Small business program helps youth rise to the occasion
by Bria John
Bria John | Bowties created by Jasmine Swimmer, current student of the program.
By 6 p.m. students start trickling in and it’s just like any other classroom – they catch up with each others’ days, they take out their homework and check their phones one last time.
The difference is that this is a youth entrepreneur class for students with a history of mental illness.
The Youth Small Business program run by Rise Asset Development out of Rotman’s School of Management at the University of Toronto offers youth a chance to start anew. After the students complete the two and a half month-long intensive session, they can apply to the program for a loan and start their own business.
Jodi Butts, program coordinator, says that the program works because it’s not clinical.
“We're giving people an opportunity to be in a safe space but not have to talk about it if they don't want to. And we relate to them as entrepreneurs,” she said. “We also give people permission to start a new chapter and that's a very liberating thing.”
Typical onset for mental illness is between 16 and 24 so for those who have suffered a derailment early in their life, their dream job can seem far away.
“But you can pursue it in a business. So long as you do the work on a business plan and you have some knowledge to draw upon to be successful, we feel like entrepreneurship is a really great option,” Butts said.
At 6:30 p.m. Mary Ross starts the day’s class on how to use social media to promote businesses. Ross has taught the class for almost three years.
“Although some of our students may be high school aged, it’s not a high school program. We teach entrepreneur skills at a sophisticated level and we don’t compromise on quality,” Ross said.
Admission to the program is based on the personal readiness of the student and in the business idea. By graduation, the students will not only have a viable business plan but also, through a Rise loan, a chance to launch a viable business as well.
At 8 p.m., Cassandra John (no relation to the writer) gets up to speak. The Toronto-native is an alumna of the program and has joined the social media teams for Manifesto, the Toronto-based music platform and Caribbean Tales, the film festival.
“I feel like I found out what I was good at while I was in the program. I found that I could persevere,” John said. “You’re in an environment where you don’t feel judged, everybody’s willing to work with each other, help each other and grow.”
Rise is inclusive and accessible to people from all educational backgrounds - a plus in John’s eyes. John was in fashion PR before getting into Rise. She heard about the program from a friend three years ago.
“If people are willing to refer the program it makes us feel really good because it’s the best evidence that people had a positive experience,” Butts said.
Ross saw John at an event held by another graduate and asked her to speak to the class. Those kinds of connections are the hidden card of the program.
“The more students we can keep in touch with, the more connections we can make. That way alumni can become mentors,” Ross said.
One of the foundational elements of the program is transparency. Ross has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and she shares that with the class on the first day.
“It’s like that Hair Club for Men commercial, I’m also a member of the club,” Ross said.
John and Jasmine Swimmer, a student in the program, both struggle with depression and say having Ross teach the class is a comfort.
“It’s because somebody’s not looking at you from a place of judgment, it makes the connection a lot more personal,” John said.
“Just to see that she gets where we’re coming from, and the struggles that we face, has really helped overall to get to the end goal,” Swimmer said.
Swimmer has big dreams for her high-end bowtie line called Blessed and Highly Favoured; she plans to hire employees once her business does well enough.
“I’m excited to start hiring employees – especially those with mental illness and disabilities because I think they are very stigmatized and so don’t get hired,” Swimmer said.
“It was accomplishment because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone so I’m really grateful to Mary for giving me that opportunity."
Bria John | The Christmas Market at Rotman's on December 2.
Rise’s accommodation policy is also a bit freer. Because the classroom is diverse in terms of mental health diagnoses, they evaluate accommodations on an individual basis.
“Some schools have policies that are strict – if x, then y. We have the freedom to decide what students need on a case-by-case basis,” Ross said.
This year, for example, for the first time there are simultaneous sign language interpreters in the classroom.
Mental health discussions, however, don’t often come up during class.
“We’re a business class first. Those kinds of discussions mostly come up one-to-one when the student and I are talking homework, for example,” Ross said.
Ross credits her learning disability, synaesthesia, for her ability to relate to people. Synaesthesia is when the stimulation of one sense involuntarily stimulates another, like perceiving numbers with associated colours. For Ross, numbers have associated personalities so math was like a “soap opera.”
“Having to create relationships between numbers to understand math points to a highly tuned empathy so creating a rapport with my students comes really naturally,” she said.
The students are also encouraged to network among themselves, and it comes easily because they’ve been in the trenches together. After a month together the students already have an easy manner with each other.
After class John sits with some stragglers who are picking her brain.
“If you told me even two weeks ago [that I’d be sitting with the students] I would have been like “uh no, that’s not going to happen.” It was accomplishment because I pushed myself out of my comfort zone so I’m really grateful to Mary for giving me that opportunity,” John said.