Re-light my fire

Entrepreneurship, that oft-used and misconstrued term has never become more important as a driver of our national economy. Canada is so lucky. We have so much of what the world wants — minerals, food, energy, fresh water, hopefully huge new Arctic resources, and all in a politically secure jurisdiction. It would seem all we need do is sit back, relax and dribble these out to the rest of the world and count the cash.

Recent economic indicators suggest otherwise. Our trade surplus has turned negative (meaning we are buying more of what we want from the world rather than what the world wants from us). Our GDP growth is still anemic compared to growth rates in the emerging markets and our R&D spend by the private sector, arguably a harbinger for the extent to which we can innovate our way to growth, continues to lag other OECD countries. We need desperately to diversify our almost exclusive trading relationship with the United States. We need to generate value from the 600,000 Canadians living in Asia. And we need to develop close economic and cultural ties with the growth engines of the world, in Asia Pacific and Latin America. And at home in Canada, we need to put a real focus on building entrepreneurs, particularly amongst young Canadians.

We need new ways of thinking, we need to foster a new generation of business founders who boldly seek growth opportunities in Beijing and Jakarta rather than London and Paris. We need to be asking the kinds of questions only really asked by those with a fire in their belly and a desire to change the world.

Canada, like most other jurisdictions is still trying to understand how it can support our change agents, how to help people believe in themselves and how to make the best out of limited resources, which after all is at the heart of successful entrepreneurship. There are some examples. An organization called the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (of which I am the chair) is one such effort. Started in the late 1990s by some of Canada’s largest banks in an attempt to play a meaningful role in this space, within five years the organization had burned through most of its funding and its early enthusiasm (in other words, it was in deep doodoo).As luck would have it, we attracted a young lady named Vivian Prokop to the job as CEO and gave her a turn-around and growth mandate. She built a great management team around her vision, raised tens of millions of dollars, generated a role model for other countries aspiring to do the same and helped thousands and thousands of young Canadians pursue a life’s dream of starting and owning their own business. Perhaps most importantly CYBF built an army of volunteer mentors, some 3,500 strong across the country, who play an invaluable role in helping the young entrepreneurs through inevitable litany of challenges which accompany creating any new business.

But this is only a start and is by no means enough. How do we find more entrepreneurs? At what point in one’s life does that spirit begin to incubate? How can we encourage that spirit to grow? How do we remove the all too Canadian stigma of failure from the agenda? How do we do a better job of training the volunteer mentors? How do we find the line between not making it too easy but enough of a challenge to ensure the character of the entrepreneur grows alongside the business? How do we identity those ideas which are the most far-reaching in their possible impact but by definition the most risky to pursue?

This is not a responsibility which belongs to the federal government, or provincial governments or the university sector or any organization like CYBF. It is a collective responsibility. This is about a culture, about understanding the world is going through a gigantic shift in which the power of the U.S. is being replaced by power being created by other jurisdictions, about the decline of Europe, about the role of education as a source of economic might and freedom, not the ownership of raw materials. It is about doing things differently in which respect for the environment and sustainability are paramount concerns. It is about unleashing the desire to improve oneself, to contribute to society in a meaningful way, to make a lasting and positive difference.

That is entrepreneurship. Understand it. Drink it. Get behind it.

John Risley
About John Risley

John Risley, president of Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., regularly engages in policy debate as a member of the World Presidents' Organization, the Chief Executives Organization and as a director on the Board of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.

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