Why Canada Needs Employee Ownership: A Next Economy Conversation with Peter Deitz

Movements across the globe are calling for systems change to build a world that is sustainable, equitable, and prosperous for all. But what will that world look like, specifically? It’s easy to get lost in the jargon or talk vaguely about broad topics. What tangible policies, models, and actions will create the world we want to see?

Next Economy Conversations, our monthly tête-à-tête with industry leaders, brings the people building systems-level solutions to the table to break down their approaches, provide key insights, and learn from their successes and failures. Building the Next Economy requires all of us. Welcome to the conversation.

For our latest Next Economy Conversation, serial entrepreneur and old friend of CSI’s, Peter Deitz, took us on a deep dive into Employee Share Ownership Plans (ESOPs). We’ve broken down his key insights below and you can watch the full conversation here:

Over the past two years, Peter Deitz has championed and helped oversee the formation of an Employee Share Ownership Plan for Grantbook, the organization he co-founded. Started out of CSI Annex in 2012, Grantbook has grown into a twenty-five person philanthropic advisory firm that helps foundations operationalize mission and vision by leveraging technology. 

Peter actually began looking into ESOPs as an effective and ethical continuity strategy for Grantbook so he could mindfully exit the company to pursue other interests full-time. His pursuits quickly grew into Unwrapit, a social purpose business that provides companies with digital alternatives to traditional corporate and event gifting practices in order to reduce waste destined for landfill and create meaningful, personalized connections. 

With that, let’s get into it. 

What is an ESOP? 

As Peter explains, due to current Canadian legislation, “there’s no simple answer to what an ESOP is.” Right now, unlike the US and the UK where clear frameworks exist, converting to an ESOP is a bespoke endeavour, making a hard-and-fast definition a little difficult to come by. 

According to ESOP Builders (the Canadian consultancy firm Peter worked with to customize Grantbook’s plan), ESOPs are “stock equity plans that allow employees to acquire ownership in a company, heightening employee buy-in and investment, while fostering accountability and an ownership mentality. They may include stock options, stock purchase, phantom-stock ownership or a combination of alternatives. Employee ownership can range from [less than] 1% to 100% of the company. As employees become owners, they share in the risks and rewards of the company.” 

At their core, ESOPs are one way to enable employee ownership. ESOPs differ from worker co-ops in ownership and governance structure. Today, we’ll be covering Grantbook’s version of an ESOP (a version Peter mentioned could also be called a “Shared Purchase Plan.”… It can get confusing. Stick with us!). 

Why should you care about employee ownership? 

Before we get further into the nitty gritty, let’s skip straight to what really matters: why should this matter to you? Well, wealth equity for starters. 

Employee ownership builds community wealth. As our CEO, Tonya, explored, “I see ESOPS as a fundamental strategy for the redistribution of wealth to those who have not otherwise had it historically. It’s a powerful tool for reconciliation and for inclusion in our economic systems.”

And there’s more. ESOPs also improve business performance and create economic resilience. As Peter emphasizes: 

“It generally has bipartisan support [in the US] and there is a strong financial case for this model. There is actually no limit to the positive systemic effects [ESOPs] can have. Whether with respect to economic opportunity and growth, racial discrimination and justice, building businesses that take into account what environmental and social effects they have, ESOPs and employee ownership can have a big impact across all of those realms.”

Why should an organization embrace employee ownership? 

Peter explains: 

“Why would I, the person who controls the founder’s shares, decide to do this? Because it was the right thing to do. Just at the most basic level. Employees create the [company’s] value, especially in a professional services firm. They have, in my view, every right to be in the ownership mix and to own a portion of the business. Ethically and morally, I was on board, and that’s why I started looking into it. 

Then I found out it’s the right answer to multiple questions, like how do you achieve greater retention in your organization? How do you create greater growth and margins? Employee owned companies generally perform better on traditional financial metrics of success.

How do I exit and preserve the culture? How do I exit and achieve some liquidity from this investment of these shares I own, but do it in a way that is going to create the most benefit for Grantbook and its employees? 

The same journey that brought me to [building] social purpose businesses is the journey that brought me to employee ownership as a continuity and exit strategy that makes sense.”

Breaking down Grantbook’s ESOP structure 

When it comes to Grantbook, an Employee Share Ownership Plan means “employees have the opportunity to buy an ownership stake in the business.” 

Peter breaks it down further: 

How do employees acquire ownership? 

“Specifically, employees own outright shares that they’ve either earned into or purchased. The difference [between earning and purchasing] is that a certain number of employees who […] saw Grantbook through an especially difficult periods earned a portion of the shares set aside for employee ownership. Everyone else, including those employees, have had the opportunity on an annual basis to buy additional shares at fair market value (as an independent third-party determines it to be). 

Anyone who works at Grantbook for more than a year is eligible to participate in the ESOP. Everyone can participate equally. There is no differentiation based on seniority (meaning no one can purchase larger portions than someone who is new to the business or earlier in their career). Everyone can buy equally each year. 

Each year employees receive dividends on the shares they own. That’s a unique quality to the form of ESOP we have. [My understanding of other ESOPs is they typically] don’t pay dividends [and there is no payout] for employee owners until they leave the company.”

What does governance look like? 

“Right now, Grantbook is at about 21% employee ownership and we have a pathway to at least 30% ownership over the coming years.These are voting common shares. They are not proxy shares and they are not non-voting shares. So if there’s ever a decision that goes to shareholders, anyone who is an employee owner can vote using their common shares. 

The ESOP group can nominate a director to the governing board of Grantbook. That was actually just triggered when the ESOP group surpassed twenty percent so we’re in the process right now of figuring out how [that process will work] and who will sit on the board as a full [ESOP-nominated] director. It could be an employee owner or the employee group could choose to have an independent director represent them at the board level. That is their decision. 

For decisions that go to shareholders, the number of common shares you hold will determine the votes. Not many decisions will go to shareholders. For decisions that go to the board, employees will be represented through the director [they appoint].”

When a staff member leaves, what happens? 

“When any staff member or employee leaves, their shares in the company can be bought out by any other shareholder. What that means in practice is any other ESOP employee owner has an opportunity to buy those shares at the current valuation. If no other shareholder will buy those shares, the corporation is obligated to buy them back. An employee that is no longer an employee is also no longer a shareholder. That’s how we’ve designed our ESOP.” 

How do employees feel about it? 

Sara Saddington, Grantbook’s Content Lead, jumped into the conversation to say, “I’ll be eligible to buy in the next round. The B Corp ESOP was a big part of why I joined the team. [There are] definitely some great cultural benefits to this structure.”

That’s right. Grantbook also has B Corp status (another topic we deep-dived into for a Next Economy Conversation with Kasha Huk of B Lab Canada). Peter mentioned how Grantbook’s B Corp ESOP structure empowers all shareholders – employees and directors alike – to take on multiple stakeholder perspectives, including the planet’s. This feature contributes to a values-aligned culture and governing model employees can thrive in: 

“Over time, our B Corp status and employee ownership feature will become the cultural centre of gravity for Grantbook. I think what they do for employees is create a psychologically safe workplace. They create a workplace that has deeply rooted values and they create economic opportunity.”

If ESOPs are so great, why isn’t everyone doing it? 

As this report from Social Capital Partners outlines, implementing an employee ownership program in Canada is a very difficult process. For Peter, the journey was slow and often tedious. We need policy to change that because as he explains, ESOPs have the capacity to radically disrupt the way we do business for the better: 

“There are trillions of dollars in wealth currently held in ownership of business that will be transferred over the coming years because baby boomers who hold a lot of that are retiring or enlightened owners of business who want to move onto something else don’t have an easy button to embrace what we are talking about. It was exceptionally hard work to get to where we are with Grantbook’s ESOP. If a group can make it easy to turn any kind of company into a partially or fully owned employee company then the impact on Canada’s economy and on the global economy would be unlike any other intervention that could be made in the capital markets. This is an immensely powerful tool.”

Want to hear more from Next Economy leaders? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter so you can be the first to RSVP when we host our next conversation.

How Are You, Really? A Call to the Community

Through conversation and programming, our CSI Community Animator, Marcus Huynh, has spent the last year invested in the health and wellbeing of our community. For Mental Health Week, he wanted to share a few words about what this experience has taught him, what he hopes for our community, and how he is here to support. 

We’ve seen the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health in our personal and professional lives. The way we work and live has changed. The way we lead has changed. The way we socialize and connect with loved ones has changed. The way our kids learn at school has changed. What we see in the media has changed. We see the discrimination and racial inequities that continue to be illuminated and how the pandemic have disproportionally impacted marginalized communities.  

 As social changemakers, we place a lot of responsibility on ourselves to do more and respond more urgently during moments of crisis. At CSI we say, “It’s up to us.” And while that remains true, it’s important to acknowledge that working amid uncertainty, grief, loss, and isolation whilst balancing the needs of relationships, home, and financial pressures affects our mental and emotional capacity and can take a significant toll on the wellbeing of our community. Burnout, and it’s more conversational counterpart, screen fatigue, are real. If you’re feeling exhausted, you’re not alone. We hear you. 

So, as Mental Health Week comes to a close, it’s a great reminder to check in, especially given the current state of the world – and to acknowledge the work doesn’t stop once the week ends. I am writing this as a call to our community to continue to check in, reflect on where we’ve been and to offer an open door for anyone who needs an ear. We all need to listen, keep the conversation going, and break down the stigma surrounding mental health, together. The more we can inject these conversations into our lives and our work, the better, as it affects all aspects of our lives!

It’s essential for us as changemakers to reflect on community health as we work together to build the Next Economy. It’s also “up to us” to ask ourselves and those around us: How are you really doing? What’s causing you stress? What support do you need? As a community, where does our mental health fit into our work? And what is your role?

As CSI Spadina’s Community Animator, my work involves building and connecting the community. These simple questions help me check in and insert more opportunities for dialogue to better understand what’s beneath the surface. The most important part of my work is checking in on the community, meeting them where they’re at, and listening to the pulse of the community’s health.  

In March, as we entered one year of the pandemic and the anniversary of CSI first closing its spaces, there was an opportunity to pause and reflect. We made various CSI programs and touch points available to highlight the importance of mental health and to engage CSI community members along different intersections of their wellbeing journey. We have such incredible members working in mental health and emotional wellbeing and we wanted to broadcast and bridge their work with the needs of our community! We collaborated with CSI members, like Pedro Afif (Psychotherapist) and Ronit Jinich (Mindfulness Without Borders), to provide workshops on Psychoeducation to help us understand how stress shows up and how we are responding to our mental health during this time. We offered various modalities and different ways to engage, particularly since everyone is at a different place in their own mental health journey. 

Often mental health and emotional wellbeing support comes in less direct forms: during the past year, we also hosted community virtual gatherings known as our “Toasts”, which were an opportunity for our members to simply show up wherever they were at, even as the world was changing around us, connect with some friendly virtual smiles and faces, and cheers to each other. For me, these were some of the most memorable and impactful moments of reconnecting with our community virtually. They provided the opportunity to witness connection and remind ourselves that we are all human, that we are in this together, that there is support and there is hope.

Over the last year and a half, I’m reminded that mental health care is different for everyone. Some people may be looking for someone to talk to or seeking resources, others may be navigating different ways of coping, or simply noticing the symptoms that show up from stress and anxiety. Whether it’s having someone to share challenges with, attending a session or conversation to gain insights, reading an article, or asking for help, people need to seek out and be offered support that suits their needs, including counselling or therapy. On that note, mental health is a two-way street, and we all have a role! Sometimes a loved one will come to us for support, and sometimes we’re the ones who need support.

Let’s continue to have these conversations, get real, and provide each other (and ourselves) the support we need as a community. 

I’ll start: How are you, really?

And while we continue the conversation, here is a list of government funded resources and services in Ontario, including telephone counselling, internet-based CBT, online guided programs, local community services and learning resources:  

How 12 Women Entrepreneurs are Building the Next Economy

Graphic of 8 women entrepreneurs featured in the blog

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, here’s a statistic we’re pondering: women are the majority owners of only 15.6% of Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Canada. 15.6%. That’s it? It portrays a dire picture of gender inequality in our sector – but it’s one we can change.

Take our women-focussed WOSEN programs, for example. The WOSEN partnership is all about upleveling women entrepreneurs with the skills and resources they need to grow their ventures. We’ve also got Social Entrepreneurship 101 – our education course for burgeoning entrepreneurs – of which 75% of past graduates are women! Of course, building an inclusive Next Economy doesn’t stop with our programs – it’s happening in the heart of our network where over 75 CSI member organizations are working to end gender inequality. We’re also proud to say 59% of CSI members are women – many of whom are the founders, CEOs, and leaders of their organizations.

Here are just some of the brilliant women entrepreneurs at CSI building the Next Economy by combatting the climate crisis, creating healthcare solutions, developing new technologies, and mentoring the next generation. 

A headshot photo of Minelli Clements Minelli Clements

LorCan Technologies Inc.
Earth Tech Accelerated Venture 

Minelli Clements wants to break systemic barriers and challenge the “archaic” idea that green technology and circular business models are not viable. This dream found its legs when Minelli founded LorCan Technologies Inc

While volunteering for a conservation agency in Alberta, Minelli noticed researchers had to manually retrieve data from sensors placed in wildlife corridors. She saw a need for a solution that can help these agencies connect to valuable data without trekking through harsh terrain and disrupting natural environments. LorCan Tech will help agencies reduce environmental impacts by providing companies with real-time monitoring connectivity solutions for remote sensing devices, empowering them to create more sustainable business practices.  

What does Minelli envision for the Next Economy? 

“I want us to look at the entire supply chain to find ways we can reduce our impact. And I want us to come to a collective understanding of ‘sustainability’, so that we can measure our progress and hold accountable those that can do more.”

A photo of Amoye Henry

Amoye Henry 

Pitch Better & AH Consulting
WOSEN Coach 

Amoye Henry describes herself as “a rockstar millennial entrepreneur.” The description fits: in 2018, Amoye was named one of Canada’s top 100 Accomplished Black Women. She is on a mission to help scale growth-based businesses led by unique founders. “Basically, I want to see the underdog win,” she says. 

Co-founding Pitch Better with Adeela Carter-Charles, Amoye is bridging the gap between women-led start-ups and their means of acquiring capital through grants and investments. With a mandate to “create more women millionaires,” Pitch Better connects innovative Black women entrepreneurs with seasoned professionals via workshops, talks and coaching sessions.

Taking their work to the systems-level, Pitch Better is currently completing the first national market analysis of Black women founders in Canada. In part, the FoundHers campaign aims to address gaps in the social economy by resolving gaps in data collection; Black women-led organizations can complete the survey here. 

What does Amoye envision for the Next Economy? 

“We need to empower more women as agents of change. We need more diverse voices at the table making decisions and informing policy and systems.”

A headshot photo of Yamila Michelle Franco PenaYamila Michelle Franco Pena

Nyoka Design Labs
Earth Tech Accelerated Venture 

Yamila is a proud Afro-Indigenous woman working to empower and elevate her community through entrepreneurship and education. She is the co-founder of Nyoka Design Labs, a clean technology social enterprise creating plastic-free, non-toxic and sustainable technology. Starting with the world’s first sustainable, non-toxic, bioluminescent glow stick (the Nyoka Light Wand), Nyoka is designing products that leverage advances in sustainable biotechnology, material sciences and Land-based knowledge. Yamila is also creating more accessible opportunities for communities to access STEM, emphasizing that “our stakeholders include our community and the Land.” 

Her advice for new entrepreneurs? 

“You must be consistently bad to get good at something. Consistency is key. Stay in long enough, ask for help, access mentorship and support. It will pay off.”

A headshot photo of Kelly Emery Kelly Emery

WOSEN Participant

Kelly Emery leverages technology to mainstream generosity and “help create communities where basic needs don’t go unmet.” In 2019, Kelly founded Troop, a tech-based needs marketplace to help neighbours and businesses discover local, tangible needs in their community. 

“I was blown away by a stat from Imagine Canada that the charitable sector is anticipating a 30% shortfall in donations by 2028. I kept coming back to that,” Kelly reflects. “I knew something needed to change.” Enter Troop. Members receive weekly text or email notifications letting them know how they can help out a local neighbour by, say, donating bed sheets to a women’s shelter or buying a stroller for a new parent. And it’s working: so far, Troop has fulfilled over $40,000 worth of tangible needs for over fifty charity partners, and The Future of Good recently ranked Troop among Canada’s Top 100 Recovery Projects in 2020. Congratulations, Kelly! 

What does Kelly envision for the Next Economy? 

“There is this thought that generosity should not be self-serving. I believe we need to adjust our thinking in this area and instead focus on the personal benefits derived from acts of kindness. 

There’s data to prove that strong personal connections, generosity and finding purpose in life play a significant role in overall health. Let’s take advantage of the growing trend around improving personal wellbeing to engage more people in building a better, more kind world.”

A photo of Ami Shah Ami Shah

Peekapak | Social Emotional Learning
CSI Annex MemberOntario Catapult Microloan Fund Recipient 

Ami Shah is the co-founder and CEO of Peekapak, an award-winning social-emotional learning platform that engages elementary students to learn skills like self-regulation, empathy and teamwork through stories, evidence-based lessons, and personalized learning experiences. 

Having taught in classrooms before, her work now reaches over 400,000 educators and students in classrooms, libraries, and after-school programs. Behind the scenes, teachers and administrators receive real-time reports indicating a student’s progress and emotional state. Educators can then share pre-written class updates, activities, and stories with students’ families to reinforce learning at home in English and Spanish. In this way, Peekapak empowers educators and families to be proactive to help curb future mental health issues. 

What is something Ami wishes she had known from the start? 

“How important it was to take care of my own mental health through this journey.” 

A headshot photo of Stevie Klick

Stevie Klick

The Indoor Forest
WOSEN Participant + Climate Ventures member

Stevie is a nutritionist, an artist, and a self-described “barefoot tree hugger.” She is also the owner and creator of The Indoor Forest, a biophilic design company that makes preserved moss frames and walls, as well as living green walls and other custom plant installations. 

Inspired by American biologist, Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis that “humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life,” The Indoor Forest enables people to adapt their home and office environments to better interact with the natural elements and promote wellbeing for people and the planet. 

Stevie was motivated by her love of nature and “by the lack of product choices, availability, costs, and people out there actually focusing on vertical growing, especially here in Toronto. I want to help make these products more available because I believe Toronto could be a lot greener.”

 her advice for new entrepreneurs? 

“Adopting a solution-oriented approach to obstacles has helped me achieve goals and push through challenging or uncomfortable moments that come with entrepreneurship.”

A headshot photo of Gillian Cullen Gillian Cullen

Birth Mark
CSI Spadina Member 

Raised in Toronto’s northwest, Gillian’s keen sense of social injustice was ignited at a young age having witnessed the disparity in treatment of people based on their appearance and circumstance. 

Flash forward: Gillian is now the founder of Birth Mark, a registered charity providing free reproductive doula support to folks in Toronto and Hamilton. Birth Mark doulas pursue social change by assisting at-risk and marginalized individuals and their families navigate the public medical system. They are a source of knowledge and comfort to their clients as they navigate pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting while dealing with the obstacles often faced by our focus population in today’s society. Birth Mark is revolutionizing reproductive health care for all.

What does Gillian envision for the Next Economy? 

“Our primary hope would be an inclusive recovery. To achieve this we need to assess the inequalities and racism in our society and rebuild the systems that have continuously failed our society.

A headshot photo of Anthea SargeauntAnthea Sargeaunt

2S Water Inc.
Earth Tech Accelerated Venture 

Anthea Sargeaunt is the CEO of 2S Water, where they have developed the world’s first sensor for detecting metals in water in realtime. She is also an MBA, a three-time entrepreneur, and a mother of two. 

Water quality is a global issue affecting the most marginalized populations worldwide. Canada is no exception. We are on a mission to protect the world’s water with real time data. It’s that simple, she says. According to Anthea, 2S Water’s technology provides an automated, real-time, and cost-effective alternative to traditional laboratory services, enabling operators in mining, oil and gas, municipal water systems and other industries to see a problem as it occurs and take immediate action to prevent health issues and reduce costs. 

What does Anthea envision for the Next Economy? 

“We have a very specific mission on the Next Economy. Green technology is based on metals. Metals for batteries, metals for windmills, metals are the core of the future. If we don’t bring green to mining, then we are building that on a false foundation. We are doing our part to green mining, because we believe it’s where we can have the most impact on the world.”

A headshot photo of Jessica L. CorreaJessica L. Correa

Random Acts of Green, Inc.
WOSEN participant + CSI Agent of Change: Climate Solutions 

Jessica L. Correa is an expert in sustainability and environmental education. Since 2015, Jessica and her team have been encouraging and empowering both individuals and organizations to take action for our planet through Random Acts of Green

Through their app, website, social media networks, and blog (not to mention their “out-of-the-box toolbox of actions”), Random Acts of Green is a women-led and women-operated social enterprise with a vision to build a global climate action community. Jessica believes one small “Act of Green” at a time can change the world – that’s why her and her team developed a mobile app that incentivizes people to log their sustainability actions in order to acquire “green points” that they can then redeem for real-life discounts. 

What does Jessica envision for the Next Economy? 

“The Next Economy must be sustainable. That’s why Random Acts of Green has set out to inspire others to overcome apathy, eco-guilt, and eco-anxiety with hope and action. Our business model is a testament to how sustainability is just better for business – in fact, it is a business. We’ve designed ‘Green Programs’ for individuals and businesses – both for-profit and nonprofit. We’re encouraging everyone to recognize the role they play in the Next Economy and to take accountability – but most of all, staying positive about what’s ahead!”

A headshot photo of Monique ChanMonique Chan

WOSEN participant + past DECA

Bruized is a Toronto-based, women-run startup on a mission to revolutionize our food systems. They create wholesome plant-based products from up-cycled ingredients and imperfect produce that are unnecessarily discarded as they make their way across the supply chain. 

After noticing “horrendous amounts of food waste” while working as a line cook in restaurants across Toronto, Monique began visiting local farms and grocery stores to better understand the extent of our current food waste problem. Through conversations with suppliers, she discovered that discarding perfectly edible food was common practice. From there, Bruized was born. 

“Bruized aims to challenge this damaging notion of ‘perfection’ or ‘all or nothing thinking’, and show people that with a little creativity and care, perfectly good food can be transformed into something both delicious and nutritious,” Monique explains. And she proves this every day: when Monique isn’t taking part in WOSEN’s incubator program, she can be found wandering her local farmer’s market, experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen, and – of course – cooking delicious meals with perfectly good, ‘imperfect’ ingredients. 

Her advice for new entrepreneurs? 

“Some advice I drive home to myself on the daily is to not be afraid of simply asking. In the beginning, it was daunting to start a venture when I felt I didn’t even have any connections or knowledge on running a business. And yet, the relationships and knowledge built over the last few years are THE foundation of Bruized.”

A headshot photo of Adrianna Couto Adrianna Couto

WOSEN participant

Adrianna Couto, alongside co-founder Erika Reyes, wants to make sustainability “irresistible to all Torontonians.” ‍Inwit is a women-led social enterprise  working to make the takeout industry circular and zero waste. 

“Imagine ordering takeout that doesn’t compromise your love for food or the planet. Imagine returning our reusable containers while out walking your dog or heading to the grocery store.Adrianna explains. “We are piloting Toronto’s first low waste takeout platform that will offer a glimpse into our low-carbon future.  In three simple steps (“Order, Return, and Repeat”), Inwit believes there is a way to live a modern lifestyle without compromising our ecosystems – and they’re set to prove it starting this April.

Her advice for new entrepreneurs? 

“Find the people who really hear your voice because it reminds them of their own.”

The Mommy Monitor logo Elsie Amoako

Mommy Monitor
CSI Spadina Member + CSI Agent of Change: Community Health

As the founder of both Mommy Monitor and the Racialized Maternal Health Conference, Elsie Amoako is a rising leader in racialized maternal health. She is motivated by the knowledge that effecting change in reproductive and birth rights of Black women begins by changing the narrative for “the Black women who think they have no choice but to be in pain, be abused or die and the little girls who continue in that cycle.” 

Mommy Monitor is a social enterprise that offers customized maternal health services, support and education. This comes in the form of an app, a full circle of care, various services and programs, resources, research and an annual conference to ensure that maternal health is equitable, anti-racist, patient-centered and enjoyable for parents, birth workers and health care professionals.

Elsie imagines a future with innovative, sustainable, and global maternal health services that are virtual, culturally safe, prevent adverse outcomes and promote reproductive and birth justice.

How does Elsie believe we should ”Build Back Better?” 

“We need to be able to prepare policies that support parents that lose their jobs. We need something that supports moms with new training or retraining for jobs, safe education for their children, and CERB-like payments for stay at home moms or moms that work in precarious jobs.”


Applications for the Spring 2021 WOSEN Start cohort are currently open! Apply by April 4, 11:59 PM ET.

Break Free of Breakout Rooms

Entering break out room in: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1


This has been my experience again and again. Despite being an extraordinarily extroverted individual, there’s something about being told that you will spend the next 20 minutes with a random selection of strangers that triggers my anxiety.

Most online spaces aren’t designed for serendipity. They’re strictly regulated: every meeting is prescribed with purpose and a set list of attendees. This is great when you need to hit a deadline, but terrible when you’re looking to truly connect with people. It’s even harder when you’re trying to meet that one person you need to talk to when you’re faced with the Hollywood-squares-on-steroids of a Zoom call. The question of how to design a networking event to ensure you meet not just the most people possible, but the right people, is something that CSI has been working on for years.

Those who’ve joined us for our in-person events will remember “What I Need” and “What I Have to Offer” stickers, Sustainable Development Goal coloured wristbands, and even a social capital marketplace. Over the 16 years we’ve spent gathering folks in space we’ve honed our skills at breaking through the awkwardness of early interactions and providing space to return to the people you need to have a longer discussion with.

With that in mind, here’s the big reveal: CSI is taking everything we’ve learned from our in person events, combining that with our learnings from our Holiday Gathering and Virtual Coworking Office and launching 8(bit) Degrees.

Alright, I hear you: You just derided online networking events! How is this one any different?

8(bit) Degrees is a virtual networking event series that gives you the ability to talk to just that one person in a room of a hundred, lets you walk into and out of conversations as you like, and connects you to people while freeing you to experience it how you want to. It’s hosted on our favourite platform: Gather.town.

We want to make these events the best they can be, and we know the key to creating a valuable networking experience is not wrapped up in the perfect mix of facilitation and open time. Instead, it all comes down to one thing: clarity.

Pixel illustration of person with dark skin, brown buzz cut, black jacket over green shirt, and blue pants.

How do you know who you should talk to?

Pixel illustration of blond person with thick black-framed glasses in blue clothes.

How do you make the most of your conversations?

It’s part of our responsibility as hosts to help you answer question one. The second question is yours to answer, but we have a few helpful tips:

Know why you’re attending

There are hundreds of valid reasons to attend a networking event – being clear on yours will go a long way. It can be as specific as “finding a graphic designer for an upcoming project”, or as general as “meeting new folks in your sector”. The key is deciding beforehand and acting accordingly.

Have fun with it

While not everyone you meet will be the person you thought you needed, you might be exactly who they’re looking for. The great thing about these events is that they open spaces for serendipity. The power of community grows with each new addition, so don’t close yourself off from expanding your understanding of who you’d like to chat with.

Follow up

Time and time again we hear that folks make a bunch of interesting and valuable connections only to have them fade after the event. So for those you wish to stay in contact with, be sure to follow up in some way. Hint: If you are both CSI Members, The Common Platform is a great way to do this!

Our first 8(bit) Degrees will be February 25th from 4pm-6pm. Space is limited, so get your tickets today!

New opportunities at the Centre for Social Innovation

Every One Every Day

Our Regent Park Community Manager, Denise Soueidan-O’Leary, wrote this piece for the February 2021 issue of the bridge, a community newspaper. We are republishing with permission.

The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) has called Regent Park home for the past eight years, building deep connections with the community from the third floor of the Daniels Spectrum building on Dundas Street East. We have worked with the Social Development Plan and the Community Civic Engagement Collaborative, curating the Regent Park Community Newsletter, running the Regent Park Potluck, starting Regent Park Open Mic nights, and partnering in many neighbourhood initiatives. We are committed to making this vibrant community stronger every day.

Last October we launched the Every One Every Day: Toronto Our Neighbourhood Project, modelled after the British Participatory Cities framework for resident engagement. The purpose of the project is to grow, build and connect social ecosystems – especially important during this time of physical distancing and increased social isolation. Building social capital and linking with social ecosystems is the foundation of strengthening any community, and it is particularly true in Regent Park.

Our Neighbourhood Project’s first phase ran from October to December, with more than 100 residents signed up. With community partners like Art Heart, Green Thumbs Growing Kids, Just Vertical, WOSEN, and others, we ran 30 workshops in six weeks that engaged 130 participants in community mural painting, hydroponic growing, cooking together, yoga, tree planting and even entrepreneurial journaling! We were able to do a few workshops in person, observing social distancing, but also successfully moved much programming online to respect COVID-19 restrictions.

Collage of screenshots from the Every One Every Day workshops that were run in Fall 2020.

Phase 1 of the our neighbourhood project ran over six weeks:


The second phase is currently under way. We have released four new project starter kits into the community:

  • Our Neighbourhood Pollinates: designing pollinator gardens to support natural ecosystems;
  • Our Neighbourhood Reads: sharing books and stories, and creating story installations, story walks, and book exchanges;
  • Our Neighbourhood Blooms: planning and planting beautiful gardens in public spaces; and
  • Our Neighbourhood Stories: building a living tour of Regent Park to connect neighbours and collect their stories.

We would love to have you join the project! For more information and to sign up, check out the Every One Every Day: Toronto project on the Centre for Social Innovation website. Send questions to everyoneeveryday[at]socialinnovation[dot]ca.

This opportunity is open to everyone, of every age and demographic, as long as you are living or working in Regent Park. Registration is open until the end of February.

Member Moment: Venture for Canada

small portraits as fridge magnets

For many members of our community, the best thing about CSI is Salad Club. For years, this weekly potluck offered participants a chance to connect, inspire, and of course eat. As COVID-19 forced us to find ways keep social closeness while maintaining physical distance, the logistics of Salad Club had to change a little as it moved online. But even though we can no longer share food, we are still able to share strategies and encouragement!

We are also still able to shine a light on the incredible work of our members, through ten minute “Member Moments” where they are invited to share a bit about their vision.

First up is Juanita Lee Garcia, from Venture for Canada.

Entrepreneurial grads want to excel at dynamic startups, and startups want energized contributors ready to hit the ground running. CSI member Venture for Canada connects these two groups, giving keen Canadian students and recent grads immersive entrepreneurship training and real-world job experience at innovative startups and small businesses.

Hear a bit about what that looks like:

Our favourite quote: “We have a vision of a Canada where young people can really explore their entrepreneurial potential, to build the most inclusive and prosperous place in the world.”

Do you have an idea of how to make Canada more inclusive and prosperous? Become a CSI member today!

EcoIndustrees is handcrafting beautiful and sustainable bags

CSI Climate Ventures member EcoIndustrees (formerly Hemplab Inc) works with sustainable and reusable organic materials like hemp to build beautiful, handcrafted bags ideal for gifting. Founder Mihir Jagdish grew up in an industrial town in India and had previously worked in the chemical industry, where he kept feeling an uncomfortable urge to be a part of the solution instead of continuing being part of the problem. He founded EcoIndustrees to reduce the toxic materials in our day-to-day consumption.

Recently, EcoIndustrees has made its entire catalogue available online! As production of their bags begins once again, the creators, artisans, and farmers involved with this early-stage startup will be positively impacted. You can support Mihir and his team by taking a look at their bags. We sat down with Mihir to talk about how COVID is impacting his business, and how being at CSI is helping.

Person standing in front of a chalk board modelling a hemp bag

What is your biggest hope for Ecoi?
The biggest hope of Ecoi is to influence the culture of industrial production and consumption by creating well-designed sustainable and handmade consumer products. And to make a platform for art based on sustainability, particularly art made by students and young artists.

What does the world look like if those hopes come true?
The world would have more organizations and consumers influenced by ecological restoration and more eager to stop climate change. There would be huge communities of artisans around the world with work that pays well monetarily, traditionally and satisfactorily. There would hopefully be a better distribution of wealth and more access to dignity for more people on the planet.

How has being a CSI member impacted your project so far?
I got a better insight into social enterprises and the value of people, planet and profit. Being a CSI member we also have a perfect community platform and support of like minded members. This is critical for fledgling and social enterprise like us. CSI’s secret sauce of community enterprise and entrepreneurship is a platform we need to thrive in.

How is your project pivoting and surviving through COVID?
We have pivoted by going online. We were focused on working with B2B orders for hemp and cannabis conferences around North America. All our sales had to stop because of COVID. We also had to shut all the production in India and Nepal to keep the artisans safe. In an attempt to restart after months, we have finally pivoted by launching our ecommerce store for hemp bags and stationery that is targeted at eco-conscious consumers. We would be starting to work on the art platform sometime next year.

Is your project creating jobs at the moment?
It creates jobs in the artisan communities in Nepal and India, as well as for designers in India and Canada. With further expansion we will be looking to set up management team based in Canada.

What impact does your project have? Who do you serve?
It reduces the impact of conventional dyes, water intensive fabrics, and resource intensive fibres. We source our organic fibres from the farmers in Himalayas, fabric is woven by artisan communities, ensuring sustainable livelihood. We are looking to find New age designers in Canada to work on the old values of materials.


A makeover for CSI Spadina

Freshly painted black walls at the front of CSI Spadina

A lot of us feel like we’re a bit worse for the wear from this pandemic, and our beloved CSI Spadina is no exception.

In our time away from the space, the front of our building was tagged heavily, as documented here by CSI member Caryma Sa’d:

We share Caryma’s feeling about both street art and tagging. It was disheartening to see this gorgeous building our community helped us buy looking so grubby. So once we re-opened and invited members back into our spaces, we put a plan in place to clean it up.

Our Community Manager Matt Guthrie and our Facilities Coordinator Katt Grant took on the job, using tools borrowed from CSI member the Toronto Tool Library, who have also re-opened for members.

Here is that team in action:

It was a big talk on a hot day, but it made a dramatic difference. Check out what CSI Spadina looks like now!

Don’t get too attached to the solid black, though. We’ve got some big plans in the works that we think you’ll love! We’ll keep you posted.

If your new normal maybe requires a new space to work, we’d love to hear from you. While we are still not yet able to open to the public, we have a few spots for new members! If you are looking for a safe and welcoming place to work outside of your home, email join@socialinnovation.ca

CSI spaces: What’s changed? What’s the same?

When we closed our spaces in March, it was hard to feel like anything would be the same ever again. But after four anxious (and lonely!) months, we were finally able to re-open our spaces to members at the beginning of August.

Which isn’t to say that everything is back to normal! Or even to say that we know what “normal” really means anymore. So we checked in with the Community Managers of each of our spaces to get a sense of how things have changed at CSI, at what has stayed the same.

Quote from Stefan Hostettor, CSI Spadina Community Manager: "The coffee is still fresh, as is the oat milk, and the joy of a quick run-in with a member continues to be day-brightening."

Stefan: CSI Spadina
How is it different being at CSI Spadina?
Well it’s much, much quieter. Everything’s become a little more wide open space wise, but we do have a brand new beautiful and fully accessible ramp being completed in the next week or two on our ground floor! So that is exciting. We also have a bunch of beautiful stickers, hanging barriers, specially designed study carrels made in-house by the Toronto Tool Library Maker Space.

How is it the same?
We kept the plants alive! Despite the pandemic, the plants have made it through so the space remains bright and green. The coffee is still fresh, as is the oat milk, and the joy of a quick run-in with a member continues to be day brightening.

Quote from Gonzalo Duarte, CSI Annex Community Manager: "CSI Annex smells of anticipation and opportunities. We are ready for members to come back, and for new ones to join."

Gonzalo: CSI Annex
How is it different being at CSI Annex?
CSI Annex is more spacious, very clean, and less cluttered. It’s more focused. We are ready for members to come back, and for new ones to join. Our new air conditioning system is purring. The space is safer and healthier with barriers, sanitation stations and public health posters everywhere. We have two new Ideation Areas, a new Reflection Room, and a new kitchen going in on the third floor. CSI Annex smells of anticipation and opportunities.

How is it the same?
CSI Annex is still comfortable and productive. Tara, Deenie, Thom and I are able and willing to work with you. Familiar faces are around, and new ones are joining. Meeting rooms are equipped. Members are returning to Hot Desks, Dedicated Desks, Team Tables, and Offices. The coffee is brewing. All the greenery and plant life stands guard gently and fearlessly.

Quote from Denise Soueidan-O' Leary, CSI Regent Park Community Manager: "The warmth of the community is still strong in the space. Even with reduced occupancy, there's always a friendly face."

Denise: CSI Regent Park
How is it different being at CSI Regent Park?
We have hired a fantastic member of the RP community named Ibrahim Afrah as our Community Coordinator. He is super helpful, and diligent, and has been extremely on top of ensuring that the whole space is sanitized, clean, and safe for our members return. We are missing having the community flow through in our space; it’s a bit quiet. There isn’t nearly the volume of food and snacks that CSI Regent Park is known for.

How is it the same?
Green Thumbs Growing Kids have filled our space with plants, and candula oil, and the general hubbub of garden season and farmers market preparations. The warmth of the community is still strong in the space. Even with much reduced occupancy, there’s always a friendly face.

If your new normal maybe requires a new space to work, we’d love to hear from you! While we are still not yet able to open to the public, we have a few spots for new members! If you are looking for a safe and welcoming place to work outside of your home, email join@socialinnovation.ca

#StayAtHome activity: Enjoying CSI’s Art & Art History Club

Quote by Tara Marina Pearson. "What a joy: To open up a zoom meeting and be confronted by art."

Every Tuesday at 5 pm, the CSI Art & Art History Club meets on Zoom to learn, create, and share together. I’ve been meaning to go for the last four weeks and finally took the plunge after some encouragement from Community Animator Tara Marina Pearson.

Friendly faces welcome me when I log in to my first CSI Art Club. Some people have been here every week and some, like me, are new. After a few introductions the evening’s leader, Richa Narvekar, one of a group of CSI DECAs (that also includes Charles Ozzoude, Pamela Schuller, and Sair Raut) who are leading this program, starts us off by sharing two paintings on her screen.

We’re asked to decide which of the two images we like best. The conversation flows easily as more members trickle in. We all agree: the one on the right is our favourite. After we’ve all had a chance to explain why, Richa talks us through each painting. 

Two examples of art by members of the club.

We learn that our favourite piece is Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. It’s a darkly whimsical piece, depicting Cremorne Gardens in London and the sparks of fireworks in the distance. I learn that Whistler often named his pieces after music and that he was inspired by Japanese artists. The second piece is Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, a painting inspired by New York City, the Boogie Woogie music popular there in the 1940s, and the patterns that underlay it. Richa asks us to take another look at the painting with this in mind. “What do you see?” “A grid! Subway map! A city for sure.” Richa shares a video with us, an animated version of Mondrian’s work complete with bluesy boogie woogie music in the background. 

She explains that both Whistler and Mondrian painted at the birth of abstraction: they were drawing not what they saw, but what they felt lay underneath

What ties them together? Music. Whistler’s Nocturnes have been compared to Chopin’s Nocturnes: melancholy whimsical shifts between light and dark. Mondrian is famous for having organized his whole world into a tight vocabulary of lines, primary colours, and shapes, which he likened to chords in music. So, Richa says, music is our theme for the night. Using the magic of a Zoom poll, we chose between two drawing prompts: listening to blues or classical. We choose classical and are swept away by a Youtube video of “Danse Macabre” by Camile Saint-Saëns while we take time to draw in our separate homes, through our separate screens, in our separate lives.

The music ends and I find myself laughing. In front of me is a terrifying drawing of what I assumed would look like forest but instead looks like flaming Hershey’s kisses, a Doonesbury-esque character in a very sad sleigh, and a tree branch. We play the music for a second time and I remember I have an eraser. It doesn’t help and it doesn’t matter. No one cares what my forest looks like; they’re just glad I’m trying.

Two examples of art by members of the art history club.

When we share our work everyone is attentive and gracious with their feedback. They don’t offer tips and tricks, or guidance about branch shading. And frankly, I don’t need it. I mean – I do, I desperately do – but not right now. What I need right now, in the middle of this thing, this always-in-my-office-because-my-home-is-my-office-and-I’m-not-allowed-to-be-anywhere else thing, is a creative outlet, a chance to be less seperate, to connect with new people. 

Members of the Art History Club showing off their creations in a zoom call.

And at CSI’s Art & Art History Club I get what I want: conversation, laughter, a chance to stretch my creative comfort zone, an opportunity to learn. When we sign off for the evening I look at the grid of smiles on and know that the rest of the Club gets it too.

Maybe we’re all abstract artists right now, reacting to the sudden starkness of real life, drawing new paths to joy, carving out new connections, and crafting new ways of being.