Scott Stirrett is building a country where entrepreneurial skills such as creativity, collaboration and resilience are seen as vital for all young Canadians to make a positive impact on society. By facilitating work-integrated learning opportunities for students and recent graduates at small businesses, focusing on communities underrepresented in entrepreneurial ecosystems and shifting public perception of entrepreneurship, Scott and his team are making entrepreneurial skills development more accessible to young Canadians.
The New Idea
Scott Stirrett is passionate about building a more innovative, equitable and sustainable country, and is equipping young Canadians with the entrepreneurial skills and mindsets needed to accelerate positive change. Central to Scott’s work is the idea that entrepreneurial skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and navigating uncertainty are not just needed by founders, but by everybody, and opportunities to gain this skill set must be more widely accessible. Scott has found that the most effective way to develop entrepreneurial skills is through work-integrated learning at small businesses, yet it is challenging for young people to find these employment opportunities. Small businesses in Canada often struggle with limited resources and capacity to attract and hire young talent. By facilitating training and paid work-integrated learning opportunities at start-ups and small businesses for post-secondary students and recent graduates, Scott’s organization, Venture for Canada (VFC), is developing entrepreneurial young Canadians, with a focus on communities underrepresented in entrepreneurial ecosystems. These placements are mutually beneficial, as they are catalyzing the growth of small businesses in Canada.
Venture for Canada's work-integrated learning programs enable students and recent graduates to learn from accomplished entrepreneurs, expand their network, and engage with diverse projects that put entrepreneurial skills into action. Small businesses benefit from wage subsidies, human resources support, and accessing qualified and motivated talent to help their business grow. Venture for Canada’s programming is designed around the European Commission’s entrepreneurship competence framework, EntreComp, which defines entrepreneurship as the ability to “act upon opportunities and ideas and transform them into value for others.” This framework states that entrepreneurial value creation can take place in any sphere of life, from education, to work, to civic engagement. Embedded in the VFC programs is the ethos that entrepreneurial skills should be used to create social impact and positively contribute to solving pressing challenges facing Canada, such as climate change, ongoing injustices faced by Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, and stagnant economic growth.
VFC facilitated 3,900 work-integrated learning experiences at over 1,000 start-ups and small businesses across Canada throughout 2022. Over the last five years, VFC has expanded from one program for recent graduates to two additional programs for post-secondary students and an annual conference for start-ups and small businesses. An important part of their vision of making entrepreneurship more accessible is strategically focusing on communities that are underrepresented in Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, such as women, racialized individuals, and people who identify as LGBTQ+. In the next few months, Scott is set to launch a program specifically tailored for Canada’s international students, a population of over 800,000 young people who face many barriers to accessing entrepreneurship and employment opportunities upon graduation. As Scott looks to deepen the impact of VFC systemically in Canada, he is putting more resources into advocacy and lobbying governments for entrepreneurial support, as well as forming new partnerships with post-secondary institutions to embed entrepreneurial skills development into career services.
In a world and future of work that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, an entrepreneurial mindset is needed for young people to thrive and create an impact in their lives and careers. The European Commission’s EntreComp framework identifies fifteen core entrepreneurial skills, including creativity, perseverance, ethical and sustainable thinking, coping with uncertainty, collaboration with others, and visioning ideas. Yet most young Canadians, and particularly those from marginalized communities, lack opportunities to learn and practice entrepreneurial skills, which negatively impacts their job prospects and ability to positively impact society. According to the 2022 Skills Survey Report by The Business Council of Canada, entrepreneurial competencies are most lacking in entry-level employees. A McKinsey study found that while 83% of educators report believing youth are ready for work, only 34% of employers and 44% of youth agree. This lack of entrepreneurial skills in young Canadians impacts the country’s ability to innovate and address pressing issues. According to the Bloomberg Innovation Index, Canada is less innovative than most other developed countries, ranking as the 21st most innovative country in the world. Since the 1980s, Canada’s labour productivity growth rate has fallen from roughly 3% per year to around 1% per year. In comparison to its peers, Canada is becoming less and less productive. This results in reduced economic competitiveness and impedes the capacity to act on opportunities and overcome challenges.
Most entrepreneurial training in Canada consists of incubator and accelerator programs that support people to become founders of a new initiative or business. Launching something new involves financial investment and risk taking, which is not a viable option for many. Young people who are encouraged to found an initiative without first gaining practical experience face additional challenges. Research from Harvard Business Review highlights that the most successful founders start their businesses when they are around 45 years old and those who have work experience in their industry prior to founding their business are more successful. The UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills reports that the most effective approaches to developing entrepreneurial skills involve experiential learning based on task-oriented development focused on real business problems. Even though practical work experience is recognized as the best way to learn and practice entrepreneurial skills, entrepreneurship does not have an apprenticeship culture in Canada.
For post-secondary students and recent graduates who want to grow their skills while learning from successful entrepreneurs, it is difficult to find opportunities at start-ups and small businesses. According to Statistics Canada, small businesses are major contributors to the Canadian economy and play a significant role in employing Canadians, yet face unique challenges compared to larger businesses. When asked about their forecast for the next year, small businesses report being more likely to experience a decline in profitability, less likely to hire new staff and feeling less optimistic about the outlook of their business. Small businesses often have limited capabilities to recruit young people, with 55% reporting recruiting challenges according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. As such, students pursuing internships or co-op placements and graduates pursuing entry-level employment are often driven to large businesses/organizations. This is a loss to both the young people, who are lacking the opportunity to learn from entrepreneurs in small business environments, and small businesses, which are important to the Canadian economy but facing challenges to growth.
Scott’s strategy to make entrepreneurial skills development more accessible to young Canadians revolves around three core pillars; facilitating paid work-integrated learning opportunities that support both youth participants and small business employer partners, focusing on communities underrepresented in entrepreneurial ecosystems and advocating for entrepreneurship for everybody.
VFC’s three core programs offer training and paid work-integrated learning placements to facilitate entrepreneurial skills development for young people. The programs vary in length and intensity of commitment, appealing to a diversity of audiences. The Fellowship program is for recent graduates and consists of a month-long training camp in-person, where participants receive coaching, participate in workshops and engage in community-building activities in order to prepare for a one-year, full-time paid placement at a start-up or small business. 65% of Fellowship alumni (the only program where alumni journeys are currently tracked) went on to work at a small business after finishing the program and 30% have founded or co-founded a new business or initiative. Being the most intensive program, the Fellowship program also engages the smallest audience, with 50 Fellows selected in 2022. The internship program is for post-secondary students and consists of virtual training and semester-long paid placements at small businesses, which can be used to meet co-op requirements. In 2022, 1600+ students successfully completed VFC internships. The intrapreneurship program is the least intensive offering and was designed to be accessible to students who only have part-time hours to commit. The program engages students in paid collaborative projects to solve problems faced by small businesses and facilitated 1900+ placements in 2022. Between 80-90% of participants across programs stated that VFC helped them to develop entrepreneurial skills.
VFC teaches their participants that entrepreneurial success is about far more than finances and a founder job title. Throughout their trainings and educational resources, VFC emphasizes the importance of using entrepreneurial skills to create impact, aligning with the EntreComp definition of entrepreneurship as identifying and acting upon opportunities to create value for others. They teach participants that wellness and balance are key to success in their entrepreneurial journeys, pushing back against the ‘hustle culture’ that is commonly associated with entrepreneurship. Program alumni share that through training, placements, and belonging to a community of social entrepreneurs, VFC has inspired them to pursue a career aligned with social impact.
In addition to the impact of entrepreneurial skills development on young people, VFC placements support the growth of start-ups and small businesses in Canada. VFC’s employer partners, 60% of whom have fewer than 10 employees and have never previously hired students, receive wage subsidies to employ qualified young talent and human resources support to make their work environment more inclusive. In partnership with the Government of Canada, in 2022 VFC distributed over 10 million dollars in wage subsidies to start-ups and small businesses to support their growth. By providing free HR support through All Things People, VFC’s annual conference fostering knowledge sharing on building people-centred businesses, and online resources such as workshops, guides, and templates, VFC is increasing the capacity of small businesses to support their employees and promote inclusive work environments. Employer testimonials state that VFC has been integral to their ability to grow, with one employer stating; “It would be 100% accurate to say that we would have never gotten off the ground if it were not for Venture for Canada.”
An important part of fulfilling the VFC vision of making entrepreneurship more accessible is strategically engaging those who are currently underrepresented in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Canada. In 2022, 71% of VFC’s program participants identified as racialized, 52% identified as women and 9% identified as LGBTQ+. Within their employer network, 47% of the businesses VFC supports are majority owned by women and 17% are majority owned by people identifying as racialized. As VFC expands, Scott plans to build additional programs that are targeted at specific communities most in need of entrepreneurial support. The first of such programs will launch within the next year and support international students, a population of over 800,000 young people that face many barriers to accessing the Canadian labour market. The pilot program will include a new training curriculum focused on the entrepreneurial skills most needed by international students, such as communication, financial literacy, confidence and network-building, remote project placements with employers, and coaching and mentorship. The program aims to support international students in building entrepreneurial skills and gaining secure employment in Canada.
To embed entrepreneurial skills development more systemically in Canada, Scott has recently expanded to developing partnerships within post-secondary education. This year, VFC began a project in partnership with University Canada West, where 90% of the student body are international students, to increase their capacity to develop entrepreneurial skills in their students. VFC plans to build more partnerships to transform career services at post-secondary institutions across Canada, which will vastly increase the number of young people that can gain access to entrepreneurial skills. These partnerships are being delivered as fee-for-service, as Scott is working to diversify VFC’s revenue sources.
Another opportunity for increased impact is through advocacy work to reduce systemic barriers to entrepreneurial access in Canada. VFC has a government relations team that is exploring how policy can best support entrepreneurs, such as enhanced support for work-integrated learning, support aimed specifically at equity-deserving communities, and universal basic income. Scott regularly engages in thought leadership on entrepreneurial access, having published in news outlets such as the Globe and Mail and Future of Good, and plans to publish a book on entrepreneurial skills development. Through VFC’s podcast, "A New Wave of Entrepreneurship," Scott highlights how entrepreneurial skills and mindsets serve as catalysts for change and innovation, with over 70 interviews conducted and an average of 500 monthly listens.
Scott and his team at VFC are in a period of growth and are at a pivotal time to deepen their impact. Over the last two years, their staff team has doubled in size from 18 to 35 to support this growth and there has been a 97% increase in the number of program participants. VFC is actively working to diversify from government funding, with the goal of achieving 50% of their revenue from non-government sources. As they look towards the next ten years, VFC plans to expand to ten programs that collectively reach 25,000 Canadian youth annually and to develop partnerships with organizations representing underserved communities to tailor programs to those who are most in need of entrepreneurial access.
Venture for Canada is transforming the entrepreneurial landscape in Canada to be more accessible, inclusive, and impact oriented. In doing so, Scott is redefining what it means to be entrepreneurial and building a Canada where everyone can be an entrepreneur.
Growing up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in a family of entrepreneurs and community builders, Scott saw the value of entrepreneurial skills from a young age. While he had the opportunity to learn these skills first-hand from his grandfather and father, who both launched businesses and made community impact, he recognized that there weren’t avenues for entrepreneurial skills development for his peers who didn’t learn them at home. Believing that everyone should have the skills to contribute to their communities, Scott began the journey that would lead him to founding Venture for Canada.
Since middle school, Scott has been putting his entrepreneurial skills into action to create value for others. He organized fundraisers in his community for social and environmental causes and became involved with volunteer groups in high school. He had an interest in DEI from a young age, supporting Black students to get more engaged in leadership roles at his school. As someone who has always been highly curious and motivated to learn about the world around him, Scott moved to Washington, DC, to attend Georgetown University, a big change from his upbringing in quiet Nova Scotia. During his time at Georgetown, where he completed a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service, International Relations and Affairs, Scott co-founded a student organization, DC Students Speak, to support post-secondary students in engaging in politics and running for public office. Following graduation, Scott was offered a job at Goldman Sachs. He felt the only options available to him were to work for a large corporation, found a new company or pursue further studies. He decided to take the job and spent a year feeling torn about how his career would align with his desire to make an impact.
During that year, Scott became familiar with Venture for America and realized that no programs existed in Canada to facilitate work-integrated learning for recent graduates at small businesses. He became inspired to increase entrepreneurial access for young Canadians. Scott took the leap to founding Venture for Canada in 2013, and shortly thereafter left his job at Goldman Sachs. Scott moved to Toronto without an existing network and spent his first summer meeting with over 100 people. VFC soon had a small team and funding to get operations off the ground. They designed the VFC Fellowship to meet the needs of young Canadian recent graduates seeking entrepreneurial experience without becoming founders and the first Fellowship cohort was elected in 2014. Through this work, Scott realized that entrepreneurial skills are catalytic drivers of positive social change and entrepreneurial young Canadians will be the ones to solve the biggest problems facing the country. The VFC model became focused on supporting all young Canadians, particularly those under-represented in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, to develop entrepreneurial skills and apply them to improving the country. This led to the expansion of their programming to target post-secondary students, with the internship program launching in 2018 and the intrapreneurship program in 2021. Scott has since built a national network of thousands of entrepreneurial young Canadians who have gone through VFC programs and 1000+ employer partners. Those who have worked with Scott recognize him as someone who generously shares his time to support others, is passionate about building a better Canada, and embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that is central to VFC’s mission.