December 20, 2018
WE is scaling up in a major way — the Toronto-based charity is investing about $30 million to build a high-tech facility boasting a slate of programs geared toward grooming the fledgling concepts of socially conscious young entrepreneurs.
The youth-empowerment organization’s proposed 41,000-square-foot WE Social Entrepreneurship Centre to be constructed next to WE’s bustling 43,000-square-foot Global Learning Centre — at the corner of Queen and Parliament Sts. — will allow the organization to expand its initiative of fostering the burgeoning enterprises led by people between the ages of 18 to 35.
“The reason we are targeting the under 35, is because that segment has double the unemployment rate of the average for Canada,” said WE co-founder Craig Kielburger. “Almost all of our programs have been focused on people under 18. As we hit our 25th anniversary this is a milestone for us and a dramatic extension of our mandate.”
The new project offers two streams, with the first hinged on sparking a national movement of social entrepreneurs with resources to improve their business development skills.
“That focuses on the 7,000 (secondary and post-secondary) schools that run our programs across Canada,” Craig said. “It’s helping those people create micro-social enterprises.”
Secondly, the Scale Up branch, which offers a multi-year training and incubator for ventures tailored to finding solutions for social woes — a natural progression for the charity and its leaders, brothers < a href="https://www.thestar.com/authors.global_voices.html">Craig and Marc Kielburger.
About 12 entrepreneurs will qualify for the inaugural year with the goal of growing to a cohort of 50.
“We will help them develop an earned income model, but for the purpose of solving a social need in the community,” Craig said. “You can be incubated and supported by us for an extended period of time. We anticipate many of the ventures going as long as five years.”
The queue of interested candidates is already growing before the first brick is laid, Craig said.
Kielburger’s team is currently vetting entrepreneurial projects including a fabric line made entirely of recyclable materials and a franchise of Indigenous-owned businesses, which specializes in servicing rural communities.
The mission was to have the new facility ready for the charity’s 25th anniversary in 2020, but Kielburger concedes that timeline is lofty, so they’ve settled for 2021.
“The 25th is about empowering the next young person, who dreams of creating innovation around social good,” Craig said.
WE has come a far way from its humble beginnings. Craig’s commitment to social change was ignited by a 1995 Toronto Star article about child poverty.
WE was founded on the premise of making it easy for people of all ages to use social causes to better the world.
It’s cornerstone is the WE Charity, which empowers domestic and international change through its WE Schools and WE Villages programs, along with ME to WE, a social enterprise that creates and sells socially conscious products to support the charity.
The organization now fosters the social causes of more than two million young people, in Canada alone, Craig said. Its worldwide reach has manifested in the construction of more than 1,000 schools and helped in excess of one million people in need of clean water.
“They’ve raised over $120 million over the years for different charities,” Craig said of funds generated globally by young people participating in the WE Schools initiative, which allows youth to raise money for local and international causes of their choice.
Last year, Canadian students alone raised $10 million in support of 3,789 local and global causes, and volunteered over four million hours of service.
It’s marquee event — WE Day — is a cultural phenomenon which has attracted some of the most renowned celebrities in the world to a jam-packed Toronto arena.
The Kielburgers are stewarding an ambitious road map for the 2021 opening of the entrepreneurship hub, on the heels of launching the learning centre a year ago. New programming will commence in advance of project completion.
Craig told the Star his mission is multi-faceted: offering access to seed funding, free training programs, mentorship, technology, and work space, all while rejuvenating the underserved Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhood.
“Our charity grew up in this area,” Craig said about the operation with tentacles reaching across the globe, with branches in the United States and Britain, all steered from a Toronto headquarters with 500 staff. “We don’t want communities forced out as Toronto changes. Our dream is to make this whole neighbourhood a hub of social entrepreneurship.”
That work started with the restoration of the former home of the Marty Millionaire furniture store, which earned the William Greer Architectural Conservation and Craftsmanship Award at the 44th Annual Heritage Toronto Awards in October.
Work will now commence on gutting the derelict neighbouring property, giving birth to the high-tech entrepreneurship centre, with its wealth of studio space, Skype pods, room to showcase products and an army of in-house experts and mentors.
WE’s capital expansion also draws into focus the support of corporate and individual donors including Winnipeg businessman Hartley Richardson and his son Thor, who have pitched in millions to sprout the first buds of seed money needed for both projects.
“Thor gave a landmark seven-figure gift to support the organization on this project,” Craig said. “One generation supported the Global Learning Centre and the next generation is supporting social entrepreneurship.”
An entrepreneur himself, Thor Richardson is an avid WE advocate. He recently sold a startup the liquor business.
“I was very drawn to how effective they are at reaching young people and changing their lives,” Richardson, 30, said, adding that while building a WE school in Kenya two years ago, he was inspired support WE’s capital project in Canada. “There is a real need for Canada to encourage our youth to get out there and start something.”