As he gets into stride in his new role as director of Memorial University’s Centre for Entrepreneurship, French-born Florian Villaume keeps in mind what he learned working in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Villaume’s six years in Africa taught him how communities isolated by geography and climate can thrive by striving for the common good. Since assuming his St. John’s-based role in March 2016, Villaume has been struck by some similarities between Sub-Saharan Africa and Atlantic Canada.

“In Atlantic Canada, there’s some of the isolation and strong sense of community I saw in Africa,” he said. “The difficult environment helps bring people together. It can be hard to succeed in isolated environments.

“By leveraging the power of strong community we can create a strong vision and something special — an ecosystem that reflects the values of the community here.”

Villaume said listening was important in Africa, where he met many creative and entrepreneurial people.

“I got to know the culture, living for one year in a village in the desert,” he said. “I wanted to help create change but I didn’t want to be a wise guy from a different country — I saw a lot of that.”

An engineer by training, Villaume first came to Canada in 2004 to complete his master’s degree in fluid mechanics at Laval University in Quebec City.

After graduating, he volunteered to work in Africa on water, sanitation and agriculture projects with Engineers without Borders.

While there, he co-designed and co-managed five international programs, including the Kumvana Program, which brings leaders from Africa and Canada together. (In the Chichewa dialect of Malawi, Kumvana means “unite so we may discuss and understand.”)

He also co-led an $8-million fund to support small and medium-sized agricultural enterprises. It was linked to an investment fund of $50 million, funded in part by the Canadian government. Three entrepreneurs it supported were officially recognized as leaders by then-President Barack Obama in 2014 and 2015.

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Villaume also co-founded “le playground” in Canada, a school that provides leadership courses and interventions.

He said his interest in Africa likely stems from childhood. He was born in Mulhouse, a city in eastern France, and lived in a poor area with many immigrants. One of his best friends was from West Africa.

Villaume suffered from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and wore a brace from age seven to 15. When he was eight years old, his teacher asked him to draw himself and he drew a simple curved line.

“People can be tough with others who are different,” he said. “I grew up wanting to do something meaningful . . . I wanted to study engineering in Quebec — something called me to Canada . . . I’m driven by the need to make an impact.”

He and his wife Lenga, whom he met in Burkina Faso, along with their two boys, are settling into life in St. John’s. He sees an opportunity to contribute.

“Oil and gas are not as strong as they were. There is lots of opportunity to diversify the economy and change how we invest in students and entrepreneurs,” he said.

Like many in the community, he believes in greater regional co-operation, and better branding and connections between organizations that support entrepreneurs.

He said Memorial’s Centre for Entrepreneurship is working with the University of New Brunswick’s Pond-Deshpande Centre to take students from both universities on an educational tour of Boston. The pilot project has two goals: to invest in early-stage entrepreneurs and to help build the ecosystem at Memorial.

He knows that being an outsider is both enabling and limiting.

“It’s important for me to empower people that have a deep understanding of the context here,” he said. “All outsiders have their biases. I bring my own ideas, but I listen carefully to what’s emerging.”