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Rusul Alrubail, Founder and Executive Director of Parkdale Centre for Innovation, sorts through furniture and other items while clearing out the office space on May 2.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Rusul Alrubail was first seeking advice for starting a company with her partner, Mustefa Jo’shen, she was constantly told that it couldn’t be done and that she’d have better job security as a teacher.

Ms. Alrubail and Mr. Jo’shen met that challenge head-on and built a rewarding business, then helped other budding entrepreneurs in their community in Toronto’s west end do the same through the Parkdale Centre for Innovation.

However, six years, one pandemic and hundreds of success stories later, the centre has been forced to close its physical doors after losing its lease – but not, the founders hope, the work that they’re doing.

The Parkdale Centre for Innovation was incorporated as a non-profit in 2017. It was founded by Ms. Alrubail, a writer and teacher, and Mr. Jo’shen, a designer and software developer. The partners – who also raise four children together – had created an educational app called the Writing Project, which they had sold to schools in the U.S.

Ms. Alrubail said the barriers they encountered as entrepreneurs inspired them to build a place to help other founders like them from underrepresented communities.

“We thought, why not have a space here where entrepreneurs like myself, like my partner – we’re racialized – could come and get the support that they need,” she said.

In 2018, they signed a lease for a storefront space that was a former bank branch.

From there, they hustled to offer workshops, connect with local entrepreneurs and secure funding.

Ms. Alrubail said she still remembers the joy and validation she felt receiving her first grant, for $5,000 from Toronto-Dominion Bank. “It was the happiest moment,” she said. “I’m like: ‘Someone believes in this. Let’s keep going.’ ”

Later corporate supporters included the eBay Foundation, Royal Bank of Canada and the Canadian Internet Registration Authority for programming that included digital literacy.

In 2019, the Parkdale Centre began to receive government funding through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. The centre ultimately supported 475 entrepreneurs, who created a total of 890 jobs, over the next four years, according to a report the centre submitted to the government.

One of the initiatives Ms. Alrubail is proudest of is her work to support female founders.

Tenzin Wangmo is one of the entrepreneurs who came through those programs. Ms. Wangmo had started an apparel company called Nineteen59 when she was in high school. The name refers to the year of the unsuccessful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, and the clothing features designs from Tibetan artists.

Ms. Wangmo began selling her clothes at local markets but wasn’t sure how to take her enterprise to the next level. She said the workshops at the centre taught her how to plan her finances and speak confidently in public. “Rusul and Mustefa are brilliant. They’re really like, if we’re here, they’re five steps ahead,” she said.

Ms. Wangmo has also used the space for hosting community meetings and dialogue sessions for fellow Tibetans in the neighbourhood, which has one of the largest communities of Tibetan people outside of Asia.

Bhutila Karpoche, MPP for Parkdale-High Park, said in a statement that the centre is “an important hub for entrepreneurship, one that is uniquely dedicated to supporting racialized, immigrant and women entrepreneurs.”

The pandemic challenged the centre, just as it did the other small businesses it worked with. They pivoted to virtual education and only slowly returned to in-person programming.

But more pressing challenges have emerged in the past year. In March, 2023, the project-based government funding ran out. Ms. Alrubail said she was told to apply for a new program instead, and seven months later, found out she had been denied.

Then early this year, the centre started to receive pressure from their landlord to leave. They eventually negotiated an early termination of the lease and left their space on May 2. (The owner and manager, J Scarlett Capital and Royalcliff Homes, posted a note on the door saying the centre was behind in rent payments, which Ms. Alrubail denies. Royalcliff did not respond to requests for comment.)

The office is currently for sale for about $5-million, and the buildings next to it on the block are also on the market.

Ms. Wangmo said she’s seeing many new developments coming into the neighbourhood and is worried about how gentrification will affect the community. “Residents don’t know that the entire area is going to change,” she said.

But the founders say this won’t stop the centre’s work. Mr. Jo’shen said he is excited about working on an entrepreneurship curriculum for youth. “Why can’t they get into this stuff early?” he said.

And even though they might not have a physical space of their own, they will be continuing to offer online programming and might take up some of their partners on their offers to host events at their venues.

Ms. Alrubail is looking forward to launching a women founders’ program in partnership with the Canadian Women’s Foundation soon, and she sees this new shift toward digital-first programming as an opportunity, rather than an insurmountable challenge.

“It’s a whole new era, like Taylor Swift and her era. That new chapter is beginning, I think.”

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