The Millennial Generation grew up fast. The demographic cohort born from the early 1980s to the year 2000 now dominates Canada’s campuses, and they’ve brought with them one of their defining key characteristics: studies repeatedly show that they are unfailingly optimistic about the future.
In my experience as a postsecondary administrator, Millennials’ optimism springs from their ability to adapt to today’s fast pace of social and economic change. They believe in their capacity to create value through their own ideas and innovations, whether they are commercial or social in nature. In fact, one recent study showed that nearly half of today’s students expect to start their own business after graduation. Millennials are natural entrepreneurs. They don’t expect the economy to provide them with a job; they plan to invent their own.
Earlier in my career I observed as many innovative young graduates moved south of the border to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas, because there was no clear pathway for them to do so in Canada. I also observed, with some dismay, as these young entrepreneurs became celebrated in Canada for succeeding elsewhere. Certainly their success is worth celebrating, but the losses for Canada – in terms of job creation, investment, and intellectual property – are not.
Then, early in my tenure at Ryerson, a few students came forward with a very promising business idea, asking what help their institution could offer. At the time Ryerson was limited in its ability to help student entrepreneurs get their companies up and running. That’s when my colleagues and I decided it was time to stop observing the trends and start shaping them. Canadian universities – particularly one such as Ryerson, whose mission is to serve societal need – have a responsibility to support young innovators, by creating new opportunities for student-led learning and supporting student and graduate entrepreneurship.
The federal government has made substantial investments to spur innovation on university campuses, largely through the country’s traditional research councils. While these efforts have met with some success, the councils’ mission, to fund pure and applied research by established faculty without regard for commercialization, remains essential to Canada’s research capability. What’s needed is not a change in mission for the research councils, but the creation of a new stream of research support and educational opportunity – one that is focused on the contributions of young innovators.
Ryerson University has taken a unique approach to this challenge – one that has made it the first and only university in Canada to earn Ashoka’s Changemaker Campus designation for excellence in social innovation and enterprise. Through programs such as the Digital Media Zone and the Innovation Centre for Urban Energy, Ryerson provides support and mentorship programs for student and graduate entrepreneurs, including office space in a collaborative working environment. In four short years, our student and graduate startups have created more than 800 sustainable jobs. And their enterprises reflect their generation’s optimism: Ryerson students and graduates are leaders in the creation of new for-profit and non-profit social ventures, with innovations geared towards social change.
Providing this kind of comprehensive support for youth innovation effectively gives entrepreneurially minded students a much-needed opportunity to learn by doing, especially when the doing means being your own CEO. Moreover, it fills a niche in Canada’s venture-capital economy, which studies have shown performs poorly when it comes to financing new startups at their earliest stages of development. By providing the right kind of support during those critical first few months, campuses can play a new and vital economic role.
But these programs’ success ultimately belongs to the young innovators they support. In recent years Canadian universities have, at the urging of governments, been searching for new ways to promote entrepreneurial values. Clearly, today’s young people already live and breathe those values. The real challenge for postsecondary institutions is to keep pace with the students they serve, by providing them with the tools to succeed.
Sheldon Levy is President and Vice-Chancellor of Ryerson University. This article is part of a series focusing on Ashoka Canada’s Changemaker project, focusing on innovative solutions in education.