Sometimes, all it takes is a long walk to spark the biggest idea.
At least, that was the case for Mayank Chauhan, an MBA graduate from the University of Victoria and founder of nutTea, a tea-infused, 100-per-cent organic energy bar. The idea came to him when he and his brother went for a hike on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast with only tea in their thermoses and cashews in their pockets.
While the five-hour hike may have prompted the idea, Mr. Chauhan, who was an IT manager at the time, says nutTea couldn’t have become the rapid success story it is now without the help of the Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR) program available to University of Victoria students and graduates.
“I probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point as fast,” he says. “They helped me with a lot of connections and gave me a lot of knowledge.”
Programs such as the one at the Peter. B. Gustavson School of Business at UVic aren’t new, but they are cropping up all across Canada. A recent study by CIBC says more than half a million Canadians started their own business since 2012, and no fewer than seven business schools in Canada now offer EIR programs to align with this trend.
EIRs, essentially, provide guidance to students who are hoping to start a business.
“I’ll be candid and say it’s trendy to be an entrepreneur right now,” says Simon Fraser University’s Dave Thomas.
Mr. Thomas, who has participated in five startups in his career, says although many university students have numerous ideas, not all of them can become viable businesses. That’s where the mentorship programs come in.
“People underestimate how hard it is to keep something going and start a company. It’s always good to have assistance to start with,” he says. “Many university students haven’t worked, or at least they haven’t worked at Microsoft for 10 years, for example. So they’re way better at the technology part of an idea than they would be at the business part.”
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Robin Milne, who previously worked at technology giant Mitel Networks Corp. in Ottawa and had a few startups of his own, is the EIR at UVic who helped Mr. Chauhan with nutTea.
The Innovation Centre for Entrepreneurs at UVic was originally open only to current students, but it was recently expanded to include alumni. That’s how Mr. Chauhan was able to take advantage of the mentorship and counsel.
Mr. Milne says for every 100 students who make a quick contact with the program, only about 10 will seriously pursue it. NutTea is one of eight companies that have fully launched from the program, and eight more are getting close, Mr. Milne says.
“There are 20,000 students at UVic, and let’s face it, people drop in with nothing more than something they and their friends think is really interesting, and then they go away,” he says. “But if they’re serious and they come back, then they pitch it.”
Victoria is, according to Mr. Milne, a great city for entrepreneurs because it’s filled with retirees who are keen to give back and help young people. After Mr. Milne confirms a student idea is legitimate, he reaches out to 50-or-so volunteer advisers. Three of them will then make up the client advisory board for the project.
For Mr. Chauhan, this was invaluable.
“My background was in IT, and my undergrad was in computer science, and I didn’t have any experience in the food industry. That’s what I was looking for,” he explains. “One of my mentors happened to be the ex-VP of marketing for Sobey’s Canada. He’s been really helpful.”
When Mr. Chauhan approached Mr. Milne, he already had a prototype and had pre-sales from retailers. He had left his job. Mr. Milne knew he was fully dedicated, and according to Mr. Chauhan, his was the kind of business they wanted to support.
“There’s a fundamental model called ‘lean’ startups,” explains Mr. Milne. “Lean doesn’t mean cheap, it means minimizing waste. We’re trying to help them not waste time or money. We want [the students] to get out there and validate their idea.”
Doug Beyon, the EIR at the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre at the University of Waterloo, says that city is full of students who are all “learning and doing.”
As in Victoria, there is a large community of support for student entrepreneurs in the southwest Ontario town. Dr. Beyon says students have to be an entrepreneur at heart to get into the program.
“All the courses are designed around taking students through the normal business courses, but in the process, are designed specifically for what an entrepreneur would experience in the ‘valley of death,’” he explains. “That’s where you have no funds, no product, no customers … but you’ve got your idea.”
Dr. Beyon says upward of 50 businesses are started by MBA-level students every year as part of the course, with at least eight becoming incorporated by the end of each year.
“The students learn how to think about a business from the level of designing it, figuring out resources, and the whole program, literally, develops that kind of thinking,” Dr. Beyon says. “They don’t think like MBA students. They think like entrepreneurs.”
Mr. Chauhan’s entrepreneurial thinking spawned an organic energy bar now available in 20 stores, with a hope of being in close to 400 by year-end.
Mr. Milne says this kind of forward thinking is only the beginning of EIR program potential.
“The fun part of this role is the variety of ideas that come forward. You just shake your head in amusement at what people come up with,” he says. “I went through all the classic errors of a startup and mine didn’t do that well. If I could get the experience that these kids are getting now, where would I have been?”
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