Entrepreneurs find footing with free workshop series

Alberta Inclusive Innovation Initiative provides practical skills training

The first cohort of the Alberta Inclusive Innovation Initiative.

The Alberta Inclusive Innovation Initiative (AI3) — the first cohort is seen here in this photo from February 2020 — returns with no-cost workshops starting May 5.

Gavin Stuart was flying high in January 2020, having just transferred to a new position with Air Canada. Then COVID-19 grounded the travel industry and Stuart’s 10-year career as a commercial pilot.

But Stuart is about to chart a new flight path with his own business, supported with the skills and knowledge he gained through the Alberta Inclusive Innovation Initiative (AI3). The series of no-cost workshops provide practical training to entrepreneurs.

“I got to work on some of the things right away. In the marketing session, while the instructor was talking about building a brand statement, I was writing my brand statement right then and there,” Stuart says. “You’re not going to get it right the first time and that’s OK. I am continually refining it. But applying the knowledge to what you are working on right away is key.”

Each weekly AI3 workshop features two hours of live, real-time virtual classroom instruction. Participants explore the necessary skills, tools, and resources to succeed in starting and operating a business. AI3 — offered by Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business and the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, with support from HSBC Bank Canada — covers important skills in areas including sales, marketing, financial accounting and business planning. The next series of workshops begins May 5.

Stuart’s business, Meska Outdoors, offers a “glamping experience,” turn-key comfort camping that provides a place to make memories, share stories and enjoy time together in the great outdoors. Geared towards newcomers, families and those who wouldn’t traditionally consider themselves to be “outdoorsy,” Meska Outdoors will initially launch with three sites in Black Diamond, about 70 kilometres from Calgary. Stuart is taking what he learned in the workshops and applying it to his new venture.

“I realize how valuable the knowledge and the security of knowing the financials is. The numbers are when things fall apart, so the financial session was very insightful,” he says. “Part of the journey is realizing that the idea is only the starting point. There is work you really need to put in. I really wanted insight into those areas that are important. I am the first in my family to open a business, so this is all new to me.”

The workshops, which launched in 2020, are designed for diverse equity-seeking groups — including newcomers to Canada, Indigenous Peoples, women, youth and members of the LGBTQ2S community. The material in the sessions was revised this year to address the realities of operating in an economy shaped by COVID-19. The sessions were moved online, with instructors available outside of workshops for support via email and phone.

“We’re proud to provide these entrepreneurs flexible learning and support in a challenging environment,” says Dimitra Fotopoulos, director, professional and continuing education, at Mount Royal University. “Like Gavin says, it’s a journey. Supporting our learners at every stage of their experience — whether they’re just starting out or are looking to bring new skills to an established venture — with relevant, practical skills and knowledge is the foundation of our professional development programs.”

Dr. Wendy Cukier, PhD, founder and academic director of the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University notes that it’s critical to challenge stereotypes about entrepreneurship and support the talent and creativity of those in equity-seeking communities. That means also providing alternative pathways to entrepreneurship that empower people who are underserved by mainstream organizations.

“Our work through the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, in partnership with organizations like the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and the Black Business Professional Association, highlights the unique needs of diverse entrepreneurs who have been disproportionately affected by the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cukier says. “The AI3 workshops are an important tool in closing the entrepreneurship gap and ensuring a just economic recovery for all."

John Robson also took part in the most recent AI3 workshops, which wrapped up in March. Robson found himself unemployed, despite a longtime career in IT and experience in fields such as collections and financial management. He is transforming an interest in woodworking into Plantsavy, a business selling his handmade plant stands, complete with plants and decorative pots.

“Even though I had previously attended entrepreneurship training in High River — where I delivered the section on business continuity management — and I had taken courses on small business in college, I thought it would be a good opportunity to refresh my memory and to learn some new things about running a small business,” Robson says. “I got a lot out of the finance and accounting session. This is a subject that you can’t take too many times because it is such an important part of running a business.”

Robson recommends AI3 for those who have started their business and are looking to add to their knowledge base, as well as those exploring if entrepreneurship is the right fit for them. He also encourages those who might be closer to retiring to explore entrepreneurship.

“There are a lot of people in their 50s and early 60s who have lost their careers due to the downturn in the local economy followed by COVID-19, but aren’t ready to retire. This group has a wealth of experience in a variety of industries, so it would benefit everybody to see them contribute by building and developing small businesses.”

The next series of Alberta Inclusive Innovation Initiative workshops begins on May 5. To register, call 403.440.3833 and reference CRN 50386.

April 20, 2021 — Ruth Myles

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