The North Claybelt Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) started the initiative after its successful entrepreneurship day camp for youth in Kapuskasing. It eventually expanded throughout northeastern Ontario, and later to the northwest.
“We don't typically think about entrepreneurship as a viable career option,” said Cindy Reasbeck, the youth entrepreneurship adviser for Northern Ontario CFDCs. “Now we want to make sure it's on people's radar.”
Reasbeck said she has noticed the start of a paradigm shift where high school guidance counsellors, and students, don't immediately dismiss entrepreneurship.
Bill Spinney, general manager of the Community Business and Development Centre Inc., in Parry Sound, and one of 24 general managers that support the Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative, said the days of working for the same employer from graduation to retirement are over.
“Most people will have six or seven careers in their lifetime,” he said.
In that environment, Spinney said, entrepreneurship becomes a more attractive option for young people, who may have trouble finding stability in the traditional marketplace.
The initiative's heart has been a series of entrepreneurship camps across Northern Ontario.
The summer camps, in Moonbeam, Mattawa, Sault Ste. Marie – and with pilots in Northwestern Ontario and Moose Factory – give youth a taste of what it is like to run a business.
In addition to regular summer camp activities, participants are encouraged to come up with a business idea.
They are taught how to create a viable business plan, make cash-flow forecasts and eventually get a loan from a “bank” so they can fund their idea.
Once the plan is in place, the campers get to build their product and sell it to friends and family near the end of the camp.
Past ideas have included fire-starters made out of egg cartons, T-shirt designs and tea cozies.
For 2014, the initiative has started a pilot project, called Be a Business Bee, to bring entrepreneurship to students in kindergarten.
“If you haven't made an impact (on the child) by kindergarten, you're too late,” Reasbeck said.
The program introduces the ideas of business, products and customers to the children.
Allanah Deline, the Northern Ontario Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative's youth co-ordinator, helped launch the Be a Business Bee pilot in two kindergarten classrooms in Espanola.
“Children's idea of what an entrepreneur is, is someone sitting at a desk, in a suit, with paperwork,” Deline said. “And that's usually not the case.”
She said the kindergarten program has already helped dispel those myths with young students. Both teachers loved the program, she said, and the students have also taken to the basic concepts of business through play – by pretending to be sellers and customers.
Deline said after one lesson, two boys spilled some popcorn on the class floor. When their teacher asked them to clean up their mess, the two five-year-olds proceeded to turn the chore into a service opportunity, and offered to vacuum for their peers.
FedNor has supported the Northern Ontario Youth Entrepreneurship Initiative from its inception, and has invested nearly $2.2 million over the past 11 years.
A 2012 study comparing young people who had participated in at least one entrepreneurship program, to those who hadn't, found that youth who took part in the initiative were more likely to be self-employed, earn a high income and exhibit creativity and innovation.