More young people than ever are taking up the entrepreneurial challenge. UTSC students are learning how to get it right

Kelley Teahen

You’ve got an idea.You think it’s pretty good. But how do you translate that idea into a career? How do you know it’s a risk worth taking?

In higher education your GPA is just one way to measure success. Risk and perseverance are at the heart both of the scientific research method and of entrepreneurship.

That’s what U of T Scarborough is here to support. For Management Lecturer and entrepreneur Bill McConkey, entrepreneurship support “meshes really nicely with our mandate as a university: we are developing students’ critical thinking ability.”

Gray Graffam, an academic and entrepreneur who joined UTSC in 2013, founded and now directs The Hub, an early-stage innovation and business incubator. He says the university has a key role in supporting students to discover, innovate, and develop promising ideas.

As part of university studies, aspiring entrepreneurs learn discipline, says McConkey. “I will tell a student: I’m glad you’ve got an idea but an idea isn’t entrepreneurship.  We need to look at all the other inputs. Can it be built? At what cost? Should it be built? Who’s going to buy it? At what price? Do you have a team? Who do you need? I tell students they need a disciplined structure,” he says, expressed in a value proposition and fleshed out in a business plan.

“That examination allows something to grow, or to go away quickly. A true entrepreneur knows it’s not about bubbling up creative thoughts: it’s about getting it done. And if it fails, you learn how to package up that creativity and get it done better, next time.”

For nearly 20 years, McConkey and his Management colleagues have provided in-class and post-class support to dozens of entrepreneurs. Among them are Dev Basu, who founded the marketing firm Powered by Search; Andrew Peek, Verne Ho and Satish Kanwar, who together started up software design company Jet Cooper, which has since been acquired by Shopify; and Derrick Fung, who created Tunezy, a service that helps artists sell experiences such as backstage passes to music fans, and is now part of SFX Entertainment.

“Entrepreneur’ is not a job description but a personality type,” says Chris Bovaird, associate professor in Strategic Management. “Entrepreneurs are people who are prepared to take risks, because they believe in their ability to change things.”

Within their classes, or at The Hub, students get introductory training that includes business strategy, financing, consumer insight, and business modelling.

In his introductory entrepreneurship course, McConkey covers how  to create a business plan, an investor memo, marketing strategy, an organizational (staffing) plan, and provides how-to’s on financing, franchising and small business management. A pilot entrepreneurship course in computer science, offered for the first time in winter 2016, covers industry, market and competition research; testing; business modeling; pitching; sales and marketing; and funding. Any UTSC student can come to The Hub for programming delivered by Graffam or through workshops provided by the innovation hub, MaRS.

The Hub is part of a larger entrepreneurial ecosystem at U of T under the umbrella of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, one of 10 Campus- Linked Accelerators in the province receiving support through the government-funded Ontario Centres of Excellence.
Graffam explains that The Hub is designed to fit with UTSC’s institution’s strengths:

The Hub is open to any student, in any discipline. Graffam notes that accessibility is crucial for a campus that prides itself on being welcoming and close-knit. In 2015 and 2016, The Hub and the campus’s Academic Advising & Career Centre co-sponsored an Entrepreneur Expo with guest speakers, a fair featuring students and graduates who have launched businesses, and a networking lounge.

Projects with great potential will include people across disciplinary boundaries. A computer science student might have a great technology idea but benefits from the marketing smarts of management students.


UTSC is U of T’s Co-op campus. This allows students to create paid work terms, supported by entrepreneurial seed money, to test their ideas and create business plans, often working out of The Hub.


UTSC’s Department of Management has offered entrepreneurship courses for nearly two decades and introduced an entrepreneurship stream for its BBA in 2014. This year the Department of Computer Science plans to launch a similar stream. “My students grew up with thinking anyone in computer science can have a very, very clever idea and become a millionaire,” says Francisco Estrada, an associate professor in Computer & Mathematical Science. “They do have very, very innovative ideas, but they don’t know how to turn those into a product or how to set up a business.”

A longer-term mission for The Hub is to develop new businesses that flourish locally.


Nearly 20 per cent of UTSC’s students are international and many more are first generation Canadians. International connec- tions played a key role for Dikshant Batra and Nathan Tran Trinh when forming their company, Nova & Sentio (see opposite)

Having the skills to conceive, test and build a business or enterprise is increasingly critical to future success. According to Statistics Canada, unemployment rates for those seeking work under age 25 is more than double that for older workers. Job growth is coming from self- employment: 40,000 self-employed jobs were created in December 2015 while private and public sector jobs have not budged.

“The generation we grew up in had a false promise,” says recent graduate and entrepreneur Ravi Ravindran. “We were told to go to university, get good marks, and you’ll get a good job. Since 2008 and the market crash, that is not the reality. Knowing the opportunity is not out there, we’ve been forced to create it.”

Ravindran is not alone in his conclusions. Ernst & Young, an international professional services firm, conducted its fourth Global Job Creation and Youth Entrepreneurship Survey in 2015. In questioning nearly 3,000 youth ages 18 to 25-year-olds in 13 “key global economies,” the survey discovered that 65 per cent want to run their own business — 27 per cent immediately and 38 per cent after learning by working for someone else.

Armed with best practices, accessible mentors and firm business discipline, supported with space, seed money and the enthusiasm of fellow students, UTSC entrepreneurs are getting the start they need.

“You have to learn by doing it,” says Graffam. The students who take the plunge into entrepreneurship “…are that breed: they learn from that experience of doing. They take great joy and pride in the doing, every step along the way.”


Case Study 1

Nathan Tran Trinh (BA, 2013) Psychology
Dikshant Batra 4th Year Management Co-op


Tran Trinh wanted to stay in Toronto and UTSC was close to home. Co-op appealed to him, though he didn’t participate in the program. Dikshant Batra came from India as an international student.

/The idea
The two met on an organizing team for a student competition. Both had business ideas—Batra in web development and Tran Trinh in social media marketing. They set up an agency, first focused on digital, and later social media branding, but both offerings failed to attract customers. The partners changed gears and created Nova & Sentio to tackle a number of initiatives, the first being Phoenix1, a line of car-care products that is being distributed in India.

/The first step
Batra’s father, an auto industry distributor in India, saw the need for more affordable and accessible auto-care products like waxes, polishes and wheel cleaners. Through Nova & Sentio, Tran Trinh and Batra examined the supply chain between manufacturer and consumer, finding ways to make it more efficient.

/The launch
Nova & Sentio commissioned a new private label brand of car-care products from an American manufacturer and set out to distribute it to Indian wholesalers.

/UTSC support
Management Lecturer Bill McConkey has been their champion and mentor. Nova & Sentio has relied on recruiting staff through paid UTSC co-op terms, including one for Batra, who used The Hub as his workspace. They also credit Hub Director Gray Graffam with providing timely advice on funding, sources so they could successfully navigate the myriad entrepreneurship programs and venture capital funds available in Canada.

The first shipment of Phoenix1-branded products reached India in December 2015. Some products were damaged in transit.

/Meeting   the   challenges
Batra travelled to India this winter to meet face-to-face with wholesalers as the first container of product arrived and make sure any problems were resolved. Tran Trinh says sales have been “very positive”: they had $100,000 in orders in advance.

/What success looks like
Nova & Sentio continues to explore new ways of improving the value chain to better connect manufacturers to consumers and creates further business opportunities based in Canada but connected internationally. Says Tran Trinh, “We intend to grow.”


Case Study 2
Karen Young Final year psychology and health studies

“I think there’s huge growth ahead in social entrepreneurship and [UTSC] is a socially aware campus: we are very activist-oriented. So many of us are first-generation students and immigrants, and there’s an influx of new ideas that immigration brings.”

/The idea
A magazine dedicated to issues in mental health, by students for students, their friends and families. Young wanted to do something she was “really passionate about and still creatively oriented.”

/The first step
She met with UTSC’s Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Arifuzzaman who had earlier worked at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He thought it was a “really interesting idea,” Young says, and encouraged her to proceed.

/The launch
Young searched through her existing student networks to create a core team. She interviewed experts across the GTA and attended Mad Pride, a conference on mental health. “We raise awareness about mental health so often,” says Young. “But there’s the other side of the coin: educating students so they can self-affirm about mental-health issues.” She coined a name for her educational publication: Minds Matter Magazine.

/UTSC support
“We have a built-in audience and resources, as well as access to promotional mass email lists.” Young taps student talent to research, write and design the magazine from among those building a portfolio for graduate or professional schools. She took one

Co-op term working full-time on the magazine. The Minds Matter team also found mentors from publishing, mental health and entrepreneurism from among UTSC’s faculty and staff, including:
Jeffery Dvorkin, Lecturer and Journalism Program Director; board member of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma
Dr. Tayyab Rashid, clinical psychologist, Health and Wellness Centre
• Gray Graffam and The Hub: “We’re considered a school club but also a start-up. We really started to become familiar with The Hub through UTSC Dragons’ Den pitch competition in fall 2015; we won $7,000 to help launch the magazine.”

“We started in 2014 with 20 people, then had to cut it down to 12 because we didn’t have defined niches within the team: we were all a little bit lost.” They also found the initial idea of a print magazine wasn’t economically feasible.

/Meeting the challenges
She re-structured, creating an administrative layer of team leads skilled in operations, editorial and creative portfolios and let these leaders recruit teams. The group moved to a digital-only publication plan, with a soft-launch, posting online articles in January 2015. The first full e-issue was published in November 2015.

/What success  looks  like
“Our focus right now is producing content, and we are developing goals for circulation and reach.” Young envisions the magazine drawing audiences beyond UTSC. Young’s work in The Hub is helping her determine how to grow from student club and startup to sustainable enterprise.

Case Study 3
Ravi Ravindram (BSc, 2015) Neuroscience and Psychology

“Neuroscience is huge at UTSC. As well, it’s a smaller campus, more interconnected. I was raised in Scarborough and am the first one in my family to go to university, so I didn’t want to go too far.”

/The idea
Ravindran is a “serial entrepreneur.” He started his first of three companies at 19 as a “middleman between builders and manufactur- ers for security-system sales and installations.” His latest adventure is Mapian, a map-based social network for what he calls “crowd- sourced geotag news.” “My generation has FOMO — fear of missing out,” he says. “People have social anxiety when they see all the things people are doing on Snapchat and YikYak. If you’re bored, with Mapian, you can connect to things that are right around you.”

/The first step
Ravindran had “no idea” about programming, coding or building apps.  “What I’m good at is people; I had to find others who were really good at programming.”

/The launch
Mapian launches this spring, “geo-fenced” to UTSC, with plans to expand to other campuses. Initially, it will be a for-students- only network. So far 300 people have tested the app.

/UTSC support
Ravindran first connected to The Hub shortly after it opened in 2013. “Ravi just won’t quit,” Graffam says. “And that’s good. When you’re an entrepreneur, it helps to be very determined about getting things done.” Ravindran’s academic studies did not cover entrepreneurship so Graffam provided him with workshops and training and understanding. Recently Graffam guided Mapian through its pilot phase of testing to get the start-up user experience feedback.

Ravindran has faced several hurdles in three years with Mapian. Because he didn’t have deep knowledge about the technical side of his enterprise, he needed to learn how to communicate effectively with his team about the product and its functions, and to explain his idea to potential investors.

/Meeting   the   challenges
Ravindran boned up on the technology and coding by reading and studying to improve his knowledge. He also looked for individuals he could work with who he could trust and who had initiative, who in his words “could own the process” rather than just supply technical programming. He also realized that pitch competitions are about more than winning—he could learn from people’s questions and make connections to experts at these events. Ravindran eventually hit it big with LaunchPad, the Tamil Entertainment Television’s $1-million start-up investment competition. Mapian is one of four winners of the competition, and received $100,000 for 10 per cent of the company.

/What success looks like
The LaunchPad funding pays for staff who are getting the network ready for launch: Ravindran as founder, three programmers, a community manager and a social media specialist. The next measure will be commercializing the product: will Mapian gain the critical mass of popularity needed to be commercially viable?
Finances aside, success to Ravindran also means creating something that solves real problems in the world, something that has potential and impact, that creates a legacy. “I want to be someone who positively influences a billion people in my lifetime. That’s my definition of being a billionaire.”