Student entrepreneurship programs open doors to 'life-changing' opportunities

Business student Erin Creegan-Dougherty says entrepreneurship funding, ongoing coaching key to successful expansion of her company

Erin GuiltenaneMount Royal University | Posted: March 6, 2023

Erin Creegan-Dougherty

Erin Creegan-Dougherty has leveraged her knowledge, experience and skills to take Maskwa Backcountry Foods to the next level.

11th annual JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition
Wednesday, April 5 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Ross Glen Hall

Participants of the JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition have joined Calgary's fastest-growing enterprises, sold their company for $35 million, entered a bidding war on Dragon's Den and launched social enterprises that make Calgary a better place. After months of mentorship and support, the students will pitch their business ideas and potentially share in $70,000 in cash and prizes.

Bachelor of Business Administration — International Business student and 2022 JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition finalist Erin Creegan-Dougherty’s entrepreneurship story began in her grandparents’ kitchen. It is full of turns, peaks and discovery — much like the backcountry that serves as the inspiration for her business, Maskwa Backcountry Foods.

Maskwa Backcountry Foods, which started as a seasonal, à-la-carte venture providing specialty meals to backcountry outfitters and other private clients, is now a full-fledged company offering Indigenous-inspired, gourmet backcountry food with products that accommodate a wide variety of dietary concerns. It is growing quickly and is on the brink of expansion into the retail market.

While Creegan-Dougherty’s early career path has leveraged her passion for cooking and love of adventure in a number of different ways — from working craft services on film sets to running her own catering business to training as an emergency medical responder — the idea for Maskwa Backcountry Foods was ultimately sparked during a stint working for a backcountry outfitter in 2019.

“Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the backcountry, a lot of time riding. When I got a chance to work up north at the outfitter’s, it was a perfect opportunity to do more of that guiding,” says the business student, who is set to graduate this spring. “I did that for a couple summers and when I was up there, I also worked as a cook.”

When her employer mentioned that he was having difficulty meeting all his clients' specialty food needs, Creegan-Dougherty realized that she could help.

Creegan-Dougherty, who is Métis, explains, “I spent a lot of my childhood at my grandparents’ and cooking in the kitchen with my grandma and my aunties. I modified a lot of my recipes for Maskwa from old heritage cookbooks as well as from my grandma’s recipes, which I’m fortunate to have.

“We also went to lots of different Métis festivals, so I picked up different recipes here and there.”

Now, Creegan-Dougherty has leveraged her knowledge, experience and skills to take Maskwa Backcountry Foods to the next level. She is working on growing her capital, and has partnered with a facility in Leduc for recipe and product development. She is also currently looking for a co-manufacturer to help produce her first two products, which she will pitch to retailers in April. One of the company’s value propositions is that they will prioritize local ingredients and local manufacturers, Creegan-Dougherty says. They also do not use refined sugar or refined flour, or nitrates in their meat products.

A selection of Maskwa foods.

Maskwa Backcountry Foods is a full-fledged company offering Indigenous-inspired, gourmet backcountry food with products that accommodate a wide variety of dietary concerns.

“Since we’re specifically using a lot of Métis recipes and trying to highlight Canadian recipes, we’ve had a lot of people from different countries really interested.”

Creegan-Dougherty would also like to move the company into the Indigenous tourism sector, and has put in her application with Alberta Indigenous Tourism. She has been participating in many events trying to promote as many Indigenous-owned businesses as possible.

“I’ve been able to meet some really interesting people and amazing women,” she says.

MRU programming supports student entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow

While her company’s growth is certainly credited to Creegan-Dougherty’s vision and drive, helpful funding through her success in entrepreneurship programming such as MRU’s LaunchPad, which culminates in the opportunity to take part in one of the biggest student pitch competitions in the province.

Creegan-Dougherty took home $10,000 from JMH & Co. during the JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition in 2022, and is now using the funds to purchase new equipment and work on product development. She also competed — and won third place — in the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards in Halifax last summer and has earned more than $30,000 from various competitions across Canada, which will be critical as she expands her business.

In April, Creegan-Dougherty was named to the top 12 of the Student Entrepreneur National Competition — presented by HSBC Bank Canada. She will pitch her business for the $10,000 grand prize at the 2023 Enactus Canada National Exposition from May 1 to 3.

LaunchPad initiatives help students develop their business ideas through co-curricular programs and personalized coaching. That coaching continues, even after the pitch competition is over, through a booster program.

Creegan-Dougherty says the invaluable support of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has inspired her to pay it forward to other budding entrepreneurs.

“Erin isn't hoping to be an entrepreneur. She is an entrepreneur,” says Ray DePaul, executive director of the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “She has products, customers and all the headaches and exhilaration that comes with that. She is eager to do the work, take the calculated risks necessary to move forward and is always open to advice. When I saw the way she thoughtfully asked questions and offered advice to younger entrepreneurs, we recruited her as a coach in our LaunchPad Lab program. She has a remarkable career ahead of her, regardless of which direction she chooses to take it.”

The 11th annual JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition will take place Wednesday, April 5, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Ross Glen Hall. One of the longest-running and well-attended pitch events in the province, an audience of 300 students, alumni, faculty and community members will gather to support the latest generation of MRU entrepreneurs. The pitch competition is the culmination of months of work by the students combined with mentorship and support. Chosen recipients share in $70,000 in cash and prizes, with seven previous competitors going on to be named Calgary's student entrepreneur of the year by the Entrepreneurs Organization.

“If you've been thinking about an idea, reach out to the Institute now so that expert mentors can help you develop that idea into a real business opportunity. On the way you will learn a lot, join an amazing community and differentiate yourself from your peers in the search for great jobs,” DePaul says.

“LaunchPad features our most entrepreneurial students. As Calgary continues to grow and diversify, we need these innovative and entrepreneurial graduates to solve problems in the world and continue the economic prosperity of Alberta.”

Creegan-Dougherty now encourages all her fellow students to take part in programming offered by the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship as soon, and as often, as they can.

“I’m the biggest advocate for this programming because it was such a life-changing experience for me,” she says. “The company I started with and the company I have now are very different. I really feel so lucky to have been able to participate in those programs that I tell everyone about them. How did I not know about this earlier? I didn’t take advantage of a lot of opportunities early in my university career, so now I sign up for everything — and there are so many programs at MRU.”

Find out more about the LaunchPad Lab, Founders Fund and the JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition, hosted through Mount Royal’s Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.