Building an innovation nation of young leaders
For a boy who fled political unrest in Nigeria with his mother and siblings only to grow up amid poverty and gun violence in Toronto’s Jamestown neighbourhood, Lekan Olawoye comes by his community activism honestly.
He has been a respected youth leader in the city’s Rexdale and Weston-Mount Dennis communities, a former chair of the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities and a candidate for city council in the 2014 election.
Now Olawoye is director of Studio Y, a provincially-funded youth fellowship program at MaRS. And he is organizing a gathering of the country’s brightest young leaders and innovators who will spend the next two days with business, non-profit and academic mentors to draft a national youth strategy to fuel Canada’s social and economic future.
“We have a national system to develop hockey players in this country,” he says. “We need that same level of intentionality to develop young leaders and innovators in Canada.”
With a new government in Ottawa that arguably owes its electoral success to young voters and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to take on the role of minister of youth, the timing couldn’t be better, says Olawoye, 31, a father with three children ages 9, 4 and 2.
“Our baby boomers are retiring. The economy is changing. Youth unemployment is high. We need a succession plan,” he says.
Olawoye has snagged the country’s youngest premier, New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant, 34, to give Friday’s opening keynote speech. Navdeep Bains, 38, the federal minister of innovation, science and economic development, is leading a TED-talk-style town hall session. And Premier Kathleen Wynne will address the group.
Almost 800 people from every province and territory applied for 250 spots at the event. Youth between the ages of 15 and 30 make up half of those chosen to attend, and many were offered free travel and accommodation to ensure a broad cross-section are able to participate, he adds.
“This is not just about talking,” he says. “It’s about bringing 250 really smart people together to act and to build a strategy. And with that strategy, we are going to work with industry and our government partners to implement it.”
Apathy is Boring, a Montreal-based group that tries to engage young middle-class Canadians who don’t vote, is one of 25 youth leadership and innovation organizations partnering with Studio Y for the event.
Executive director Caro Loutfi, 26, says it is crucial that organizations like hers join with young people to develop a common playbook.
“It’s very difficult for us to assess whether young Canadians are better engaged over time if we’re not all speaking the same language and if we don’t have a vision that is defined collectively,” says Loutfi, 26. “So bringing everybody together to start defining that vision . . . is extremely valuable.”
The recent shift in the social and political landscape is “extremely promising,” she adds.
“When we have a government like this one that is keen and interested in collaborative approaches, we want to be taking this opportunity to push forward.”
For Olawoye, the opportunity to put groups like Loutfi’s as well as those that work with disadvantaged, indigenous and newcomer youth together with corporate sponsors, such as the Royal Bank, sets the stage for an exciting couple of days.
“We will have such smart people in the room with such diverse backgrounds, diverse expertise,” he says. “It’s going to be something fun.”
Meet some young leaders and innovators at Studio Y:
- Charlie Katrycz, 27 (alumni).
After completing a physics degree at McGill and working in home renovations, Katrycz joined Studio Y to develop his passion to harness “the creative power of fluids.” The result is Loonskin Labs, a startup that is developing new ways to build artificial circulatory systems that can be embedded into clothing and fabrics to prevent bed sores, treat wounds and help regulate body temperature. The process can also be adapted for water purification and to heat and cool buildings. Since February, Katrycz has been in San Francisco working alongside other innovators perfecting the manufacturing process. “Before I came to Studio Y, I was working out of my parents’ basement,” he says. “Studio Y was the first group that saw some value in what I was doing.”
- Selena Lucien, 26. (alumni).
Using knowledge gained during time as a court reporter, Lucien developed Small Claims Wizard, a website that makes legal advice more affordable and accessible for both plaintiffs and defendants. Through specialized software, users are guided every step of the way with filling out forms, document management and court filing. But while using technology to make the legal system more accessible, Lucien discovered that more structural change is needed. So she has applied to law school to change the system from within. “I’ve decided I can’t sit back and not try,” she says.
- Hibaq Gelle, 26. (fellow).
In addition to advising the provincial government as a member of the Premier’s Council on Youth Opportunities, Gelle has been working to ensure a proposed casino at Woodbine Racetrack makes winners out of area youth, newcomers and precariously employed residents. As part of her work at Studio Y, she put up billboard next to Highway 427 inviting people to her website myrexdale.ca to join the push for “good jobs, good training and good investments.” Gelle wants to change the narrative around Rexdale. “There are big opportunities here,” she says. “How do we maximize them for the most vulnerable people?”
- Erin Kennedy, early 20s. (fellow).
Kennedy is using her passion for robotics to improve the environment. As part of her Robot Missions startup, she created a poodle-sized robot she calls “Bowie” to pick up plastic and other debris from beaches. This summer, with money from a crowdfunding campaign she is launching May 2, Kennedy will pilot an improved version of Bowie to collect five kilograms of garbage from the Toronto Islands shoreline. “I’m looking forward to the day when a variety of modules will be listed on our website so that if you want a robot to plant flowers, you will download it on a 3-D printer in the morning and be ready to go in the afternoon.”
- Anayah Phares, 25. (fellow).
Phares, formerly Rosimay Venancio, is developing CHEERS, a mentorship program for youth leaving foster care, with mentors like her who have been through the system themselves. Before joining Studio Y, Phares was chosen as one of 60 youth from the Commonwealth to receive a young leaders’ award from the Queen, but was barred from travelling to London last June due to a passport snafu. With her Canadian citizenship now secure, she is set to meet the Queen this June and spend 10 days networking with other young leaders from around the world. Through Studio Y, Phares learned about the different systems — education, criminal justice, social services, health care — that youth in foster care and group homes must navigate. “Youth in care don’t succeed academically, are criminalized at an early age and don’t access preventative health care,” she explains. “How can youth in the child welfare system have a positive experience with all these systems?”