A few years ago, during one one of her regular visits to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Sandra Rotman had an idea.
At the time, the high-profile philanthropist was being treated for anxiety. The experience made her stronger, she says, but also led her to mull over how she could help others with mental-health issues. She knew how difficult it can be for someone with mental illness to find and hold steady employment, but also the importance of a job to their recovery and well-being.
"I would go in and see people who were out of work, yet they would benefit so much from being able to work. I thought, 'Why not have the business school mentor people with mental health or addiction challenges who are able and want to start their own businesses?'" she says.
The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management was keen to help. (It is named after her husband, merchant banker and philanthropist Joseph Rotman.) The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, or CAMH, a teaching hospital affiliated with the university, was also eager to take part. Financing would be an issue for the would-be entrepreneurs, so Mrs. Rotman donated $1-million to establish Rise Asset Development, a partnership between the school and the hospital that provides small start-up loans to successful applicants with a history of mental illness or addiction.
Since 2009, the fledgling social enterprise has loaned money to 22 individuals, says executive director Narinder Dhami. Each of them has been matched with a business-school mentor, often an alumnus, who offers practical advice on how to start or build the business.
The organization is based in Toronto but is branching out and working with partners in Ottawa and other communities. Rise Asset Development has started a new youth small-business program. With the help of Citi Foundation, it has also launched a pilot group-lending program that will work with transitional homes and mental-health organizations.
So far, the loans are all being repaid. The successful applicants have used the money to build everything from a general contracting company to an Internet-based business.
It has made a huge difference in the lives of the budding entrepreneurs, helping to build their confidence and financial independence.
Mat Calce, 28, was treated for anxiety at CAMH after he started having panic attacks in the middle of the night. "It was time to seek some help."
He had moved from job to job in the restaurant industry, but is currently enrolled in the youth small-business program. He says mentors at the business school have helped him develop his proposal for an urban farming business. He is hoping he will qualify for a loan, but doesn't want to give away too many details about his idea at this early stage.
"My specific business is growing a crop indoors. I can grow it in a traditional waste material, essentially by recycling a byproduct of another industry."
For Mrs. Rotman, who is vice-chair of the board of directors, it has been a gratifying and rewarding experience to help people like Mr. Calce.
She loves meeting the entrepreneurs. One young man has been able to build an online business, get off social assistance and qualify for a regular bank loan.
"Rarely are you fortunate to see the difference you make," she says.
Mental health is a very personal issue for her.
"I never hid the fact that I was going to CAMH, that I needed help and that I wanted to help other people with mental-health issues." She says the psychiatric care she received has helped her cope.
"It made me a stronger person."
She notes that it is not only the entrepreneurs who benefit from the program. The business-school graduates learn about depression, anxiety or other illnesses.
One in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Unemployment among Canadians with severe disorders is high – between 70 to 90 per cent. Yet being able to work has been linked to better health outcomes in this population.
Mrs. Rotman and her husband are involved in a wide range of charitable ventures. She used her large network to find the people she needed to help her make Rise Asset Development a success.
She met Eric Hoskins, Ontario Minister of Children and Youth Services, at a Giller Prize gala last year when former Ontario premier David Peterson introduced them.
"I said 'Can you help me?' and he said "Yes,'" says Mrs. Rotman.
In June, the minister announced a new partnership and half a million dollars in funding for the youth small-business program.
She asked Brian Golden, who holds the Sandra Rotman Chair in Health Sector Strategy at the University Health Network, to be the chairman of the board of directors.
Dr. Golden says it has been an amazing experience, not only for him, but for all of the mentors. They find it relatively easy and very fulfilling to help their clients.
"What I hear from colleagues is 'This is so cool, we never imagined this was doable.' What they are finding is that even with a little effort, and many are giving a considerable amount of time, they can make a big impact," he says.
The mentors receive training on mental illness at CAMH, says Susan Pigott, vice-president of communications and community engagement at the hospital.
CAMH also helps identify applicants and offers them support if they start experiencing mental-health issues while they develop their businesses.
Mrs. Pigott describes Mrs. Rotman as a true social entrepreneur, someone who identified a need and brought together talented people to execute her idea.
"It is a very layered, textured kind of initiative. Obviously, for the people who come in to get the loans, it is a tremendous boost. ... But it also has the other benefit of sensitizing the folks at Rotman [School of Management]. This is near and dear to Sandy's heart because it helps them understand more about mental health and addiction. We are assuming that most of the people who graduate from Rotman end up being in influential positions, so this is great."
Patrick Dion, the vice-chair of the board of directors of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says Mrs. Rotman deserves a lot of credit.
"From her idea, this kernel of hope, really, came what is now a fairly well developed social enterprise."