Head of Student VC Fund Challenges Canada to “Prevent the Glaciers from Melting”

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The following is an exclusive guest post written by Ilan Saks, CEO of The Founder Project


Recently, I’ve done some reading into trends amongst post-secondary students in Canada. I’ve found that there’s a growing trend with potential catastrophic consequences in this country.

First, it’s no secret that Canadian institutions are not preparing students for the real world as well as they could. Students are paying more for education, piling on debt, expecting higher salaries, and forgoing real work experience. But the result remains that grads can’t find jobs.

Fueling the fire, TEDx “futurist speaker” Thomas Frey predicts that two billion jobs will disappear by 2030. Many of the open positions that remain may require unpaid internship positions before maybe landing a paid position (and only those fortunate enough can afford to work for free!).

Meanwhile today, unemployment amongst the younger generation is double that of the general population. In the teaching sector the numbers are staggering: 67% of students graduating from teachers school remain jobless one year after, according to this CBC video.

This is not to say that a university degree is not valuable. In fact, that is not at all what I’m trying to say. Universities provide students with the platform to think critically, and grow as individuals. They also foster and nurture the younger generation’s ability to make informed decisions, and critically analyze social policies. I believe both are critical to preserving a strong democracy. Strong Canadian universities are one of the backbones for a strong Canadian society.

However, for the future state of the economy something needs to change, or the glaciers will melt tomorrow. A jobless younger generation today could mean a failed economy tomorrow.

I believe there needs to be a coordinated effort from provincial and federal governments, business leaders, and educators to solve this problem. We need a clear national strategy. Something has to happen, today, or tomorrow we’re screwed.

Startups will lead the charge

I believe startups could play a lead role in reversing this trend.

The Canadian startup ecosystem has continued to grow over the last five years. 183 Canadian startups were acquired at an average valuation of $100 million. In Quebec, since the privatization of venture capital, startups are booming. And so too is actual venture capital investment in Quebec: after the first two quarters of this year, as 433 million in total was invested, topping the $415 million for all of 2012.

As well, the federal government announced months ago it will pump $400 million into venture capital funds across Canada. Theoretically this will create jobs and further stimulate the startup economy.

We are also beginning to see more and more students launch and join startups. University incubators are popping up everywhere. My own initiative, TheFounderProject, contributed to the creation of approximately 160 student startups over the past six months and has seen hundreds of students become engaged in startups. Students are beginning to see entrepreneurship, or working in a startup, as a viable path after graduation.

However, everyday it seems a CEO of a startup asks me if I know a developer, designer, software engineer, or great entrepreneurial talent to hire. Clearly, there are positions in startups to fill. But, we must put the cornerstones of the student startup ecosystem in place to effectively bridge students after graduation into startups. Here are the three cornerstones:

1. We need to implement startup summer internship programs for students. Today, students become trapped in the traditional, or corporate web early on in university. As a result, we need to engage students in startups in their first and second years of university. Why not have them intern at local startups? Local organization like ISIC Canada do a good job at doing this already, but we need more of this.

2. We should build ‘startup employee programs for credit’. it could be something similar to the Startup Institute, which has a vision to train individuals to become exceptional startup employees. At the end of the eight-week program they ‘demo’ themselves off to high growth startups looking to fill marketing, business development, web development, and product and design positions.

If such a program existed for students in their final semester of university, they could leave the program with a job at a high growth startup and university credits. Institutions would be directly setting up their students for full-time employment upon graduation, and the startup ecosystem would fill needed positions. A win-win situation.

3. We need to get more students building startups by nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of the student body, engaging students in startups, and providing an entrepreneurial path for students. It’s only natural that student-led companies will look to the younger generation to make hires. This final point is a double edged sword. The more student-led companies, the more open positions for grads to fill.

It’s mind-boggling to me that in a country like Canada, so many university grads can’t find jobs. Canadian institutions, government policy-makers, wider industry, and the startup ecosystem must adapt, now.

After all, future generations will ask us “what did you do about it, when you knew the glaciers were melting?” – Martin Sheen.

Ilan Saks

Ilan Saks

Ilan Saks started TheFounderProject in winter 2012 and has since overseen the creation of 160 student startups as a result. He holds a bachelor of commerce from McGill University, and was accepted into the Law/MBA program at Syracuse University. However, he decided to forgo the joint degree to work at Real Ventures, the most active seed-stage venture capital fund in Canada. Before that he worked as an associate at the Royal Bank of Canada’s Dominion Securities branch in Toronto where he learned the intricacies of the stock market.