Ilana Ben-Ari had no intention of calling Toronto home. Initially, the Carleton University industrial design grad and social entrepreneur was focused on the Montreal market as the best place to commercialize her invention, The Empathy Toy – a learning tool that requires two players to build the same construct out of two identical sets of asymmetrical puzzle pieces while blindfolded by developing a common language.

But in time it became clear that Toronto would make for a better home base for her newly minted Twenty One Toys.

“I had so many friends who had moved to Toronto and started businesses,” she says. “One friend in particular who was working out of the Centre for Social Innovation said ‘look, come to Toronto, sleep on my couch, see if you like it and if you do, you should move here’ so I did that.” 

Within two days, Ilana had made the rounds at the Centre for Social Innovation and attended a conference at the Mars Discovery District.

“That conference validated everything I was doing and actually gave me a language to describe what I was doing – developing 21st century skills,” she recalls. “I had two organizations that said ‘hey, we want to use these toys, let’s do this, let’s try this.”

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So she did packed up and moved to Toronto to build the business. She knew building a social enterprise surrounding the toy would be a struggle; she’d been well-versed in those challenges during her first attempts to persuade schools to invest in the product while she was still in Montreal.

But the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board saw her TEDx talk on Twitter and approached her about doing a run of 30 toy sets. She found a factory in Toronto’s Junction neighborhood that could produce them.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride since, one that contrasts the slow ascent she found during her time in Montreal trying to sell the toy.

“The ecosystem here is so amazing,” she says. “Elsewhere people were excited with what we were doing but it was only in Toronto where people got excited and said ‘come to this thing with me’ or ‘how can I support you’ or ‘hey, there’s these four awards out there you should totally apply for.’ ”

It was those awards that helped get Twenty One Toys off the ground. So far, the company has won 15 in the social innovation and design sphere.

“I needed that support,” she says, “I’m mass producing wooden toys that teach empathy to schools and I have no investors – that’s crazy.”

Since 2012, Twenty One Toys has grown its production runs exponentially. The Empathy Toy is in over 1,000 schools in 43 countries and used by businesses globally to teach empathy and understanding in the workplace. 

But Toronto continues to be home for Twenty One Toys. In addition to winning space and resources from the Centre for Social Innovation, the startup won the Spin Master Innovation Fund, run by Canada’s biggest toy company Toronto-headquartered Spin Master toys.  They also received support and funding from Futurpreneur.

“We’ve had incredible support from all of these organizations,” she says. “It’s amazing knowing they truly believe in what we’re doing.”

And finding that community of support is an important part of building a successful company says the social entrepreneur.

“Communities like the Centre for Social Innovation and other hubs support social entrepreneurs, I love being a part of that cohort,” says Ilana. “As far as I’m concerned, Toronto is staying a part of the DNA.”