This is the first in a series on the Launch-a-Preneur program, with this week’s feature taking an overview of the program. Articles in upcoming weeks will take a look at the stories behind some of the businesses that have taken part in this program.
The name: Launch-a-Preneur.
Its mission: to support budding entrepreneurs and help make their ideas a reality.
Since 2012, an initiative run out of Okanagan College’s Salmon Arm campus by the Enactus group has been working to ensure a thriving climate for new business ventures.
This bi-yearly entrepreneurship program involves pitching business ideas to students and mentors and refining them over a period of three months. By the end of the program, five finalists make Dragon’s Den-style pitches to judges in a competition for prize money to support their business.
Laureen Shannon, a project coordinator with the Launch-a-Preneur program, says the idea came up after it was realized the changing economy was unearthing a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in Salmon Arm.
“People branched off and then realized they could start their own businesses,” Shannon says. “But there wasn’t something to provide people with a kind of condensed version of the degree program at Okanagan College to be able to launch their business.”
Relan Johanson began her work with Launch-a-Preneur in 2017 and immediately saw the potential of the program.
“I had basically just become a full-time student, and they were like… ‘do you want to help?’ I don’t know how to say no, I volunteer a lot in the community to begin with, so I jumped in,” she says with a laugh. “After seeing the program, I immediately saw the value in it and I’m here to champion for it; I think it’s amazing.”
Johanson thinks that, compared to her experience living in the Lower Mainland, the way people in Salmon Arm rally behind each other is helpful in creating a climate where small businesses can succeed.
“As soon as I moved to a smaller town it felt more like you can control your own destiny. You can do what you want and everyone is so supportive, especially compared to when I lived in Abbotsford and you were just one cog in a giant machine that is the coast,” she says.
Shannon notes compared to similar programs they have seen, the participation in Salmon Arm is staggering.
“It was just interesting to see like for example in Vancouver such minimal people participated compared to our small community,” she says.
In its first year, Launch-a-Preneur saw 23 teams participate and sold more than 250 tickets for the community to hear the final five pitches at the Salmar Classic Theatre. The program has only grown since then, including a new event in 2018 called Start-Up Weekend centred on developing a pitch and business plans for the main competition. Launch-a-Preneur was also recognized at the 2017 B.C. Economic Development Awards as the best community project in a community under 20,000.
Andrew Klingel, an instructor with Okanagan College who has been involved with the Launch-a-Preneur program as a judge and a mentor, sees the program as an amazing kick-start for prospective business owners.
“My perspective on it is I wish I had something like this,” he says. “It’s just such a daunting task to start a business; even a business degree gives a lot of skills but I think this gives them even more. It gives you people to share the experience with, other people in the same boat, that’s really important.”
In addition, he believes the benefit to the students should not be understated.
“If I put my teaching hat on, it’s also a pretty amazing opportunity for the students,” he says. “They’re learning a lot of these things in school, and now they are seeing them applied in the real world.”
Lana Fitt, economic development manager for the Salmon Arm Economic Development Society, notes the numbers don’t lie. The businesses created in the four seasons of the program have generated close to 100 jobs in the community.
“We have seen that sustainability rates for people who have come through the program are exceptional – 90 per-cent,” she says. “It’s measurable, you can see we are adding real value for people.”
She is adamant it is no coincidence levels of business ownership locally have risen alongside the existence of a Salmon-Arm-centric support network for entrepreneurs.
“I think it’s imperative we have it, not just important. We want our businesses to be sustainable and grow. The only way they are going to grow and contribute to the economy is through ensuring their sustainability,” she says. “I feel really strongly that a lot of that comes out of the Launch-a-Preneur program for sure.”