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Ryerson entrepreneurs connect Richmond Hill & Dago, Kenya

You wouldn’t expect beekeepers in the village of Dago, Kenya to have much in common with a science-loving 11-year-old in Richmond Hill.

But these far-flung entrepreneurs are connected by a group of 130 Ryerson University students whose business savvy has helped the Dago villagers, middle-schooler Jordan Hilkowitz and dozens of other aspiring business people to complete projects that won the students a national championship last month.

“Our projects definitely are amazing things,” says Curtis Yim, the 23-year-old president of the Enactus Ryerson team, which won the Tim Hortons Cup at the Enactus Canada National Exposition in May. “But what makes us stand out is our passion. You can really feel the dedication and energy we bring to these projects.”

The win sends the Ryerson team to Cancun, Mexico in September to compete against 38 other teams from around the world in a pitch contest known as the Enactus Cup. Representing Canada internationally is certainly a big thrill, but the Enactus philosophy, which encourages business students to explore the links between entrepreneurship and altruism, has even broader implications. Student ingenuity and academic prowess are harnessed for global and local projects, giving great ideas a chance to develop roots and become thriving businesses.

“When I first went to school, it was all about profit, profit and how businesses need to make money,” says Yim. “Enactus is much more about trying to hit the triple bottom line where you’re helping people at the same time as keeping sustainable businesses.”

Yim, who had been involved in an entrepreneurship program in high school, joined Enactus when he started his studies at Ryerson. Four years later, he’s the president of the Ryerson chapter. The international organization (until the last few months known as Students in Free Enterprise) encourages members to use their business skills–everything from needs assessments and market research to financing and planning–for projects that help people and communities. Each school team produces a 17-minute presentation, usually focusing on two or three flagship efforts, though this year the Ryerson team was involved in 40 projects both national and international.

“I don’t know how the judges do it, figure out what has the most important impact on people’s lives,” says Yim. Going to Mexico, the team will have to retool its presentation so it speaks to an international audience and puts its efforts in a national context.

This year’s flagship Ryerson projects highlight the dilemma of how tricky it can be to measure impact. The Dago beekeeping project evolved out of older Ryerson projects in Dago that began in August 2011. One provided financial literacy training to the villagers, while another provided microloans to village women–$1,500 in two rounds of lending which has created several new businesses in Dago and paid interest back into the community.

During a follow-up visit for the loan program, one of the Ryerson members, who happens to be involved in bee farming in Northern Ontario, realized that bee farming would not only improve pollination for local crops but also provide another source of income for villagers. Each hive can produce about $300 in honey annually, a decent income in the village of about 3,000 people. The team helped establish a bee keepers association to provide aviary training and financial literacy skills. So far, four of the farmers saved enough to purchase their own hives. When the team goes back to Kenya in July, they’ll work with the farmers to create operations for extracting, bottling, selling and distributing the honey.

Judges have to compare this multi-pronged approach in a less developed country to something like the Doctor Mad Science project. Ryerson student Tracy Leparulo led the team in helping Jordan Hilkowitz, an autistic boy she used to babysit, build an online media brand that has gotten more than five millions views and attracted more than 15,000 dedicated followers.

“Tracey realized Jordan had this passion for science and knew that we could help turn it into reality,” says Yim. “We created his brand and helped him get more exposure and more sponsors, and taught him business skills. He wasn’t able to say a word until he was five, and now he has the ability to be on camera, be with individuals and be with the public. He’s more confident. His personal growth has been tremendous.”

Nicole Almond, president of Enactus Canada, is an Enactus veteran. She was on Wilfrid Laurier University’s team for four years and, in an impressive hat trick, represented Canada internationally three times. She says teams need to find a sweet spot between making a huge impact in fewer people’s lives or making a smaller impact with a larger number of people. Some Canadian Enactus projects–such as a 2008 transition initiative created by a Memorial University team to help medically-discharged Canadian Forces members develop business plans–expand and take on a life of their own. The program also turns the students into living, breathing entrepreneurs.

Almond remembers one of her team’s projects was teaching elementary school pupils to create a candy. A decade later, the projects have become much more ambitious. Last year, the program engaged 2,400 students in running projects, impacting 56,000 Canadians and helping to create over 650 jobs in Canada.

“One of the biggest outcomes is the change we see in the students, the understanding they get of the world around them and the opportunities they see of the impact they can make in the world,” Almond says.

Paul Gallant is a former managing editor of Yonge Street Media who writes about business, innovation, social change, the arts and travel for a variety of publications including BUSINESS without BORDERS.