The importance of small business to Northern Ontario cannot be overstated.
Northern Ontario is a region heavily dependent on resource-based industry, from mining and forestry to steel. Our economies ebb and flow with the cycles of big business and industry.
Most of our cities and towns learned long ago, that relying solely on resource-based industry and traditional manufacturing is a recipe for disaster. Communities like Sault Ste. Marie have worked hard to diversify their economies for many years, with varying degrees of success.
While they are now much less reliant on these major industries, the fact remains that they still represents the bulk of private sector jobs in our communities. Just look at the impact of the latest recession on the forestry sector in Ontario, or the impact of low oil prices on Tenaris Algoma Tubes and other companies that supply the oil sector.
When these commodity-based sectors have economic challenges, jobs are often lost and communities can be devastated. We are left with the small businesses that call each community home. I think most people would agree that a thriving small business scene is an essential component of a healthy and happy community.
Small business drives innovation, leads job creation and builds wealth like no other economic engine in our nation. Over 98 per cent of businesses in Canada have less than 100 employees, and small business employs almost 70 per cent of the private workforce.
Small business helps to grow and strengthen our communities, and strong communities attract greater investment.
What can we do to encourage and support new business startups in Northern Ontario?
There are many organizations across the North that deliver small business support services and government funding programs.
Ontario's Small Business Enterprise Centres provide business advisory services and assistance for new businesses, and are located in Sudbury, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, Thunder Bay and Kenora.
The Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, NORCAT in Sudbury, the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre in Thunder Bay, IION in North Bay, and the Productivity and Innovation Centre in Timmins work with technology and science companies to build those sectors in their respective communities.
Small business incubators offer affordable office space, access to shared resources, training and more. Co-working spaces are popping up, where entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, or anyone for that matter, can rent a desk for the day, week or month. These co-working spaces are often open-concept, and encourage collaboration and networking.
There is no shortage of small business resources available to both new and existing entrepreneurs in the North. There are also additional funding programs through the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund, FedNor, Community Futures Development Corporations, and more.
It clearly isn't lack of support that is the problem. Perhaps potential entrepreneurs are unaware of these resources. No matter how well these organizations promote themselves and their services, there will be those who never get the message.
In Sault Ste. Marie, we are trying to fix this. I founded StartUP Sault (part of the Startup Canada network) in early 2014, to help build a thriving startup community.
With the support of Startup Canada, our local community enterprise partners and an amazing team of volunteers, StartUP Sault works to connect local entrepreneurs via learning and networking opportunities, and events like Startup Drinks and Startup Book Club.
The goal of StartUP Sault is to provide regular meetups and build a sense of community among local entrepreneurs. By regularly coming together, we are enhancing the opportunities to collaborate, share knowledge and even partner on new business ventures.
We have found that StartUP Sault events attract younger entrepreneurs, as well as budding entrepreneurs of all ages - often a different demographic than other business or networking events. We are reaching people that perhaps need support the most.
We can connect those entrepreneurs with others who are willing to help, and also direct them to the appropriate community partners – whether they need help with their business plan, startup advice, or funding to get started.
StartUP Sault and the 19 other startup communities across the country are all volunteer-driven and led by entrepreneurs with a long-term vision of building an environment that supports new startups and the growth of existing small business.
In a recent visit to Sault Ste. Marie, Startup Canada CEO, Victoria Lennox connected with incubator clients at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre, spoke to business students at Sault College, met with our community enterprise partners and toured Mill Square, the former St. Marys Paper site now being redeveloped.
Before boarding her flight home, Victoria commented that great things are happening in Sault Ste. Marie and that StartUP Sault is making a difference.
Perhaps in the years to come, all of our Northern cities will become thriving startup communities. All it takes is the will to make it happen, and a few entrepreneurs to drive the charge. I believe it can be done.
For more information about StartUP Sault, visit www.startupsault.ca.