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opinion

Karen Greve Young, CEO, Futurpreneur Canada

With the first vaccines being distributed, the road to recovery for Canada’s battered economy is at last coming into view. It’s clear it will run through the main streets of our towns and cities, where there are indications that a new wave of small businesses is now emerging. With the right support, these companies will help rebuild our economy and revitalize our communities.

Small businesses such as coffee shops, independent retailers and service providers are the backbone of our economy. They employ 70 per cent of our private labour force and, according to a recent RBC report, represent 42 per cent of our GDP and nearly half of new jobs. Yet they have borne the brunt of COVID-related job losses and many will not reopen their doors postpandemic, regardless of their prior success.

The flipside of crisis is opportunity, and there are signs that a recovery on the small-business landscape is under way. At Futurpreneur, we have supported more than 13,000 young Canadians launching small businesses since 1996. Our data suggest that increasing numbers of young people are now making the leap into entrepreneurship. Over the past six months, we have seen a 32-per-cent, year-over-year increase in companies launching with the financial and mentorship support offered through our Start-Up program (and an increase of 36 per cent in applications).

Among these new businesses is The Shop, a skateboard and snowboard store that opened in Castlegar, B.C., in July, taking advantage of the growing popularity of outdoor activities. And in Penticton, another B.C. town, Loki’s Garage restaurant opened in May with takeout and outdoor-dining options. Meanwhile, in September, Felicheeta Artistry opened a storefront in a Winnipeg shopping centre, selling cosmetics made by and for people of colour.

There are a couple of reasons for this surge. First, societal changes over the past few months have made formerly easy paths to employment hard, and those who have lost jobs are turning their entrepreneurial dreams into reality or their side hustles into full-time gigs. Second, economic recovery and reinvention go hand-in-hand. As sad as the closures of businesses are, they create space to bring new ideas to consumers with focus and efficiency. If a coffee shop closes, it offers an opportunity for another ambitious, young entrepreneur to fill the void with a new concept for building community through caffeine.

Nurturing this entrepreneurial spirit is vital for our economic future. Small businesses are not only drivers of community resilience, but can also be engines of innovation.

During the pandemic, there have been countless examples of innovative companies pivoting to help their communities. Waterloo, Ont.-based InkSmith, an education-technology venture, created The Canadian Shield, a new PPE company that has manufactured more than 11 million face shields and hired 300 staff. St. John’s-based Granville Biomedical expanded from making health-care training models to developing 3D-printed nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing. And Edmonton-based Kite Electric expanded from electrical services to launch Kite Ag Systems, which enables growers to produce fresh food year-round.

While adversity can be an excellent cradle for new companies — Uber, Slack and Airbnb were formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis — young people diving into business ownership today face exceptional headwinds. Consumers, now reluctant to spend, find big-box stores open and small businesses shuttered. And raising start-up capital persists as entrepreneurs’ highest barrier to overcome. In a recent survey of Futurpreneur clients, almost 95 per cent listed financial assistance as their main area of need.

Both the public and private sectors are now moving to increase financing support for new businesses, especially those owned by underrepresented groups. RBC, for instance, has committed $100-million in loans to Black entrepreneurs over five years, while Ottawa has unveiled a $221-million public-private program to support Black business founders. Time will tell if these commitments foster a more inclusive economic recovery, offsetting the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Canada’s communities of colour.

For many of us, the sight of beloved local businesses closing during the pandemic has been heartbreaking, and we are anxiously waiting to see if they reopen. As Canada turns the economic corner and entrepreneurs step into the breach with new businesses, we need to rally behind them. Where possible, we should put the spending power of government to best use by procuring from our homegrown companies. We need to experiment with new partnerships between corporate Canada and small businesses. And fellow Canadians can play a role by shopping and eating local. After all, launching a new business is an act of faith in a brighter future, and we could all use more of that.

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