We are in awe of the vibrant abundance of youth and activity here in Vancouver. Everyone looks happy and healthy, and is good-looking without being pretentious. As successful entrepreneur and self-described ‘Rebel With a Cause’ Devon Brooks elegantly put it, ‘One of Vancouver’s strengths is its proximity to nature’. You can look out over open water and across majestic mountains on the turn of your heel.
The outdoors lifestyle is a huge social draw here. As a result, the locals are very grounded in nature and in touch with their environment. In addition, you have a vibrant cosmopolitan city thrown in, a hugely diverse international community, and abundance of open laptops spawning ideas from trendy coffee shops. This seems to be an idyllic land of creative opportunity offering a platform for fun, new adventures both professionally and recreationally. But is that the whole story?
Dig a little deeper and young people here share mirror challenges to our home city, London. Property prices are soaring due to foreign investment and young residents are being priced out of their own neighbourhoods. Is this simply the price we now pay for being an attractive hub, economically prosperous and a good investment for foreign buyers?
A recent article in The Atlantic stated that the percentage of young entrepreneurs is in fact falling. This has been largely attributed to increasing levels of personal debt and greater financial uncertainty. With the exception of a fortunate few, young people simply have less financial breathing space compared to their parents. This is a problem only exacerbated by rising living costs. On the flip side, some young people we have spoken to have taken this as a call to action.
No longer able to invest in a home, but wanting to ‘own something’, they are instead diverting their savings into their own business ideas. The current career vs house price trajectory simply no longer aligns like it did for their parents. For them the only chance is to fast track their earnings through their own venture. Of course this is a first world problem, but is this a globally sustainable model? I’m not so sure.
When we met Devon Brooks, co-founder of Blo Blow Dry Bars, author of motivational memoir Brave Babe and mentor to some of Vancouver’s most exciting start-ups including the Juice Truck and Sangre de Fruta, she told us that one of the largest challenges young entrepreneurs are facing is attaining investment whilst simply sustaining a basic living.
Whilst they are committed to their business venture, entrepreneur’s hands are often too financially tied to step away from their day jobs. Naturally investors are reluctant to invest unless they can see that entrepreneurs are fully ‘invested’ in their company - this means working on the business full-time. With house prices and living costs still on the rise, this gap only looks set to widen. Which presents an interesting opportunity for someone to build a bridge between the two.
This seems to be an idyllic land of creative opportunity offering a platform for fun, new adventures both professionally and recreationally. But is that the whole story?
At the other end of the scale, take a stroll through Gastown and you will be shocked by the sheer volume of homeless people. The area has become a hub where those living on the street have congregated in their hundreds. The contrast between the well-dressed middle class strolling between uber trendy drinking venues, and the community scratching for a living on every pavement in between, is staggering. But again, in true Vancouver style, there are inspiring people pushing an initiative to bridge the divide.
Chef and entrepreneur, Mark Brand has successfully started a number of social enterprises including the B.Corporation, Save on Meats. A local diner and butcher in Gastown, their mission is to feed, train and employ to create a sustainable community. These guys provide daily nutritious meals to those most in need, training for individuals with social physical and mental barriers to employment, and are increasing food security by sourcing local sustainable food from urban farms.
Since 2013, they have provided over 800,000 meals to people in single room occupancies, employed 30 per cent of staff with significant barriers to employment, and trained over 300 students in culinary excellence. Diners can also purchase food tokens for $2.25 to give to homeless people which can then be redeemed for a meal inside the diner. To date over 84,000 tokens have been redeemed.
But it has not all been plain sailing. One challenge Mark has faced in particular is convincing investors of the virtues of a social enterprise over a charitable model. Many investors are still very cautious, favouring to instead give out large sums as a one-off charitable donation. The problem is: what happens when that donation runs out? The model unravels and you’re back to square one.
Whilst some investors seem to be slow on the uptake, consumers are choosing to vote with their wallets. Andrew Clack, Founder of Kuma Sunglasses, highlighted how positively consumers had responded to Kuma’s pledge to plant a tree in Africa for every pair of glasses sold. The benefits of a social enterprise are clear to see when it comes to longer term sustainability, but the key seems to be in educating and tackling the fear investors have of thinking about business in a new way.
Founders of the fantastically community-focussed business, The Juice Truck, Zach and Ryan, highlighted similarly that there is still some antiquated red tape to cut in Vancouver if the city’s entrepreneurial potential is to be fully unleashed. However, they elegantly argue that we should be looking to “inspire change through education, not force it through fear”.
Another company working to tackle divides is HRx – one of the start-ups we met at Spring University – a startup school for purpose-driven entrepreneurs. Founders Wyle and Rachit are disrupting the current recruitment model by removing opportunities for unconscious bias in CV screening. Their model removes any areas where race, religion, or disability could unconsciously influence recruiters at the CV screening stage.
This further amplified our feeling that the people of Vancouver are resonating together towards a greater social existence.
We were touched when Wyle told us that his drive behind HRx was to build a world where his young daughter would grow up to have equal opportunities for success, irrespective of her gender or background. This further amplified our feeling that the people of Vancouver are resonating together towards a greater social existence.
There are incredibly exciting things happening in this city. The people resonate together for greater social equality. They draw strength and balance from the natural environment that surrounds them and nurtures their creativity. There are challenges to be faced, but the seeds of change are sown.
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