When 40 Humber College students gathered for a hackathon as part of Experience Ventures, it quickly became apparent that the term “hackathon” wasn’t quite right. Kasey Dunn, project manager at Humber’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, says they approached it as an innovate-a-thon/hackathon.
For the weekend program, Humber presented a challenge based on the needs of the YMCA Academy, a local school for students who struggle in traditional educational settings. The Academy had noticed that some of its graduates were having difficulty navigating the transition from high school to post-secondary. The student teams taking part worked to bridge this gap. The solutions they devised didn’t have to be technology-based, which explains the innovate-a-thon part of the equation.
The hackathon was a perfect example of what Experience Ventures is all about. Experience Ventures was created by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary to promote collaboration and innovation while giving students the chance to apply entrepreneurial thinking skills to real-world problems. Humber joined the University of Calgary and eight other Canadian post-secondary institutions in the program that offers students paid opportunities to develop their skills.
The winning proposal was a portal where Academy students could find the critical information needed to ease the transition to post-secondary. The portal also directs students to accessibility services available at post-secondary institutions.
Cheryl Mitchell, the director of the Centre for Entrepreneurship, says the hackathon has benefits that go well beyond the final proposals. “The students all come from different backgrounds and programs, so they all have these great, innovative ideas that come from different places,” she says. As these students come together to tackle the problem, they form interdisciplinary teams that must collaborate to succeed.
The success of the hackathon teams was readily apparent. The YMCA was thrilled with the submissions and its collaboration with Experience Ventures. Another team of Humber students will develop the winning proposal, and the YMCA and the school will continue to work together on other projects.
For Mitchell, seeing a hackathon proposal get built out to help students is further proof of the value of Experience Ventures. “It gives students the opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and work with different companies and organizations to help them solve problems,” she says. “It’s always great to watch them work together and see what they come up with.”
That collaboration is a key tenet of entrepreneurial thinking, and Experience Ventures helps students develop the critical skill of putting their heads together to solve problems. “I think it brings in a lot of students who we wouldn’t otherwise see,” Dunn says. “At the hackathon, we saw a lot of different faculties represented that we don’t normally see at the centre.” Experience Ventures also appeals to students because they get paid for their work.
Experience Ventures offers a variety of job opportunities besides hackathons. As part of the program, Humber is also running challenges. These take place over six weeks and see interdisciplinary groups of students tackle problems faced by local companies.
Each term, groups of students work for up to 36 hours with five local companies that operate in various fields. In the fall term, one group worked with a packaging firm to improve uptake of its reusable coffee bags. “The students talked to current customers, interviewed people and got a good understanding of what would make it more convenient, how it fits into people’s lifestyles, what they’re looking for,” Dunn says “At the end, students proposed what they thought would be a good system to help the business get a better return on those bags.”
Dunn says the company was impressed with the work of the students. That was true of the other four companies that participated. One—a fashion company that makes clothing out of recycled fabric—hired one of the students it worked with in Experience Ventures.
Landing a job is a pretty clear example of the benefits of networking. All students in Experience Ventures make valuable contacts with their peers as well as local startups and social ventures. “It has a huge impact for startups that might not be ready to hire employees yet,” Dunn says. “They can get that little bit of support or talent or new ideas. We see really, really good feedback from them.”
The feedback from students has also been encouraging. Many who have gone through Experience Ventures are investigating other entrepreneurial learning opportunities at Humber. “We’ve had a huge response in people applying for these positions,” Mitchell says. “I think they’ve become more aware that entrepreneurship is a career choice.”