEM Pitch Competition, which will take place on March 24.
During the panel discussion at Pitch with a Twist, Justine Abigail Yu, founder of Living Hyphen, shared her motivation for launching her startup. “In 2015, there wasn’t a lot of representation across media including the arts and literature space in Canada.”
Recognizing this, she set out to create a space for bi-racial writers and artists to share their work by launching a magazine and podcast with a mission to “reshape the mainstream.”
In a fireside conversation hosted by H2i, Dr. Sandy Skotnicky, a U of T alumna and the founding director of Bay Dermatology Centre, spoke about opportunities to innovate in dermatology and reflected on her successful 20-plus year career advocating for changes to patient care.
Dr. Skotnicki’s advice to women entrepreneurs: “If you have something you’re strongly passionate about, think big, start bigger.”
Innovation is thriving in the arts, but artists are still struggling
What does entrepreneurship look like in the arts? “Recognizing a challenge and figuring out how to respond in an innovative way – but also in a thoughtful way,” said artist and U of T researcher Adrian Berry. “We try to innovate in a way in which we can improve our lives and thrive and keep making art. Art makes everything better.”
Berry and researcher Hayley Janes spoke at a session hosted by the Toronto Music Entrepreneurship Exchange. They spoke about their research projects, which address precariousness in the arts sector.
“Toronto art workers and art organizations were vulnerable prior to the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after – in this post-pandemic world – due to limited resources, years of sector-wide financial precarity, societal inequalities, the list goes on and on,” said Berry.
The session also featured Faculty of Music alumni Adam Fainman and Renee Fajardo, who shared their perspectives on entrepreneurship in art and its role cultural design.
Fainman, whose innovation in beatboxing technology led to new collaborative opportunities across music genres, and Fajardo, whose project aims to cater opera to a 21st-century audience, both exemplify how innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset can make an impact in the arts.
Entrepreneurs need to take a time for mental wellness
H2i hosted a session on stress management and mental health to close Entrepreneurship Week.
The session provided advice for entrepreneurs from a panel of U of T alumni that included Harold Wodlinger, chief technology officer at ViTAA Medical, Michael Floros, founder and CEO at Cohesys, and Wendy Naimark, chief technology officer at Ripple Therapeutics.
The panelists provided actionable tactics to mitigate stress and make time for mental health. Wodlinger touted mastering the art of delegation to “spread the stress” rather than carrying it all on your own. Creating balance between work and home is also key.
“Make rules for yourself, define barriers, and stick to them,” said Wodlinger. One way to do this: block time for yourself on your calendar. Whether it’s penciling in time to focus on a project or reserving a slot for meditation, scheduling appointments with yourself can help you take back control of your day.
Psychotherapist Soroosh Vafapoor, who started the session with a guided mediation, recommends leaning toward self-compassion and kindness to cope with stress. “Be aware of what narratives arrive at your mental doorstep and challenge their authenticity and reality.”
He also said that movement could help to decompress the mind — whether that’s dancing, yoga or another form of mindful movement.