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Kanika Gupta, founder of SoJo, is being recognized for the work she is doing to help young people establish their own social causes. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Kanika Gupta, founder of SoJo, is being recognized for the work she is doing to help young people establish their own social causes. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Entrepreneur aims to turn good intentions into tangible projects Add to ...

Kanika Gupta’s CV is something you would expect of a seasoned baby boomer, not someone just a few years out of school. In addition to securing two degrees (a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance and a Master of Public Administration), the 25-year-old Ottawa native has travelled to 35 countries, accompanied Canada’s former Governor-General Michaëlle Jean on an official state visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal and Cape Verde in 2010, and spoken about social innovation at Yale University. She has done all this while trying to figure out how to make a living doing charitable works.

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For Ms. Gupta, her foray into social entrepreneurism comes in the form of Social Journal, or SoJo for short, an online platform, currently in a public beta form, that she created out of her own 10-year frustration with the paperwork and hurdles involved in establishing and growing social ventures. If all goes according to plan, she will play midwife for 100,000 new social innovators in their mid-teens to mid-thirties eager to start social ventures around the world.

“I want to help young people focus their energy where it belongs – on the passion and outcome, not on the mechanics of helping others,” she says.

Ms. Gupta is a Canadian case study in how philanthropy is changing from a purely non-profit model to a one that accepts a for-profit motive, while helping others who are setting up their own organizations. As such, the new model could be defined as: Identify a cause, secure partners, build a business plan, raise funds, deliver on an unmet social need and, eventually, secure a profit.

She started reaching out at a very young age, “when I launched Helping Hands in Grade 10. This was a way for my friends and me to have some fun while satisfying our 40 hours of community service for high-school graduation. For example, in partnership with Rona and local artists in Ottawa, we replaced graffiti on Rideau Street with a mural.”

Her more formal foray into social ventures took place at 21, when, after spending four months in Togo, West Africa with an NGO called Investir dans l’Humain, she returned to Canada and founded Nukoko. Through this Canadian non-profit, Ms. Gupta developed a program called Education 4 All in Togo, to send girls to primary school, and to help deliver on the millennium development goals set out by the United Nations. Equal parts dreamer and realist, she convinced her circle of family and friends that with a $30 contribution they could make the difference between poverty and potential for a girl they would likely never meet. Today, 600 girls go to primary school in Togo.

While she is still involved in Nukoko, the ventures she is assisting now are things like InsideOUT – an education and support initiative for young people between the ages of 13 to 19 who have a parent with mental illness. “I started InsideOUT with little more than a eureka moment and some passion,” blogs InsideOUT founder, Lilia Zaharieva, 24. “I wanted desperately to pursue my dream of supporting youth who are affected by mental illness in the family, but lacked the know-how on how to execute my grand vision. I've had the marvellous luck of being connected with SoJo from both their beginning and mine. From that point on, they have been putting the ‘how’ to my ‘why.’”

In simple terms, SoJo is an open-source, online site geared to curating a wealth of resources for young people who have an idea but don’t know how to get it off the ground.

One page of SoJo lists four options under the question: Where are you on your journey? Under a lightbulb, the box reads, “I have some ideas in mind but I’m not sure if I’m ready to build a project.” Under a blueprint, the box reads, “I have a project in mind, but need help to start.” Under a checklist: “I have already started my project but am stuck on a particular part.” And under a heart: “I’m looking for personal support to keep motivated and overcome challenges.”

From here, young people can click through to find out how to save the world (through everything from a feasibility study, to business and communications plans, and more).

“We are not doing anything new. We are innovating what is available,” she says. “There is a value to this information and we are confident that our users will give back upon success. Until then, we will continue to raise funds to support our operations from private sources.”

“Give back” means monetizing SoJo through sponsorship (she isn’t ready to disclose her target list), referrals to products and services that SoJo users may need in establishing their own projects, and a workshop series that Ms. Gupta will lead. So far, she has put her own money into the project and is now beginning to chase potential funders.

“When I tried to do something in the social-venture arena, I often felt like I was walking straight into a brick wall,” she said. Now, with SoJo, she can “help young people across North America translate their good intentions into tangible projects,” she says.



This interview has been edited and condensed.

Farah Mohamed is president of the Belinda Stronach Foundation. Send suggestions for the Action Figure to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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