Samuel Duboc, a high-profile Bay Street financier, has given his assistant clear instructions on what to do when a young person from the inner-city neighbourhood of Regent Park calls his office.
"If a pathways kid phones, I will either meet them or talk on the phone, whatever time allows. My assistant knows the rule," Mr. Duboc says.
A "pathways kid" is one involved with "Pathways to Education" an innovative and highly successful program that has reduced the high-school drop-out rate in Toronto's Regent Park by more than 70 per cent and increased the rate of students going on to college or university by 300 per cent.
"If we can help a kid graduate from high school, that means that kid can go on to help tutor, mentor, and teach lots of people in their lifetime," he says.
Mr. Duboc is the founder of the private equity firm EdgeStone Capital Partners and co-founder of Loyalty Group Inc., parent of the Air Miles reward program. He is also chairman of Pathways to Education's national board of directors.
The 50-year-old is a social entrepreneur, someone who applies his business acumen and passion for creating new things to solving complex social or environmental problems. His focus is on education and on scaling successful local initiatives up to a national level.
"What gets me going in the morning is to take a look at a problem and think of a way to solve it, to bring together the assets you need and the supports you need and then build it in a way that is a sustainable operation," Mr. Duboc says.
His says his strategic skills have served him well in both the business and non-profit worlds: "Understanding where the opportunities are, and understanding where the needs are and really getting a granular focus on your customers and constituents and what they need and what is important to them."
It is also important to step back and ask, "How are we delivering on those needs, and are we delivering on them in a way that is different?"
Pathways to Education was started in 2001 by the Community Health Centre in Regent Park. The program is delivered through community organizations in the oldest public housing project in Canada and offers students tutoring and financial support in the form of bus tickets. Young people who stay enrolled in the program and graduate from high school get a $1,000-a-year bursary toward their post-secondary education. The program is also about providing mentors and inspiration, to turn a generation of students into future leaders in their community.
In Regent Park, 92 per cent of eligible high-school students are now enrolled in the program and it includes more than 900 students attending 60 different high schools.
Mr. Duboc became involved in 2003 and devoted a lot of his time and energy turning a local success story into a national one. There are now 12 Pathway sites from Halifax to Winnipeg, he says, with close to 5,000 students enrolled.
The idea of scaling up successful local initiatives is also central to a new venture he is involved in, the Pecaut Centre for Social Impact, named for David Pecaut, a civic entrepreneur who died in December, 2009.
The goal of the new centre, he says, is to help promising local social innovators by giving them coaching, access to expertise in the business and charitable worlds and the support and skills they need to grow.
Peter Donolo, who also serves of the national board of directors of Pathways to Education, says Mr. Duboc, who is American, has a direct, can-do approach that is a bit unusual in Canada.
"He is very direct, bull-headed; he wants to take the direct path from A to Z. He is a real force of nature of that way. … He has applied that approach very effectively to the non-profit sector," says Mr. Donolo, who was director of communications for former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien and is now senior vice-president, public affairs, for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games organizing committee.
Mr. Duboc says he is a better business person because of what he has learned in the charitable sector.
"In the business world, there is one motivating thing and that is profit: How do we make more money? You are the CEO, and if you want the business to go left, you say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we are going left.' It is different in the charitable sector."
In his non-profit work, he has learned skills that have made him better at working with different organizations, constituencies and individuals.
"It has so increased my appreciation of the diversity of thought, background and skills, which has been very enriching to my business life."
Mr. Duboc is from the mid-western United States, but holds Canadian, as well as American, citizenship. He and his wife have four children and a strong interest in education.
His father was a successful executive, and his mother was also a social entrepreneur. She started and ran a small business for the Salvation Army that sold gently used dresses, business suits and other attire. His brother Fred has started a program to teach inner city kids in Denver how to play squash.
He says he wishes that more executives would think about applying their skills to solving social problems.
"Everyone is busy. I get that. Everyone has real reasons why they can't do it. But I don't think people really understand that by putting time and effort into these sorts of organizations you get multiple paybacks. It has made me a much better business person and it has made me better at thinking about societal problems because I am now deeply enmeshed."
There is also a personal payoff, he says.
"I have gotten a huge amount of personal fulfilment and texture in my life from meeting these kids and helping out."
He is now helping two different groups of "Pathways" graduates with new initiatives.
"They graduated from high school and went on to university and came back. One of them has a fantastic idea for the charitable area … and another has a very interesting crowdfunding idea. When they call, I make time for them."