Written by Andrew Seale
They walk among us, clandestine fellows of a sacred startup order: Venture for Canada. The rigorously-trained entrepreneurs, a sleeper cell in wait, have established themselves in the ranks of some of the Toronto’s fastest growing companies – receipt management startup Sensibill, ordering app Ritual, small biz platform Shopify, reading and writing community Wattpad, biometrics startup Nymi, borrowing app Borrowell… the list goes on.
And the degree to which the 90 fellows (soon to be 155, once the third cohort graduates) have penetrated the startup market could be considered troubling. Unless, of course, you’re Scott Stirrett, executive director and founder of Venture for Canada, the not-for-profit that recruits, trains and supports these sleeper cells of top recent graduates to work at Canadian startups in need of talent.
In his case, it’s all part of the plan, actually.
The Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-native and Georgetown University grad first came across the Venture for America model, on which Venture for Canada is loosely based, while working at Goldman Sachs in the U.S.
“Venture for America were and still are addressing this gap between people leaving school and entering the workforce and trying to get jobs in a startup,” says Stirrett. He questioned why nothing like it existed in Canada. So in 2014, he exported the model, recruiting recent grads through an intense four-step interview process – written, video, phone and finally, in-person.
The first cohort saw 800 applicants with Venture for Canada accepting 36 but Stirrett knew he’d hit identified a pain-point when demand skyrocketed in the second cohort.
“We received 1,700 applicants and we took about 55 fellows,” he says. They’re now onto their third cohort. “It’s become a very competitive program, we get lots of applicants from all over Ontario and Atlantic Canada, all over America and a fair number from Quebec and Western Canada.”
Fellows attend a training camp at Queen’s University in Kingston, living and breathing the entrepreneurial lifestyle over the five-weeks, marrying practical exercises like building businesses in small teams and attending lectures on everything from marketing to raising funding. After that, Venture for Canada helps them find jobs at startups for two years, mentoring them throughout the process and even as they move onwards through their career, filling in the gaps with speaker series and meet-ups.
“Working for a startup is a fantastic way to develop leadership skills both hard and soft regardless of what they do later in their life,” says Stirrett. He credits a growing interest of working at startups amongst young people with the fellowship program’s success. But the trendiness of entrepreneurship does have a downside.
“It’s almost become too trendy sometimes (with) too many people creating companies for the sake of creating companies,” he says. “We’re saying launch if it's a problem you're uniquely suited to help to address and ready to, go launch a company.”
Who knows, the VfC fellowship, Stirrett’s wide-reaching network of entrepreneurs will be the next great founders, or maybe they’ll become the backbone of some of Canada’s greatest startup success stories.
“It helps to addresses the issue of (keeping) talented people in Canada and in Toronto,” says Stirrett. “And that’s what really motivates me.”
Venture for Canada Profiles
Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)