Connecting to the entrepreneurship ecosystem to fuel social enterprise growth

At Pillar, we embed our network approach in the way we leverage the local, regional, national and global ecosystem for entrepreneurship and social enterprise to expand our social enterprise program. Connecting to these various networks has been a critical success factor in helping to support the development of social enterprises in our region and beyond. The connections we have formed across geographic locations have also helped to elevate the profile of social enterprise and illustrate the benefits of social purpose businesses as a key economic contributor. Read more to see how we developed these connections and learn about the social enterprise and entrepreneurship ecosystems you can connect to if you are part of a social enterprise or support network.

London Ontario’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

From the outset of our first social enterprise project at Pillar – Social Enterprise for Sustainable Communities – our advisory committee included representatives from the existing entrepreneurship ecosystem in London including, Community Futures Development Corporation, Ivey School of Business, London Chamber of Commerce, London Economic Development Corporation, Small Business Centre, and TechAlliance. Through these partnerships, we recognized that mainstream business supports are well equipped to deliver services to entrepreneurs at all stages of business creation. We leverage the specific business and industry expertise of our partners as we recognize we don’t have to be all things to all entrepreneurs, we can specialize in embedding social and community into business.

Another opportunity for collaboration with local support networks was BizGrid – an at a glance business support guide. In our work we often borrow ideas from other communities and this was a model developed in Windsor. The project was developed with the guiding questions “who am I”, “where should I go” and “what do I need” to help entrepreneurs connect to the right local business support organizations. This tool has been highly used and continues to be a valuable resource for entrepreneurs.

Through our work to support social enterprises in our community, a goal for us has been that nonprofits and social enterprises become recognized for their role in economic development. With time and effort, the recognition of nonprofits and social enterprise as economic drivers has become easier. When Pillar was invited to London’s Entrepreneur Support Network table and the Economic Road Map Advisory Group, we knew we had turned a corner. As an outcome of London’s Economic Roadmap, we were involved in the creation of and the #LondonCan campaign. This website promotes local entrepreneurs though videos and a social media campaign, and connects prospective business owners to local resources.

Another pivotal moment that confirmed a shift in understanding of the impact and potential of social enterprise in London was illustrated in an article written by Gerry MacCartney, CEO, London Chamber of Commerce after he attended a breakfast hosted by Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU). In the article, he referenced that the Chamber’s partnership with Pillar to develop the London Business Achievement Award for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and to host two CSR workshops had shifted his thinking. He also shared that attending the YOU breakfast event and hearing the youth speak of the impact of social enterprise on their lives opened his eyes. 

Southwestern Ontario’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

As part of Ontario’s Social Enterprise Strategy for 2006-2021, the provincial government launched the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) Social Enterprise Partnerships program. The program includes four regional hubs in partnership with the Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs (ONE) to embed social enterprise components in their organizations and programs, and ensure that social enterprise support organizations are part of their entrepreneur support model. Pillar was a contributor in developing this partnership strategy and we were enthusiastic to see this approach that built on our experience of embedding social enterprise in our local entrepreneurship ecosystem being adopted around the province.

As part of the ONE Social Enterprise Partnerships program, we collaborated with Windsor University’s EPICentre, Innovate Niagara, Huron Small Business Enterprise Centre, and Waterloo Region Small Business Centre to launch Social Enterprise Southwest (SESW). SESW supports both social entrepreneurs and network organizations through education, funding and programing. The project demonstrated a capacity to leverage existing resources and partnerships to collaborate with non-traditional stakeholders, and a desire to support a strong, innovative economy that can provide jobs, opportunities and prosperity for their respective communities.

One successful outcome of the project was the way that Pillar’s Network Animator worked collaboratively with SESW partners to animate social enterprise in Southwestern Ontario through digital storytelling. A key element of Network Animation was transforming aspects of SESW programming into educational and inspiring media, such as videos produced in digital storytelling workshops, and blog entries spotlighting social enterprises and related events around the region. Additionally, we successfully collaborated with our partner organizations to develop a comprehensive program evaluation. Using data from multiple sources, the evaluation explored SESW’s impact for social enterprises, ONE members, and the social enterprise ecosystem and reported on what the partners have learned about supporting social enterprise in the course of their partnership.

Through our work to support social enterprises in our community, a goal for us has been that nonprofits and social enterprises become recognized for their role in economic development. With time and effort, the recognition of nonprofits and social enterprise as economic drivers has become easier.

In addition to these projects, we partnered with the other three regional hub projects for the Ontario Network for Entrepreneurs Social Enterprise Program and pooled some of our grant monies to create a Social Enterprise Network. We also worked with our partners and developed the Social Enterprise Coach Program to train traditional business coaches on the additional tools and resources available to support social enterprises. We developed the program with the recognition of the vast knowledge held by local entrepreneurship ecosystems and our desire for social enterprises to seek support through their local centres. Through this program, we set our to share our expertise so that it is housed locally in each community with the hope that each community is able to grow their knowledge and share their learnings back with us.

Canada’s entrepreneurship ecosystem

When Pillar had the opportunity to co-host the Canadian Conference on Social Enterprise with the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, this elevated our work to a national stage and connected us to the national social enterprise ecosystem. The three day conference with the theme of ‘Telling Your Story’ had more than 350 delegates, 40 speakers, and 20 exhibitors. All levels of government were in attendance and the event garnered extensive media coverage.

Our team has also attended and presented at other national conferences maintaining our relationships and connections for shared learning. We maintain national partnerships with CEDnet, Buy Social, Common Good Solutions and Social Enterprise Institute.

The global entrepreneurship ecosystem

Members of our team have also attended the World Social Enterprise Forum hosted by the Social Enterprise Alliance in San Francisco, California; Calgary, Alberta; and Edinburgh, Scotland. At the World Social Enterprise Forum in Calgary, we participated in a pitch competition for our social innovation shared space. While we were not selected as the award recipient, the learning and coaching was invaluable to our development particularly around ensuring that our model met the needs of a mid-sized cities because so many of the existing models were developed for large urban centres.

In 2017, our team headed to Ukraine to share our models for social enterprise and social innovation with local elected officials and city staff from municipalities in Ukraine. This project was initiated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and was called Partnership for Local Economic Development and Democratic Governance. There was a growing appetite in Ukraine to explore social enterprise as a model of growth and community development. When we were invited initially, the team in Ukraine felt they were looking to grow social enterprise and by the time we got there they had done a research study that showed they already had more than 700 social enterprises, many of them women-led.

The next year, a delegation from Ukraine came to Ontario to explore how municipalities can set up programs and/or organizations to support social enterprise with a focus on programs that support and encourage women’s participation in business. We presented to the delegation along with Innovation Works, the Centre for Social Innovation, Artscape and the Waterloo Regional Small Business Centre about their experiences and learnings as intermediaries providing capacity building, shared space and access to capital to support social enterprises and women entrepreneurs. 

Future opportunities

Building on our previous work, along with our partners Centre for Social Innovation (Central Ontario), Okwaho Innov8 Centre (Eastern Ontario) and NORDIK Institute (Northern Ontario) we are leading the Women of Ontario Social Enterprise Network (WOSEN) that will connect siloed networks of diverse women with established entrepreneurship ecosystems and Ontario’s social enterprise assets. This program is just getting started and will offer accelerators for women social entrepreneurs, training for those in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and gender lens investing.

Connect to the entrepreneurship and social enterprise ecosystem 
Whether you’re part of an organization that supports social enterprises, are looking to start your business, or are just interested in learning more about social enterprise and entrepreneurship, explore the links below to see how you can find support and expand your professional network.
London and area
  • Pillar Nonprofit Network – Check out the social enterprise supports we offer at Pillar including, workshops, coaching, consulting services, funding, and the Libro Social Enterprise Incubator. 
  • Innovation Works – Innovation Works is London’s first co-working space for social innovators. There are many ways to join our community such as becoming a cotenant, or dropping in for our Socialpreneur Chats.
  • Findyouranswers.bizFind your answers aims to be a first step in making connections between entrepreneurs and service providers in London. Join the conversation and share your entrepreneurship story by using the #LondonCan hashtag. 
  • TechAlliance – If you’re looking to launch or grow your tech business, want education opportunities or to attend networking events, be sure to familiarize yourself with Tech Alliance. 
  • Small Business Centre – Connect with the Small Business Centre if you’re part of a new or growing business for education, networking, mentorship and funding opportunities. Experienced professionals are welcomed as mentors. 
  • The Business Help Centre of Middlesex County – The Business Help Centre provides business consulting, financing, workshops and economic development for eight municipalities in Middlesex County. 
  • London Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) –  LEDC is the lead economic development agency for London, Canada. The organization works with business, government and community partners to attract business investment and develop a connected and supportive business climate in London. 
  • Propel – Propel is a start-up accelerator located at Western University. The centre provides co-working space, seed funding, mentorship, training programs, events and workshops for startups at all stages of growth. 
  • Leap Junction  – Leap Junction is a student entrepreneurial support organization offered through Fanshawe college. The program offers mentorship, workshops, in-class learning, pitch training and competitions, networking events and campus marketplace opportunities.
Southwestern Ontario
  • Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs – The Ontario Network of Entrepreneurs brings together a group of business support centres across the province who provide support whether you’re looking to start, grow or finance your business. 
  • Social Enterprise Southwest (SESW) – SESW supports both social entrepreneurs and network organizations through education, coaching and connections.
  • University of Windsor Epicentre – EPICentre provides programs and services that are intended to help students and recent graduates start and grow their businesses.
  • Innovate Niagara – Connect with Innovate Niagara for networking, collaboration, prototyping, and business development. 
  • Huron County Small Business Centre – Supporting small business owners in Huron County, the Small Business Centre offers professional consultations, free business plan reviews, seminars, and networking opportunities.  
  • Waterloo Region Small Business Centre – Entrepreneurs in the Waterloo region can find all the support they need through the Small Business Centre including programming, networking and the option to join a Business Club providing access to exclusive online content. 
  • Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) – CSI is a coworking space for social entrepreneurs in Toronto that provides access to promotional opportunities, networking and community, free consultations with experts, access to capital, exclusive programming and more.
  • The Social Enterprise Council of Canada – The Social Enterprise Council of Canada is a membership organization for social entrepreneurs and supporters. They aim to link social entrepreneurs to resources and to develop a policy environment to support the growth of social enterprise in the county. 
  • Common Good Solutions – Located in Halifax, Common Good Solutions helps governments, community organizations and entrepreneurs achieve impact through consulting, training, a business incubator, and their co-working space – The Good Hub. 
  • The Canadian Community Economic Development Network (CCEDNet) – CEDNET is a national member association for organizations and people who are committed to strengthening communities by creating economic opportunities that enhance social and environmental conditions. 
  • Social Enterprise Institute – Check out this online learning platform for courses on everything you need to know about running a social enterprise including investment readiness and marketing. You can also sign up for one-on-one or group coaching through the Institute. 
  • Okwaho NetworkOkwaho Network is a dedicated social network for Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples and serves the greater global Indigenous community. It was designed to act as an alternative or complementary social media outlet for Indigenous peoples to connect and share news and information.
  • Northern Ontario, Research, Development, Ideas and Knowledge InstituteNORDIK Institute partners with communities to solve practical issues that are important to municipalities, First Nations and community organizations in Northern Ontario offering business, organizational and community development support.
  • Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) – A member organization that acts as a champion for the development of the social enterprise in the United States. SEA works to foster a thriving social enterprise ecosystem and provides social enterprises and entrepreneurs with tools and resources they need. 
  • Impact Hub – Impact Hub is one of the world’s largest networks with over 100 hub locations in 50 countries focused on building entrepreneurial communities for impact at scale. Impact Hubs across the globe offer community and workspace, startup support and educational programming.