British Columbia

Young entrepreneurs gather in Vancouver, eager to change the world

Social enterprises have been around for decades, but experts say they're picking up steam in Canada — driven in large party by youth like the ones at the national competition for Enactus Canada last week.

Experts say an upward trend in social entrepreneurship is driven by youth who want to make a difference

The winning team from Lambton College in Sarnia, Ont., at Enactus Canada's national competition in Vancouver last Thursday. They work to support farmers in Zambia. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Inside a dark ballroom at the Vancouver Conference Centre sit about 900 university and college students from 79 campuses across Canada who are pumped about making the world a better place. 

On stage, it's down to the final four groups who have outlasted their rivals over the last three days judged on the social and environmental merits of the projects they run. One team trains farmers in Zambia. Another keeps food out of landfills in Ontario.

It's all part of a national competition organized by Enactus Canada, an organization that encourages students to start and run social enterprises — businesses that have a positive impact on a community or the environment. 

"These students are the ones that are changing the world and are making a difference," said Nicole Almond, the organization's president, during a short break. 

"The energy here is just absolutely amazing and you just feed off of it." 

Social enterprises have been around for decades, but experts say they're picking up steam in Canada — driven in large party by youth like the ones in this room.

David Lepage with the Vancouver-based Social Enterprise Council of Canada says young adults interested in starting a business are increasingly thinking about the impact it could have.

"When you talk about the trends, we see the youth and younger people who aren't just concerned about business on one side and social value on another," Lepage said over the phone from his office on the Downtown Eastside. 

Making a real difference

Marissa Vettoretti, a 20-year-old third-year business student at Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., was one of the finalists on stage Thursday. 

Two years ago, Vettoretti entered an online competition for innovative design with an idea driven by the desire to reduce small plastic shampoo and conditioner bottles. She'd replace them with a dry version that could be sold in strips like Listerine tabs. 

Third-year business student Marissa Vettoretti, and her team from the Laurier University campus chapter of Enactus Canada, made it to the finals at the national competition. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Small plastic bottles, often found in hotels, are too tiny and have too much product residue to be recycled. Thousands of them end up in landfills each year.

"People need to acknowledge climate change and everything that's happening. I think it's really important that there's actually people taking action on it," she said. 

Vettoretti didn't win that competition. But she took the idea to her Enactus Club on campus where further testing and development led them to produce small tabs that hotels could provide in reusable containers.

EarthSuds wants to replace non-recyclable shampoo and conditioner bottles in hotels with this dry product which can be stored in a reusable container. (EarthSuds)

During the presentation, the group said it's working on agreements to run pilot projects with two major hotel chains. 

Enactus's Almond says some of the campus groups do make money from their projects, although most of the profits go back into running their group.

Blurred lines

Social enterprises have traditionally been not-for-profit organizations, but Christie Stephenson with the Peter P. Dhillon Center for Business Ethics at the University of British Columbia says that's changing. 

"There's a trend where the lines between not-for-profit and for-profit are really blurring, and social enterprises are kind of sitting between those spaces," Stephenson said over the phone.

Almond says, for some, business has become a dirty word associated with corporate greed. But she doesn't think that has to be true. 

"At the end of the day, we have to use our resources effectively and we need to do things in a sustainable way so we can continue to grow and prosper," she said.

She says 14 new Enactus groups have sprung up in campuses across the country and she knows each one can make a difference.

"For us, the more students that are involved in the program, the better the world will be," she said.


Maryse Zeidler


Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at