How vital is entrepreneurship to the future of Ontario?
April 10, 2017

How vital is entrepreneurship to the future of Ontario? How important are entrepreneurial skills to creating a robust, adaptable workforce? And how do we ensure entrepreneurs and innovators can thrive in communities across Ontario?

Those were a few of the questions that were discussed and debated in Kingston last week as a mix of students, academics, city officials, and innovation and business leaders gathered at Queen’s University for a roundtable on entrepreneurship.

The afternoon began with a broad question from Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf, who moderated the discussion: What is the role of entrepreneurship in the economy today, and how has it changed in the last several decades?

Sarah Muma, a Queen’s student and co-founder of the company North Sprout, noted that “entrepreneurship is more of a mindset than a job title” and that it is important for students to understand how small businesses work as they go into the workforce. A recent report from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada found that 87.7 per cent of net new private jobs from 2005 to 2015 were created by small businesses with 99 employees or fewer, giving credence to Sarah’s insight.

Around the table, there was also broad agreement that entrepreneurship has been on the rise in the last few decades. That’s in part because there are more tools available to entrepreneurs, which allows small companies to have a bigger effect, argued Craig Desjardins, a Senior Manager in Innovation and Institutional Partnerships with the City of Kingston.

From there the conversation turned to how universities and communities can support entrepreneurial activities and develop the entrepreneurial skills of workers and students.

For James Fraser, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, Engineering Physics & Astronomy, one major step would involve a cultural change in how universities and students look at graduate studies. Fraser argued that graduate students should be nurtured as entrepreneurs who come to the university to work on a substantial project with the support of the university and the community.

Others echoed that idea, and noted that having faculty champions of entrepreneurship across departments would also help students from a broader range of disciplines and backgrounds become aware of the importance of entrepreneurship.

But there was also recognition that fostering entrepreneurship and innovation takes more than one program or one department, and is about more than the work of universities alone. Productive relationships and partnerships between different sectors are vital, said Yuri Levin, the Chair of Analytics in the Smith School of Business. Collaboration between different levels of government, and between employers, universities and the city, is what creates opportunities.

Donna Gillespie, the Interim CEO of the Kingston Economic Development Corporation, acknowledged that the connection between city and campus in Kingston could still be stronger, and for Jim McLellan, the head of Chemical Engineering at Queen’s and co-founder of the Queen’s Summer Innovation Initiative, the university also had work to do in reaching out to business: “We have to build our relationships with our industry partners,” he said, so that students can be aware of opportunities around them.

The theme of collaboration ran through the afternoon’s discussion. Presented with a popular conception of entrepreneurship as individualistic, everyone agreed that the opposite was in fact true: collaboration is inherent to entrepreneurship. And it didn’t take long for that principle to become a reality. As connections were established and plans were made for future work, it was clear that those at the table in Kingston were ready to collaborate – right then and there!

What role do you think entrepreneurship plays in creating a better future for Ontario? Please share your thoughts, either by filling out our survey or writing us at insights@ontariosuniversities.ca, because as we continue #futuring across the province, the conversation only begins with roundtables.

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