Michael Sanderson: 'You can create revenue but also do things for the world.'

Michael Sanderson: 'You can create revenue but also do things for the world.'

As it extends its mandate beyond the university’s business school, the Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre is focusing more heavily on helping students launch social enterprises.

Founded almost two decades ago as the Sobey School Business Development Centre, the SMU Entrepreneurship Centre helps students learn about entrepreneurship and start their own businesses. It is now broadening the mandate to work with students from all faculties, not just the Sobey School of Business.

The focus on social ventures – companies whose central mission is to benefit society or the planet as well as make money – is already in the centre’s lifeblood. It has a long history with Enactus, an international group that works with students at post-secondary schools around the world to form social ventures.  

“We’ve seen the success and the opportunities when people get involved in social innovation,” said Director Michael Sanderson in an interview. “You can create revenue but also do things for the world.”

The centre’s involvement with social ventures goes back 17 years to when the centre began its Options Youth program to help troubled youth find jobs by offering employment training. Now, he said, social innovation could be a “real game-changing opportunity” for the centre.

“We are putting a significant amount of effort to say we know social enterprise because we are building an entrepreneurship mindset that specifically resonates with students,” said Sanderson, who joined the centre 17 years ago and became director last March.

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The SMU Entrepreneurship Centre has already had success in generating social ventures, such as Square Roots, which grew out of its Enactus initiative.

Aiming to reduce food waste and help low-income people, Square Roots works with farmers to find produce that would be rejected by normal supermarkets because it’s an odd shape or is unappealing. The company sells bundles of this food to low-income customers, the price depending on what they can afford.

Since launching, the company has distributed over 17,000 pounds of food to hundreds of families, while bringing in nearly $14,000 in revenue, according to its website.

Although the business model is quite simple, Sanderson said, Square Roots has been globally recognized. The team was invited to the Global Restaurant Leadership Forum in Dubai last year to present its social enterprise idea. It gave the young entrepreneurs a chance to discuss the initiative and they met with the CEOs of world-class companies, such as Coca-Cola.

As well as launching social ventures, the Entrepreneurship Centre helps companies to grow and bring on workers. It offers a 50 percent wage subsidy to small and medium-sized companies for hiring youth across the Atlantic region.

Sanderson is also a strong believer in partnership when it comes to serving the public good. One of the centre’s key programs is The Spark Zone, which aims to help students work on business ideas and social innovation. As well as Saint Mary’s, The Spark Zone is backed by NSCAD University, Mount Saint Vincent University, Nova Scotia Community College, University of King’s College, and the Atlantic School of Theology.

“We all have our roles and it’s better if we find our uniqueness and work together,” Sanderson said. “That’s the idea behind The Spark Zone.”