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Entrepreneurship to empower the North

A tourism business run by Inuit youth and a furniture recycling enterprise using wood from the town dump: these are just a couple of the entrepreneurial ideas suggested at a recent brainstorming session in Iqaluit.

In February, four intrepid leaders from Enactus uOttawa, a group of about 100 volunteer student entrepreneurs based at the University of Ottawa, escaped the National Capital’s frenzy to bring a custom-designed entrepreneurship program to Nunavut. At a time when many university students might be thinking of heading south for spring break, Kathleen Kemp, Ajmal Sataar, Corey Ellis and Alida Burke flew North on First Air to show how the power of entrepreneurship can transform lives.

It was a second trip to Iqaluit for Enactus president Kathleen Kemp and Enactus vice-president of development Amjal Sataar. Last year, they had visited Iqaluit to get to know the community and see whether a business-minded approach could help bring about solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges. One thing they learned was that any business model would have to be inclusive and sustainable.

On this three-day visit, they met with over 100 people at sessions in the parish hall, at a women’s shelter and at a youth correctional facility. Ideas and projects were discussed with Iqaluit Mayor Mary Wilman and Nunavut Deputy Minister of Education Kathy Okpik, among others.

Kathleen Kemp and Ajmal Sataar from Enactus uOttawa depart a First Air aircraft on their visit to Iqaluit. © University of Ottawa
Kathleen Kemp and Ajmal Sataar from Enactus uOttawa depart a First Air aircraft on their visit to Iqaluit. © University of Ottawa

“We worked with a number of organizations and agencies,” says Kemp. “And we worked with young people who were interested in entrepreneurship as a career path. It was great to see some of our work being used to make an impact in their community.”

Sataar adds, “We brainstormed by talking about all of the problems that occur in the area. Some pretty cool initiatives came out of it. One was a furniture recycling business. Because furniture is so expensive, one idea was to take wood from the dump to re-purpose it as furniture and resell it. Another idea was for an Inuit tourism business, because a lot of the youth there said they want to be able to start a business, but they also wanted to maintain their culture. So there could be a way of building a business out of that, while also experiencing all of the awesome things to do up there.”

The Enactus ethos revolves around turning the negative into something positive. And Enactus uOttawa’s track record has seen some success: its EcoEquitable Boutique takes old clothes bound for landfills and re-purposes the fabric into fashion accessories; CigBins employs people with mental illnesses to recycle cigarette butts and clean up Ottawa streets.

Both Kemp and Sataar have now graduated from the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management but they plan to continue mentoring new Enactus uOttawa recruits, who will continue what the duo started. Enactus volunteers plan further trips to Nunavut, and have been in talks with Nunavut’s Department of Education about providing entrepreneurship training to high school students in the territory.

Enactus uOttawa receives some support from the University of Ottawa but also relies on donors to help finance their initiatives. Sataar mentioned that, for example, First Air provided two return tickets for half price, and the Nunavut Department of Education supported the other two flights, with another $5,000 donated by rBC for food and expenses.

In helping others, both Kemp and Sataar say that they, too, have learned new things, and will never forget the experience. “I think it is important to understand that we are really fortunate in the south in terms of the opportunities that we have,” says Kemp. “We’ll use the things we have learned to continue to empower and inspire, because I know a lot of the young people we worked with are going to become front-runners in entrepreneurship.”

Sataar adds, “Every Enactus team member has the opportunity, once they have done something in their own community, to venture abroad. But I think it is important to stay within our own country and solve problems that we have here first, before we venture off to the rest of the world.”

To read more stories of students, professors and researchers at the University of Ottawa, visit defytheconventional.ca.

Mike Foster
University of Ottawa