Ghalia Aamer was very shy in Grade 7. She still remembers her teachers’ report card comments: “Ghalia needs to make more friends and start talking to classmates. Ghalia needs to fit in more.”
With a push from her parents, the painfully quiet kid from Edmonton joined her school’s debating team and eventually started competing in nationwide debate tournaments, boosting her confidence daily.
Fast forward six years, and Aamer, now a first-year science student at the University of Alberta, is working to create a digital platform that provides youth with resources that support public speaking and debate. It’s a passion project fuelled by WE Are Social Entrepreneurs (WASE) – an initiative of WE and RBC Future Launch, aimed at encouraging youth and preparing them for a rapidly changing workforce.
Until recently, the majority of people looking to tackle social and environmental challenges did so via non-profit organizations. Now there’s a shift toward social entrepreneurship, where profitable organizations employ a business model and use financial success as a means to create good in the world.
In 2016, the Canadian National Social Enterprise Sector Survey Report showed that the country’s social enterprises positively impact the economy with revenues of approximately $1.2-billion. They help create jobs, protect the environment, support arts and culture, and provide services to communities, including those living with physical, psychiatric and intellectual disabilities.
This past August, 17-year-old Aamer immersed herself in the growing field of social enterprise. She was selected to participate in a virtual, week-long WASE conference, where a group of eight students from across Canada took part in skills workshops and received mentorship from RBC, along with business support geared toward turning ideas into reality. On the final day, participants pitched their ideas to judges and received $1,000 each to help develop them.
In Aamer’s case, she hopes her interactive platform will provide students with the tools she lacked in high school, such as access to experienced coaches. Aamer works as a volunteer coach with up to 80 students who are between the ages of 12 and 16 years, and she helps them prepare for speech and debate tournaments. The goal is to enable users to schedule live debates with others from around the globe, complete skill modules and access documents, such as practice exercises, debate topics and a guide to starting their own club at school.
“The digital platform was received very positively by the [conference] group. Some of the members mentioned they feared public speaking themselves. Once they heard about my idea, they said it would help them greatly in overcoming their anxiety,” Aamer says.
Edgar Lai, a Grade 9 student at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., is also a WASE conference participant. Lai is working toward creating a reusable water bottle made out of bioplastic, and a portion of the proceeds will be donated to clean water initiatives. “There’s a lot of plastic in the ocean – 2.41 million tonnes each year,” Lai says.
His dream bottles would be made of sustainable materials that could decompose in soil and marine waters, which would help to limit the amount of plastic entering the ocean. At the conference, the 13-year-old improved his public-speaking skills and learned how to develop a business plan. But he says the most valuable lesson he learned was that, regardless of age, “anyone can make a difference.”
It’s this type of personal motivation that excites Mark Beckles, senior director of youth strategy and innovation at RBC Corporate Citizenship. RBC Future Launch, which includes WASE as part of the program, is a commitment of $500-million over 10 years to support youth and their future career goals. “One-fifth of Canadian youth are reached through this program,” he says. “We’ve seen how creative they are and how they’re reacting to the constant change technology has brought about. They’re self-starters who have shown deep interest in developing skills to pursue opportunity.”