They sold candles and coffee, keychains and jewelry. The small businesses that brought customers to the University Community Centre Atrium on March 28 had one key trait in common: they are all run by Western students or alumni.
The Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship, Powered by Ivey, recruited the shops for a Spring Market at the University Community Centre, a reflection of the entrepreneurial spirit growing among the Western community.
“For some students, they think if they are not in business or interested in business, they can’t be an entrepreneur, or it’s not a path for them. It doesn’t matter what faculty or discipline you are studying, if you have the drive and you are passionate, you can pursue it,” said Nicole Baranowski, BA‘19, MSc‘21, an advisor and coach at Morrissette Entrepreneurship.
“We offer the tools, skills and resources to make that happen. One of those opportunities – a very low-risk, friendly way to get their businesses in front of people – is markets like this.”
Morrissette Entrepreneurship offers a host of resources, from workshops and speakers to pitch competitions and seed money for new ventures. It is free and available not just to current students, but graduates as well as Western faculty and staff.
From the first-year engineering student who started making rings for her friends and now sells worldwide, to the sisters and their best friend who turned an environmental passion into a line of sustainable products, entrepreneurs at Western have the drive to make a difference.
“It’s a great opportunity to showcase the diversity of Western’s entrepreneurship community,” said Eric Morse, executive director of Morrissette Entrepreneurship and special advisor to the president on entrepreneurship at Western.
“People often think an entrepreneur is a specific type of individual with a specific type of education, but Western founders represent every discipline on campus, inhabit every industry in Canada, and showcase their unique identity and passion in a variety of ways.”
Western entrepreneurs also share a commitment to constant improvement, Baranowski said.
“Everyone here is very curious to learn more and provide value to the world. Some have just started their business this year, others have been at this for a few years, and they are still looking for ways to become better entrepreneurs or better versions of themselves,” she said.
UMI Studios, by Jana Abu Deyah, Reeman Abu Deyah and Jessica Larios
UMI Studios honours dual passions for the environment and design. Started by sisters Jana and Reeman Abu Deyah, and their best friend Jessica Larios, the candle and ceramics company is all about sustainability.
“It’s our sourcing, our production, how much energy we use,” said Reeman Abu Deyah, a first-year geography student.
They use beeswax from small farms in Ontario and Quebec and cotton wicks for their candles. All the stands and even the décor used in their market display were purchased second-hand from thrift stores.
The trio wants to advocate for sustainable consumerism.
The goal was to ensure their products have the smallest impact on the Earth even if they are thrown away – but at the same time, trying to avoid the quick consume-and-discard model of the modern world.
“We all bring our own interpretations, our own experiences to the creative process. It comes from all of our shared interests, specifically the environment,” said Jana Abu Deyah, BHSc‘22.
The Western graduate, who earned a double major – health sciences and environment and health – said the business gives her a chance to connect her education to her business pursuits.
The business began during the pandemic, with virtual meetings between the three founders.
“It was a good opportunity to bond,” Jana said.
“It’s crazy to think this is a business, because it’s so fun,” Reeman added. “We like to design, we like to create.”
Rings by Maria, by Branka Verhoeven
It started as a summertime project, crafting rings for friends. Now Branka Verhoeven, a first-year engineering student, has sold her jewelry to customers in 10 countries – some as far away as Australia – mailing out 500 orders across the globe.
The first day she launched her Instagram page, she was overwhelmed with 73 direct-message orders.
“It just took off. I spent two days straight preparing all the orders,” she said.
“I started off selling just to the US and Canada, then took it worldwide. I’ve since sold to Dubai, Italy, Spain, France.”
Verhoeven said it’s a challenge to stay on track with her engineering program and her own company.
“I just make it work,” she said with a chuckle.
Despite the strain of managing a business and schooling, Verhoeven said she wouldn’t change her path. She also wanted to pursue a business degree, so entrepreneurial work feels like a good fit.
“I wouldn’t want to give this up. It’s fun.”
Hairstrong, by Nicole Baranowski
Baranowski was inspired by her own struggles with regular hair ties failing to do the job when she was a varsity athlete balancing a full-time courseload, full-time training schedule, and a part-time job. Her adjustable ponytails include a toggle to fit the scrunchie to an individual and ensure it holds tight without causing hair damage.
“One of my values in life is being efficient. I kept having to readjust my hair through everything, which was so aggravating to me. I thought because I chose to have long hair, this was the consequence,” she said. “I realized my hair was actually never the problem, it was the products advertised as one-size-fits-all that don’t really fit anyone well.”
It originally started as a class project, an entrepreneurship in kinesiology course that spurred her to create the scrunchie. That led her to Morrissette Entrepreneurship. She used the resources and programs to help launch Hairstrong, later joining the team as a staff member to cover expenses while growing her business.
The products are handmade locally and Baranowski admits her business is in “survival mode” after weathering the strain of the pandemic. But the journey has brought her so many gifts, she said.
“Entrepreneurial skills in general are valuable, no matter what industry you are in,” Baranowski said.
“For me, the biggest takeaway was forcing me to learn about myself. It happened quicker here than on any other path.”