After a 20-year banking career, Anu Bidani had a decision to make: She could continue in the corporate world or she could channel her passion for technology and innovation into her own business.
“I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart,” she says, so she chose the riskier route and created STEM Minds, which provides STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — and now arts — programs for children.
“Theoretically, I knew how to put a business together,” says Bidani, who holds an MBA and a computer science degree, “but launching a business like this is all about community. That was my fear factor.” All of those 5 a.m. commutes to downtown Toronto and long days, explains the Aurora resident, hadn’t left her time to get to know her community.
She decided, then, that the best place to start was within the community so she contacted the York Small Business Enterprise Centre (YSBEC). “I met with a consultant there who invited me to a group session on starting a small business,” says Bidani. “She was a wonderful source and my journey really started with that connection. She introduced me to a lot of strategic partners.”
One of those strategic partners was NewMakeIt. NewMakeIt is a 7,300-square-foot innovation studio in Newmarket that helps entrepreneurs and other creative minds develop their ideas in a cost-effective, collaborative environment. The not-for-profit features a “makerspace,” complete with digital fabrication tools and other machinery, and an open-concept “co-working” space.
Bidani started renting a desk in the co-working space. “Not only did I find myself surrounded by people who all had similar passions and ideas,” she says, “but we were all learning from each other. It was powerful.” Then, because STEM Minds hadn’t a location yet, Bidani struck up an agreement with NewMakeIt’s co-founders to hold her programs at NewMakeIt. They even helped her design and construct wooden work stations for her students and offered advice on purchasing equipment, such as 3D printers.
“At the beginning, I had only three paying kids for a four-week program,” says Bidani, “but within a couple of months, I had 15 and had reached my capacity.” NewMakeIt’s membership was growing too, so Bidani moved STEM Minds to a temporary storefront unit in Newmarket while she looked for a permanent home for her business.
She also attended a job fair at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, where she met with education students about to graduate. She ultimately hired 16 aspiring teachers as part-time instructors — “a milestone moment” she says.
The teachers create and deliver STEM Minds programs, which have expanded to include 3D and 2D design, game and app design and development, coding, digital photography and more. And now that STEM Minds is an approved vendor with the York Region District School Board, Bidani plans to extend her programs to high schools as well as offer professional development programs for teachers who want to learn more about STEM.
In May 2017, STEM Minds moved to an even larger facility in Aurora. The new location can accommodate up to 24 students. Bidani also recently partnered with ZerotoStartup, a youth program that exposes participants to entrepreneurship and technology.
It’s been a dizzying rate of change, and Bidani has had to adjust her business plan accordingly.
“What I’d planned to do in Years 2 or 3, I did in Year 1,” she says. “Not because I wanted to, but because the market demanded it!”
You can learn more about STEM Minds and continue following this local York Region success story at stemminds.com.
Sara Bedal is a writer, editor and plain-language specialist in Aurora who helps businesses and organizations communicate more effectively. She can be reached at [email protected].