social enterprise toronto

The future of social enterprise in Toronto

The future of social enterprise in Toronto got a little bit of a boost last night from the Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada. Six start-ups competed in a pitch competition - held at MaRS - to score one of two $1,000 microloans to take their idea to the next level. Each team displayed poise, professionalism and a desire to affect change on a variety of levels, but the winners injected the kind of infectious passion into their pitches that made it impossible for the judges to say no.

The first recipients - Young Urban Farmers CSA - took the idea of the 100-mile diet and scaled it all the way down to 100 meters. Presenters Chris Wong and Ronald Ha take unused backyards in city neighbourhoods and exploit them as community gardens. In return for the donated land, the homeowners receive - for free - a share of the harvest. Young Urban Farmers CSA takes care of all the set up and labour; the homeowner simply provides the land. Those without the luxury of a backyard to donate are able to buy into the company and collect fresh, hyper-local produce on a weekly basis for the entire growing season.

The team needs the $1,000 to build makeshift greenhouses that will extend their growing season, thus increasing their bounty. Ha, CFO of the organization, explained that the benefits of the initiative reach far beyond merely produce.

"Parents put their kids through a lot of programs," he said. "The garden is right there, they can interact, they can experience, learn. They don't have to go pick them up or drop them off."

The second recipient, and clear crowd favourite, was also the only presentation without a PowerPoint slide. Jam Johnson, executive director of the Neighbourhood Basketball Association (NBA) in Scarborough, took to the stage with an unrefined enthusiasm that clearly caught the crowd's attention. He barreled through his pitch in a desperate plea to help the young men of Kingston Galloway - one of Toronto's 13 priority neighbourhoods - who all too often lose their lives to gang life and the drug trade.

His pitch was simple enough: print t-shirts.

Johnson grew up in Montreal and counts 101 friends who have died from gun violence and for the past 30 years he's dedicated his life to saving others. His pitch is to fund a new initiative - Brothers Reaching Our Sons, or BROS.

"BROS addresses the lack of adult male mentors in quality recreation programming," he said. "But it's tough to sustain programs without reliable funding."

That's where last night's pitch came in. Johnson thinks he has the key to his funding woes, and he just might be right. He wants to put the BROS logo on t-shirts, the sale of which would fund the minimal, $100 membership fee with the NBA for those young men who can't afford it.

Each child in need is given five t-shirts to sell, which provides them an opportunity to get involved and keeps them from turning to less admirable fundraising alternatives.

The idea might not seem like much on the surface, but Johnson is close to the cause and his ardent delivery drew actual cheers from the audience as he spoke.

So, the money is in place. It's just a matter of time to see where it takes them.

Photo by Kat Rizza

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