Jill Clark has the instincts of an entrepreneur, paying her way through Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., as a support worker for disabled clients.
But after earning her three-year diploma in advanced marketing last year – and landing a job in her field – she jumped at the chance to return to Conestoga for a new one-year certificate program for budding entrepreneurs.
The 24-year-old graduated last May, founding ICE Co. (an acronym for innovate, connect and execute) to offer project-based marketing advice. Her clients include local startups and a Fortune 1000 company in New York, and she is about to hire her first employee.
Had she imagined that college would help her start a business? "Not really," says Ms. Clark. "I didn't realize that college was going to be able to give me such support."
She's not alone.
Across Canada, startup-minded college students are enrolling in entrepreneurship-focused diplomas, applied degrees and specialty certificates. Some colleges are embedding entrepreneurship courses for all disciplines while others are expanding opportunities for business students to work directly with companies on projects relevant to their bottom line.
"Whether you end up working explicitly for yourself and start your own business or whether you end up working in the 70 per cent of businesses that are small and medium-sized enterprises, having those entrepreneurial skills and that way of thinking is really important for people who are graduating today," says Wendy Therrien, vice-president of government relations and Canadian partnerships for Colleges and Institutes Canada. Her organization will hold a national symposium on entrepreneurship next year.
Half of new ventures don't make it to the five-year mark, according to Industry Canada, but the federal department reports small businesses (up to 99 employees by its definition) accounted for 77.7 per cent of jobs created between 2002 and 2012.
In Quebec City, where adding new businesses is an economic focus, Cégep Garneau has expanded its menu of entrepreneurship programs, in school and beyond. Last August, the cégep opened l'Espace Entreprendre for students to receive coaching from industry mentors and work with local partners.
Young people from 18 to 34 years old are eager to start their own enterprise, says Caroline Boulay, a business development officer at Garneau. "We want to be there to help them."
Vancouver's Langara College, which includes entrepreneurship in its four-year business administration degree and links students with mentors and local startups, reports a growing appetite for small business skills.
"Students seem to be moving in the entrepreneurship direction and they have asked us to offer more courses, more information and resources in terms of starting a business and getting financing," says Stephanie Koonar, assistant chair of the school of management.
Last year, Olds College in Olds, Alta., introduced a requirement that all students complete a non-credit, game-based app on entrepreneurship as a condition of graduation. Through online modules that take 22 hours of study, students work on a business simulation of a fictional lemonade stand.
The app is part of a broader strategy by Olds to equip students with self-starter skills and attitudes demanded by employers.
"They want graduates who can solve problems and think outside the box," says Toby Williams, director of entrepreneurship and international development at Olds, which also offers student case competitions and direct access to local business startups. A course for social entrepreneurs is pending.
"I don't see this ending," says Ms. Williams, of student demand. "The new crop of kids will be more and more interested in this type of [self-employment] work."
SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary tailors its content beyond the classic entrepreneur.
"Entrepreneurship is a very niche type area, says David Ower, dean of the school of business, with degree and diploma programs designed to foster an entrepreneurial mindset among so-called "intrapreneurs" who work for companies.
"Between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, the knowledge and skills will be very similar, along with the culture and mind-set of self-starters who are persistent and able to add value," he says.
By 2016, SAIT plans to revamp its four-year bachelor of business administration degree so students spend up to 12 months with a company or pursue a related field-study project.
"We think it is going to make people better prepared to go out and make an impact on industry," says Mr. Ower.
Meanwhile, government funding has fuelled the surge of college entrepreneurship programs.
The Ontario Centres of Excellence, which links the research needs of industry with postsecondary institutions, has invested $17.9-million over the past two years in a stepped-up effort to support college initiatives, including accelerator centres and seed funding.
"All we are trying to do is facilitate it so when the student comes up with an idea to build a company, we can get them connected with industry, get them mentors and put them in an accelerator or incubator so they can get the kind of support, and mentoring and resources they need so at least they have a chance at success," says Tom Corr, president of the Ontario government agency.
Conestoga's Centre for Entrepreneurship, with funding from OCE and industry, delivers workshops and learning modules for students across campus. By contrast, enrolment in its new small business ventures certificate designed for startup minded candidates like Ms. Clark is capped at 15 students.
During the year-long program, students develop their ideas with coaching from local entrepreneurs and faculty. In the second semester, students receive $1,000 each from Royal Bank of Canada to defray startup expenses.
"Everything we do in terms of the curriculum is about the individual and their business," says Conestoga's Barbara Fennessy, executive dean of entrepreneurship and applied research. "The student is the case study."
Half of those who graduated from the inaugural class have started a business, including Ms. Clark.
"I kind of knew I wanted to start my own business," she says. "I didn't want to be in a job where someone else was telling me what to do all the time."