Skip to main content

Reza Satchu is not a touchy-feely kind of guy. He doesn't believe in mollycoddling his students. He prefers to hone in on their weaknesses.

"You're a bad public speaker," he tells one student flatly. "You have added very little value to the class. You have not contributed." The student, Shane Go, is a brilliant engineer. But he's an immigrant from China, he's hard to understand, and he's terrified of speaking. Mr. Satchu has told Mr. Go he has a week to come up with a plan to improve himself.

He also doesn't spare Shiré Brandi, a law student who's ashamed of his background as a fatherless refugee who grew up in public housing. "Stop seeing your background as a limitation."

Far from alienating students, Mr. Satchu's methods have made him one of the most popular lecturers at the University of Toronto. Many students say his course, the economics of entrepreneurship, is the most useful one they've ever taken.

"I don't focus on the weakest performers," he once said. "I focus on the best performers and make them even better. When you get into the real world, you don't have people babying you along."

Mr. Satchu now has a far more ambitious goal. He wants to transform Canada's competitive culture. He wants to find the best and brightest kids in this country and turn them into great entrepreneurs. He's the driving force behind The Next 36, a remarkable project that aims to recruit 36 students each year from across Canada and give them a crash course in leadership.

Why does Canada need this? Because entrepreneurship and innovation aren't our strengths. Yet, our future depends on them more than ever. Great entrepreneurial companies have an outsized impact on job creation and prosperity.

Mr. Satchu is a serial entrepreneur himself. His family immigrated from Kenya, and lived modestly in Scarborough. He bootstrapped himself into Harvard Business School and went on to start and sell a string of successful companies. "I thought all the kids from Harvard, Yale and Stanford would know so much more," he says. "But they didn't. Their advantage is that they have massive exposure to leaders and much higher expectations for themselves."

Mr. Satchu is convinced that entrepreneurship can be taught - and that people in their early 20s are at the ideal age to learn. "We want to inculcate a culture of risk-taking early in their lives." Mr. Go and Mr. Brandi are two of the students in the inaugural class, which began in December. It could be called Boot Camp for Entrepreneurs.

The Next 36, which is funded by private donations, has proved wildly popular. In its first year, it drew 1,300 applicants. The criteria for selection are intellectual horsepower, entrepreneurial promise, and the ability to work in a team. The 72 finalists had to write five essays each and survive a battery of behavioural interviews. The 36 who made the cut were divided into teams of four. They were told to develop a mobile software app. They each got two mentors, $50,000 in seed capital and eight months to do their project. Among the leading contenders for commercialization is an app called Electric Courage, which lets you flirt, via Facebook, with strangers in a bar. (I don't get it, but 22-year-olds do.) They'll make their final pitch - to real investors - on Aug. 15.

The Next 36 is unabashedly elitist. It's aimed at the best students with the highest potential. (The program, which is free to the students, costs about $1-million a year to run.) "Canada is very good at fairness and egalitarianism," says co-founder Tim Hodgson, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Canada. "But the U.S. is very good at identifying people at the far right side of the tail, and pushing them even further. We need to do that, too."

On a broiling summer evening in Toronto, the students have been invited to Galen and Hilary Weston's Forest Hill mansion to mingle with some of Canada's biggest business names. The Westons are major backers, along with Jimmy Pattison and Paul Desmarais. Nader Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers, is another big supporter, along with several venture capitalists. "In the Valley, they have nothing on these kids except capital and connections," says one.

It won't surprise you to learn that the next generation of entrepreneurs is a startling contrast with the last one. There are a lot more women, and a lot of new Canadians. Canada's future entrepreneurs have names such as Jilik Gupta, Cathy Han, Shahob Hosseinpour, Pilwon Huh, Saumya Krishna, Nadeem Nathoo and Parvinder Sachdeva.

"Reza has been a tremendous role model to me," says Mr. Brandi, the one-time refugee. He's a handsome, curly-haired Somali Italian. Like the other students, he uses the word "transformative" a lot. Then Mr. Satchu introduces Mr. Go, the engineer who's terrified of speaking. Mr. Go gets up and makes a speech to the assembled crowd. He announces that, even though "I don't have the charisma some people have as a leader," he's going to run for president of the student engineering association.

Mr. Satchu beams. The kid might fail, but he's got guts. And that's what matters most.