Photo credit: YuryImaging via Shutterstock

I remember that for the longest time I wanted to help the world in some way, but I never knew how or where I would start. If only saving the world was as easy as taking off a pair of glasses, putting on a cape and shooting off to get the next bad guy. As a child, the closest I got to experiencing the exhilaration of flight was jumping off the playground bars with an umbrella in hand. Who said I couldn’t be a superhero - I had my trusty umbrella!

In my first year at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, I discovered an intriguing program called St. Paul's GreenHouse. In a sense, it is similar to the space and resources students can receive when joining an entrepreneurship society such as Velocity at the University, except that GreenHouse focuses on social innovations rather than technological improvements.

Generally lasting a term, the program allows students to discover and follow their passion in the form of developing a program, service or product that helps their community or broader world in some way. This is all while they receive guidance on entrepreneurship and building their own business.

Helping the environment, your community or even the world does not need to involve a grand scheme or project. In fact, it could be as small as volunteering, joining a club, or even beginning a project and seeing it through to the end. This is what I learned when I had the chance to interview three passionate GreenHouse students. They spoke of their doubts and setbacks, how they pushed forward, and their advice to those hoping to follow a similar path.

What does it take to save the world?


Measure Twice and Cut Once

The first bit of advice comes from Renata Burns - do your research. As a student at the University of Waterloo, Burns began her term at GreenHouse without a clear plan of what to do. After a lot of thought, she came up with two unique ideas, each aiming to connect others to their environment as well as encourage physical activity.

Her first project was to create an online catalogue that helps people find outdoor activities in their area. Burns calls this project Ad Nature, and she hopes to complete it after her University career when she is able to find technical help to put it online. Her second idea is her blog “Mountain vs City” which is about her transition from a small mountain town to a city, and how she remains active.

 It took her a long time to be where she is now, but her number one tip for others hoping to start something is to do your research. “I would say research… a tonne, before you do anything,” she says, “because your idea may already exist, or you don’t know what you’re getting into.” She also notes to “take time to do other things before you actually build it, because you can build it eventually.” In other words, “Measure twice and cut once” as the saying goes.

Tania Del Matto, the Director of St. Paul's GreenHouse and a passionate mentor to the students echoes this advice by saying that when starting a project, it is always a good idea to map out who you know, who you need to know and your assumptions on the issue you’re trying to solve. “You’re trying to figure out - is this a real problem? Is my understanding of it right?” says Tania.  Doing this will help you refine your project and will let you know if it is something you should even pursue. This brings us to the second point:


Don’t Squirrel Away the Day

Richard Norton has had a passion for food ever since he was little and able to help with his grandparents garden hobby farm. In turn, this passion has lead him to start what he calls the Edible Art Project. “I’d love to just see more art and pieces that engage people with their food system and these large environmental social issues,” he says. “I think there’s a big cultural gap in many communities [with the] spaces around them.”

His project aims to educate and connect others to their food system through art displays, just as his newest creation, the Pollinator Pyramid, aims to do.

Numerous times he thought that his project would not work out. “Even last summer I was doubting whether it’s a feasible business opportunity. I mean people always talk about the starving artist, and that’s real” he says. Thankfully he was able gain some revenue from his winter co-op so he would be able to work through his project in the summer.

As important as research is, you won’t get far unless you start talking to people says Norton. “Just get talking to people,” he says. “You’ll learn more talking to people than you ever will researching it online.” He also adds, “don’t be afraid to fail. There’s no successful entrepreneur that I’ve heard of that just kind of squirrels themselves away.”

In addition to meeting people, Del Matto says it’s also best to follow up with those who have helped you on your journey. “Don’t be someone that comes in, asks for advice, takes the advice, and then you never see that person again,” she says. “Because these things tend to build off of each other and then the more rapport you can build with people over time, the more successful you’re just going to be in life in general.”

Photo Credit: VOJTa Herout via Shutterstock


Fall in Love with the Problem, not the Solution

In the spring of 2015, Joanna Hausen and Rebekah Glendinning began exploring the realm of developing their own natural and environmentally friendly skin care line under the guidance of GreenHouse. 

Bee Balm, as they call it, came as a response to environmental degradation caused by unsustainable practices in the body care industry. They have developed a number of products such as lip & body balms, sugar, coffee & tea scrubs, bath bombs and body salves. Each of their ingredients come from local sources, such as their beeswax from J.R Fear Apiaries in Wingham, and coffee grounds from Shop Bike Coffee Roasters. One of their next projects includes developing a product using beer from their local brewery!

When starting, they were worried that their initiative would not be considered a “social business,” however with time they realized that the work they do with other organizations makes their project every bit social. “For example,” Joanna says, “we use local beeswax in our products in order to have a ripple effect in the local ecologies and economies… supporting local apiaries is a consumer-based practice which while in turn support the local pollination cycles and therefore local food security.” They also had to overcome feelings of inadequacy in the entrepreneurship community;however, what helped them is facing their fears by putting themselves out there and in turn improving their networking skills. 

The first thing Hausen suggests is to explore what your school or community offer. Moreover, even if you don’t know where to start, she says it's important to “realize that there are many stages in entrepreneurship, and before anything comes inspiration, so do not be discouraged because you don’t have a concept to develop.”

She also mentions that one of the best slivers of wisdom she received when working with GreenHouse was to “fall in love with the problem you are solving, not the solution”. “It is very easy to make this mistake and hold onto your concept or business idea; however, it is humbling and more sustainable for the future to remember what problem you are trying to solve, and whether it is the best way to so” Hausen says. “This will allow you to make the ongoing iterations needed to stay motivated and successful in entrepreneurship.”


Photo credit: mypokcik via Shutterstock

Changing society is no easy task, and as Del Matto mentions, a lot of times it may feel like you’re trying to swim upstream. Having friends and a support network can help make the journey a lot more worthwhile.

“Regardless of students that join GreenHouse or not,” says Del Matto, “they just become inspired to actually use their lives for this greater sense of purpose through that, and find their passion. There are so many people that go through their whole life and they don’t do what they love to do because they haven’t explored what it is they love. They get kind of in this career choice that it, maybe it provides them an adequate income, but it doesn't fill them up inside. So that’s what I hope for. Is to kind of be a source of inspiration for others.”

On that note, it is also important to say that success doesn’t have to be a business. It doesn’t have to be a revolutionary idea. It doesn’t have to be life changing, and it definitely doesn’t have to be a brand-spanking-new invention. However, what it can be is finding like-minded people to keep you feeling inspired. It could be taking the steps to exploring or even finding your passion if you don’t know what it is yet. It might be joining clubs, volunteering in your community, or can even be something like respecting the Earth and taking care of it. It can be the initiative to start something small, not knowing where it will go, but knowing that in your heart you want to do it - and going with it. And sometimes that’s all it takes to start a movement, a conversation, or a whole new, exciting journey. 



Veronika Szostak is a student at the University of Waterloo in the Environment and Resource Studies program. She is a volunteer at A/J and aspires to become a journalist, artist, and environmentalist.

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