When York University got the chance to join Experience Ventures, it didn’t hesitate. York has a fairly extensive entrepreneurial ecosystem, with some 15 programs helping students gain entrepreneurial skills or start businesses. But Experience Ventures let them do more.
“Experience Ventures allowed us to start talking to each other and creating stories and narratives together as a university,” says David Kwok. As associate director of entrepreneurship in the Office of the Vice-President, Research & Innovation at York, Kwok oversees YSpace, York’s entrepreneurial hub. He says joining Experience Ventures was a no-brainer because it gave students new opportunities as well as the chance to get paid for their work.
It was equally clear that the most efficient way to implement Experience Ventures, which was created by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary to give students real-world job opportunities, was to leverage existing programs. Chief among these was C4: the Cross-Campus Capstone Classroom. The program was launched in 2019 to bring students from a variety of disciplines together to work on projects informed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
C4’s focus on real-world experience and interdisciplinary teams is shared by Experience Ventures. The University of Calgary program gives students job placements in everything from hackathons to project-based work with startups and social ventures. Along the way, students make valuable contacts and develop entrepreneurial thinking skills like resiliency and opportunity recognition.
York got up and running quickly. It ran a shortened version of its full-year C4 course as an Experience Ventures interdisciplinary team project in summer 2021. Fifty students were grouped into four teams and put to work on the challenge of redesigning and rethinking public spaces so they would better serve the needs of the people of Scarborough.
Ten of the 50 students in the C4 summer course were given supervisory roles. “They became project managers for the class,” says Renata Indar, experiential learning community liaison coordinator at York. “They ran the show, basically.” Mariya Shireen was one of these management students. She had just completed a bachelor’s degree in health studies and oversaw a team that worked with the Woburn neighbourhood on an equity-focused project. The equity team met with the Woburn Local Planning Table and residents to get an understanding of local needs and how best to focus the project. Initially, the team proposed a community pantry but soon learned that food security wasn’t a pressing need in the community. “They told us that they had a lot of food support from non-profit organizations,” Shireen recalls. “What they really needed was sporting equipment for children in the community to use.”
The team focused on a large—and largely unused—tennis court in the neighbourhood. The goal of animating the space was made more pressing by the pandemic. By last summer, many kids had spent a lot of time indoors with their families. The goal was to get them outside with their peers. Shireen and her team approached local businesses and asked them to donate sporting equipment. The response was very positive, and donations included soccer balls, basket balls, a soccer net, 400 backpacks and other items.
These were all distributed to the community during a pop-up event. The community came out for an afternoon of games, giveaways and general socializing. Shireen says it was a lot of fun, and the $500 stipend was also appreciated. She describes the C4-Experience Ventures course in similar terms, adding, “it taught us a lot about communications skills, leadership skills and what it really takes to work with the community. We learned a lot of lessons along the way.”
The summer course served as a trial run for tying Experience Ventures into the full-year C4 course. The longer course has 125 students, grouped into some 20 teams that are each at work on specific challenges posed by offices at York as well as local businesses and non-profits.
York has also incorporated the Experience Ventures placement known as students-in-residence. Applicants from across campus were interviewed to create a team that had a range of backgrounds and expertise. The resultant “team of superstars,” as Kwok calls them, is available to help all 20 teams with their projects. The services on offer include feedback and consulting as well as specific things like graphic design and content creation.
York has also hosted two hackathons as part Experience Ventures. The first was held in collaboration with the Entrepreneurship Development Association, the largest student entrepreneurship group on campus. The second was a partnership with York’s Lassonde School of Engineering. Both hackathons saw students use their entrepreneurial skills to tackle social problems.
As in all Experience Ventures placements, students who took part were paid. (Those in the three-day EDA hackathon received $325 and competed for $1,000 in prize money). And, like all Experience Ventures events, the experience had multiple benefits. As Kwok says, students learn to collaborate and acquire skills they can use throughout their lives. “Being adaptable, adjusting to new situations, opportunity spotting and being creative—all those things apply whether or not they go on to start their own business.”