COVID-19: Our spaces are currently closed to the public. Learn more.

Employment Social Enterprises: Breaking It Down So We Can Build the Next Economy

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. 

In the lead up to our Next Economy Conversation with Kalen Taylor, Executive Director of the employment social enterprise, Purpose Construction, on June 24, we’re explaining all things employment social enterprises (ESE) so you can enter the conversation in the know. Building the Next Economy requires all of us. Here’s the breakdown before we build. 

What is an Employment Social Enterprise? 

According to the Toronto Enterprise Fund, employment social enterprises are “businesses that create training and employment opportunities for people facing systemic barriers to entry into the mainstream labour market.” 

At an ESE, People often bring their whole selves to their work because their whole self is supported: ESEs provide guided training, skill development, and wraparound support, such as transit, housing subsidies and other assistance, to empower people to attain and maintain employment. Taking a holistic approach is necessary to overcome the direct and indirect employment barriers facing various communities. 

Employment social enterprises exist all over the world and across Canada, For context, over seventy employment social enterprises take up residence in the Toronto region. 

Why Employment Social Enterprises are Fundamental to Building the Next Economy

ESEs are fundamental to creating an inclusive economy. Employment social enterprises create viable employment opportunities for those experiencing systemic employments barriers, including: 

Quality, long-term work transforms lives and strengthens community wealth. According to the Toronto Enterprise Fund, ESEs have “demonstrated success in increasing employee’s income, increasing attachment to the labour market, improving health, increasing housing security, and keeping people out of the criminal justice system.” 

Case Study: Purpose Construction

Purpose Construction is an employment social enterprise construction company. But they aren’t just any construction company. Purpose Construction is a “company that feels more like a family than a job. A company that believes in people.” 

244 employees make up this family. Senay Mosazghi is one of those employees. After being wrongfully imprisoned for practicing Christianity in his home country, Eretria, he fled religious persecution, travelling to Sudan where he eventually became sponsored as a refugee and moved with his family to Canada. A lack of Canadian job experience and developing English language skills might have proved a barrier to employment elsewhere but not at Purpose Construction. Senay received trade skills training, experience, a long-term job and deep community relationships that enabled him to strengthen his English language skills and raise his family in a supportive environment. 

Purpose Construction is a good example of how employment social enterprises harness the power of the market to create social change. According to their website, Purpose Construction is “reducing government social assistance costs, reducing recidivism rates, bringing families back together and helping people build stable, healthy lives.” Based on an independent third party social impact analysis, “for every $1 spent on services at Purpose Construction, [Purpose Construction] returns $4.29 in positive social impact.” 

Further Resources

Celebrating National Indigenous Peoples Day

June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada – a day to recognize the vast contributions of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples on a day when many Indigenous peoples traditionally gather to celebrate the summer solstice.   

To celebrate and honour the day, we’re sharing some of our favourite stories of Indigenous-led innovation over the last year, as well as a spotlight on some of CSI’s Members and Alumni whose work centres Indigenous knowledge, promotes cultural awareness, and often supports reconciliation. 

Before we do, it’s important to recognize that this year National Indigenous Peoples Day comes as unmarked graves continue to be found on the grounds of former residential schools. While horrifying, these discoveries are not surprising. Residential school survivors and their communities have long been speaking out about their existence and about the systematic oppression orchestrated by the Canadian government. As we recognize the many contributions of Indigenous people today, we must also recognize that Canada’s colonial legacy persists not out of a lack of answers – Indigenous communities have long been providing solutions and sharing a path towards reconciliation – but due to government inaction and public indifference. Reconciliation must begin with truth. Today is also a day for those of us who are settlers to read the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, educate ourselves on the true history of Canada (including its ongoing legacy), and demand action.

Stories from Our Network 

headshot of Jeff CyrCreating a Platform for Indigenous Innovation: A Next Economy Conversation with Jeff Cyr 

After a decade working in Canadian government, Jeff Cyr founded Raven Indigenous Capital Partners as a means of empowering Indigenous innovators and their communities through social finance. In this Next Economy Conversation, he speaks on a range of topics, including barriers to innovation in government, closing gaps faced by Indigenous social enterprises, and an exciting social finance model that puts solutions back into the hands of communities.


Bear Standing Tall is Bridging Relationships Between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Peoples 

CSI Member Bear Standingheadshot of Bear Standing Tall Tall created a complimentary Indigenous awareness course to fill in the gaps in Canada’s current education system. For too long, the history of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples has been ignored, omitted, or sanitized in the classroom. It wasn’t until 2015 that the topic of residential schools was added to the curriculum across the country. But even today, the history being taught is not standard, nor is it mandatory. Bear Standing Tall designed a self-directed program detailing 500 years of history from an Indigenous lens in order to change that. 


Towards Energy Sovereignty: A Climate Ventures Conversation with Melina Laboucan-Massimo 

Melina Laboucan-Massimo standing in front of solar panelsFounder of Sacred Earth Solar, co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, and host of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network’s (APTN) series Power to the People, Melina Laboucan-Massimo is a climate justice powerhouse. In this Climate Ventures Conversation, she speaks about the experiences that motivated her to become an advocate for clean energy, how we need to rethink the way we teach energy systems to our children, the importance of truth-telling in a time of reconciliation, and the energy revolution happening in Indigenous communities across the country.

CSI Members, Past and Present 


CSI Alumni and 2017 Agent of Change, Anwaatin, believes addressing the climate crisis and  revitalizing treaty relationships go hand in hand. As Anwaatin’s CEO Larry Saul explains, “when you’re battling climate change, you need warriors. We are those warriors. Our weapons are not guns. We’re armed with wisdom and love for the natural world. We are stewardship warriors.”

Anwaatin supports these warriors. They work to ensure Indigenous communities are front and centre in the movement to address the climate crisis by equipping individuals with the technical tools and knowledge to participate in emerging climate actions. They do this through a range of services, including building partnerships and facilitating agreements between Indigenous nations and policymakers at the municipal and federal level, and supporting Indigenous-led carbon sequestration projects by educating communities on the biodiversity and carbon sequestration potential of their traditional territories. 

Toronto Inuit Association 

Established in September 2016, CSI Member Toronto Inuit Association (formerly iTUK) is dedicated to fostering connections and amplifying the voices of Inuit in Toronto. Their mission is to “create a community in Toronto for Inuit from all regions, where [the Toronto Inuit Association] can provide support in language learning, culture awareness, family services, employment and health services to Inuit and their families.” 

The Indigenous Curatorial Collective

The Indigenous Curatorial Collective is an Indigenous-led organization that strives to build community and reciprocity among Indigenous curators, artists, academics, and writers through programming, critical discourse, and professional opportunities. This CSI Member launched in 2005 “as a response to the authority afforded to the non-Indigenous curatorial and academic community within the discipline of Indigenous arts in Canada.” For the last sixteen years, the organization has worked tirelessly to support Indigenous artists and curators in claiming space, maintaining agency, and broadening opportunities offered to Indigenous creators in and beyond institutional frameworks.


Protecting Old-Growth Forests: A Climate Ventures Conversation with Nicole Rycroft

Nicole Rycroft has made it her life’s work to protect trees and forests. 

For our latest Climate Ventures Conversation, we sat down with Nicole, the Founder and Executive Director of Canopy, for a conversation about how Canopy works to protect the world’s forests by working with industry customers and suppliers to transform supply chains.  

Our conversation couldn’t have been more timely: as we spoke in late May, hundreds of land defenders were attracting international media attention for protecting an old-growth stand on Vancouver Island, B.C. We spoke with Nicole about her work, why we need to stop logging old-growth forests, and why the conservation movement must prioritize justice. We’ve got your highlights below and you can listen to the full conversation here: 

Getting to the Roots of the Problem 

We wasted no time in our conversation getting to the root and scale of the problem when it comes to Nicole’s work. As Nicole pointed out, 3.2 billion trees are disappearing into packaging and clothing every year. In fact, 800 year old trees are being made into pizza boxes. 

“Anybody who reads the newspaper, anybody who reads the scientific journal is probably tempted to reach for a bottle of wine” Nicole jokes dryly. 

Or chain themselves to a tree.

As of early June 2021, the stand on Vancouver Island for Fairy Creek and Walbran Valley has intensified, as hundreds have been arrested and thousands across the country have spoken out, and the government has responded in turn. Why the standoff? Only 2.7% of high-productivity old-growth remains in B.C. and despite small recent deferrals, the government continues to allow old-growth logging across the island and the province.

And given we’re in a climate emergency, Nicole highlighted how old-growth forests are also carbon sinks; older trees store vast amounts of carbon throughout their lifetime keeping it from entering the atmosphere. So “logging in high carbon value forests is akin to fossil fuel and tar sand extraction,” Nicole explains. 

“We don’t have the ability in our carbon-constrained world to continue logging old-growth forests. That needs to stop. Protecting forests is the fastest and most economical way for us to stabilize our planet…The scientific community is very clear: we need to protect (at least) 30-50% of the world’s forests by 2030. There should be protection for those forests that are still old-growth and standing and there needs to be significant restoration of those areas that have already been degraded.”

Photo by Jesse Winter/Narwhal
Photo: Jesse Winter / The Narwhal
Transformation on a Global Scale: How Canopy Works 

Nicole founded the Vancouver-based environmental nonprofit Canopy in 1999 with an $1800 budget and the belief that “we could do things in a smarter way.” They’ve now evolved into an impactful organization with over twenty staff and an impressive list of campaign successes to their name. 

One of Canopy’s greatest successes (and one of Nicole’s favourite stories) is their work “greening” the Harry Potter series in 2007. Working with Raincoast Books and with the approval of J.K. Rowling herself, they developed the greenest book in publishing history to date. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was printed on ecopaper free of ancient or endangered forest fibre.  According to Nicole, this collaboration “triggered a broader revolution in the way that book publishing is done with the Canadian book industry spearheading that.” 

Since then, Canopy has broadened its scope to transform the fashion and packaging industries as well. The organization now works directly with brands and suppliers to shift unsustainable supply chains to more circular practices with a focus on protecting trees in critical, ancient and endangered ecosystems. 

While we environmentally-minded folks are often hyper-focused on plastic, did you know that three billion trees disappear into the packaging we get delivered to our doors everyday? Canopy’s Pack4Good campaign is working to reduce that number through smarter design: “One of the brand partners we work with redesigned the box they use between their warehouse and their store,” Nicole explained. “They changed the design and their systems so they could reuse that box seven to eight times. In doing so, they saved 85% of the resources and saved themselves 14 million dollars. Smart design can move us so far down the tracks.” 

An Ashoka Fellow and former elite athlete, Nicole is also the recipient of a Canadian Environment Award Gold Medal, the Meritorious Service Cross of Canada and the 2020 winner of the prestigious Climate Breakthrough Award. Impressive, right?  

“It takes tenacity.” Nicoleheadshot of Nicole Rycroft emphasized. “You have to be shameless. You have to be willing to pick up the phone and call and then call again and again. [You have to] recognize that just because it’s our priority doesn’t mean it’s the priority of the other person on the other side of the phone. Part of getting in the door is understanding the value proposition, priorities and realities of the other person on the line.” 

Nicole recently took to thephones to call up and convince over 100 prominent celebrities, including Margaret Atwood and Neil Young, to sign an open letter demanding an immediate stop to old-growth logging in BC. She said the response was “overwhelming” and her campaign is now making waves. 

Conservation Has to Advance Justice 

“What underscores conservation is that it has to be socially durable and socially just, otherwise it won’t last,” Nicole emphasized. “Decades ago, the approach to conservation was you stick a fence around an area and stick a sign in it, say it’s a path, and then that’s it.” Our conversation touched on this problematic history; it’s well-documented that many leading, early environmentalists were blatantly racist and exclusionary. 

Early conservation efforts often led to the removal of Indigenous people from their lands to create parks. For example, in Banff National Park Indigenous people were excluded from visiting the land and forbidden from practicing traditional stewardship, even though, as Nicole points out, “study after study shows that traditional [stewardship] consistently results in higher levels of conservation of those lands.”

Nicole was clear about where her field is going: “Conservation has to advance justice.” 

What’s more, according to Nicole, “[Conservation] has to be viable for communities that are going to continue to live there, whether it’s in Indonesia or Sierra Leone or here in Canada. It has to be a third door. It can’t just be that everything is 100% protected and we’re not utilizing what it has or we are just going to bulldoze it.” 

Nicole continues, “Here in Canada, governments need to be financially supporting First Nations so they have resources to be able to sit and participate at the table and contribute in really meaningful ways. I was encouraged that in the recent federal government budget, over 3 billion dollars was dedicated to conservation as part of protecting 30 percent of forests by 2030. A lot of that has to go to First Nations because it’s [often] going to be their land that’s going to be conserved.”

While the problem is vast, Nicole finds hope in unexpected places. “As devastating as covid has been and continues to be on so many levels, it’s shown the pace of change that can happen if needed. Oftentimes when there have been economic hardships historically, sustainability has been moved to the back-burner, and during covid, if anything, it has been moved further on the front-burner. Even though some of the dinosaur industries have fired back up in the immediate wake of COVID-19, I think it’s really clear that we are going to be transitioning.”

We’re taking a break for the summer from Climate Ventures Conversations but will be back with a stellar lineup of speakers in the fall. 

In the meantime, join us at our Earth Tech Pitch Night on June 30 to hear cleantech entrepreneurs share how their technologies are helping to build the low-carbon economy and a better future for all. 

Climate Ventures fast-tracks the success of early-stage entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. We also collaborate with governments, large companies, investors and other partners to solve challenges and scale solutions to meet climate targets. Learn more at

5 Reasons You Should Come to Our Earth Tech Pitch Night

You won’t want to miss Earth Tech Pitch Night on June 30. Earth Tech is our accelerator for early-stage cleantech startups working on climate and water solutions. At the end of June, our 2021 cohort will share about their work and likely inspire you with their tech innovations. Every one of them was selected by us for their potential impact. On top of that, three of them will get selected by the audience – that’s you! – for Audience Choice Awards and cash prizes. We can’t wait! 

Here’s what to expect from an Earth Tech Pitch Night (and why we think you should tune in): 

1. A Party for the Planet 

What better way to ring in the summer than with another Zoom event?! 

Just kidding. What better way to kick off a season of better weather than with a night supporting people working hard for the planet? We all need an excuse for a little celebration. It’s been a tough year, to say the least, and with the climate crisis becoming more terrifying by the day, we could all benefit from hearing about solutions and how we can support them. Also, we’ll end the event with some networking by shifting to our virtual space, which is great for connecting and feels almost like real life.

2. Solutions, Solutions, Solutions 

We’re bringing you promising solutions from 17 ventures across Canada – from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, from cutting-edge sensors to sustainable textiles, from apps to hardware. Come discover and cheer on these entrepreneurs as they share how their technologies are helping to build the low-carbon economy and a better future for all. 

3. The stakes are high and you get to decide! 

That’s right: public opinion rules the night. In the first round, each venture will give an elevator pitch. Then, the audience will vote on which five ventures move to the final round. Then, you vote again! The audience will select which three ventures win the Audience Choice and cash prizes totalling $10,000. Don’t miss your chance to have a say – last year was so close; it was gripping! 

4. Money, money, money (monayyyyy)

Early-stage cleantech startups can struggle to raise the funding they need to prove their technologies and get them to market. And while $10,000 may not be make or break, the audience validation helps and every dollar counts! Thanks to prize money contributors Fixx, and our partners at the RBC Foundation, Bullfrog Power and the Peter Gilgan Foundation for making this all possible. 

5. Now’s the Time to Grow Canadian Cleantech 

We’re at a critical moment in the development of Canada’s cleantech industry. As we look to build back better, now’s the time to seize this opportunity to pivot to a green economy and support homegrown talent and innovation. Early-stage ventures are showing us what’s possible. 

Register here and come show your support on June 30! 

The Centre for Social Innovation is helping to prove that the Next Economy – one that is regenerative, inclusive and prosperous for all – is possible. 

Our Climate Ventures initiative fast-tracks the success of early-stage entrepreneurs who are developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. We also work with governments, large companies and partners to solve challenges and scale solutions. Learn more at

Reflecting on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation’s Announcement

The following is a reflection from multiple staff members as we processed the news from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation and looked for concrete actions that we and our community can take. Please note that the following contains material some may find triggering in regards to residential schools in Canada. 

Indigenous History Month began just a few days after the bodies of 215 children were found in an unmarked grave on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. On Monday, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, called for this horrific finding to be a “catalyst” for further work uncovering these graves at the sites of residential schools throughout the country.

On behalf of her band, Chief Rosanna Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation is encouraging everyone to take part in a National Day of Prayer today (June 6). With a similar intention, Idle No More Toronto and Porcupine Warriors have organized the Bring Our Children Home March and ceremonial event happening today at Queen’s Park in Toronto at 2 p.m E.T. Today is a day to reflect on this unthinkable loss and honour the 215 children who have been found, as well as the countless more who are still missing. 

The first step towards reconciliation must be truth, and so listening to the words of survivors* of the Kamloops residential school, and the system as a whole, is paramount. (*Warning: This story contains disturbing details about the Kamloops residential school. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.)

Those of us who are settlers must recognize that as much as this discovery at Kamloops is tragic, it is not surprising: “We know there are a lot of sites like Kamloops that are going to come to light in the future,” said Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

We must also recognize that calls for justice are not new. Indigenous peoples have been speaking out since the schools’ inception. In 1907, the first Chief Medical Officer of the Interior, Dr. P.H. Bryce, wrote a report demanding a major overhaul of the system of residential schools, only to be ignored by the Canadian government, and later pushed out from public service. In 1922, he wrote a book, The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal to Justice to the Indians of Canada, detailing clear evidence of the government’s role in creating and maintaining the system of oppression, as well as their attempts to silence him. 

When tragedy surfaces, there can be a tendency to assume we need to create more solutions, that a problem persists out of an absence of ideas. Such assumptions can be a way of intellectualizing atrocity and problem-solving our way out of discomfort. Indigenous communities have been recommending solutions, providing answers, and lighting a path for reconciliation for a very long time. The problem persists, not out of a lack of policy analysis or studies or community processes; it persists due to government inaction and public indifference.

Yellowhead Institute’s 2020 status update on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission paints a grave picture of our unfolding legacy: “In 2019, we noted that at the rate of 2.25 calls completed each year, we could only hope to see substantial change over nearly four decades (we projected the completion of Calls to Action to be in 2057). Unfortunately, with the regression of this year’s reconciliation update, it could take much longer, at least another generation.” Of the 94 recommendations, six of them pertain to the identification of missing children and their marked and unmarked burial sites (#71-76). According to Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, these specific calls to action have not been fully implemented, though some progress has been made. 

It’s important to recognize that this work cannot be done solely by our institutions; it is also work that must be done by all Canadian settlers. An important starting point is to read, understand, and demand the adoption of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which begin with calls to action for child welfare. And for those who have the means, here is a link to donate to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society

The following is further reading settlers can do to learn about the atrocities of the residential school system and take action towards reconciliation:

Here are health supports for survivors, their families and community members: 

  • A National Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
  • The Indian Residential School Survivors Society offers a crisis line for grief, crisis, and trauma counselling at 1-800-721-0066.
  • First Nations Health Authority provides mental wellness and culturally-safe support

Today is a national day of grieving. Let it be followed by deep, persistent action. 

17 Innovators and Innovations to Celebrate 17 Years!

In June of 2004, CSI opened its doors with fourteen founding members in tow to solve the “photocopier problem,” the tendency for organizations to work in silos instead of sharing resources and solutions. Enter 5,000 sq. ft. at 215 Spadina Avenue – one of the very first coworking spaces in the world! 

If you know us, you know our story. But, do you know our members? Since our start, over 6000 alumni have passed through the halls (and multiple buildings) of CSI, accessing programming, building community, accelerating their ventures, and creating solutions for systems-level change. Now, as we expand from community-building to building the Next Economy (with a new methodology and increased programming to support innovations at every stage), our members continue to expand with us. Their stories tell the larger story of the life cycle of CSI.

On Friday, we held a virtual Innovator Toast for members, old and new, to toast seventeen years this June and to clink our glass to the thousands who have made CSI the cacophony of connections that it is. To celebrate seventeen years, here’s a look at seventeen of the countless innovators and innovations who’ve left a mark on us and who continue to leave their mark on the world:

System Changers 

Nadia Hamilton, Founder of Magnusmode 

In 2011, Nadia Hamilton was named the winner of CSI’s Project Wildfire. The $25,000 grand prize helped her turn her vision of reducing barriers for people in the autism and disabled community into a full-fledged social enterprise. Inspired by her younger autistic brother, Nadia founded Magnusmode, an organization that creates assistive technology so that people with autism can lead more independent, integrated lives. Their flagship product, Magnus Cards, is a digital library of guides, much like the hand-drawn guides Nadia would make for her brother growing up. Partnering with different businesses and organizations, Magnus Cards are a step-by-step roadmap that guide users through different products, services, and everyday experiences, empowering people to participate with more agency and peace of mind. 

Bryce Jones, CEO and Co-Founder of Flash Forest

Flash Forest is revolutionizing reforestation with tree-planting drones. Right now, planting trees is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to sequester carbon but as Bryce Jones and his fellow co-founders noticed, tree planting hasn’t changed much in the last century. Seeing an opportunity for innovation, they created Flash Forest, Canada’s first-to-market drone reforestation company. Using drones that fire seed pods into the ground at a rate of one per second, they’re on a mission to plant one billion trees by 2028. We met Bryce and the team through Earth Tech, our six-month Climate Ventures accelerator for startups and ventures working on climate and freshwater solutions. The team recently secured over $3.5M in funding for the next stage of their mission, including 100K from the SDTC fund for which we were proud to nominate them. We can’t wait to see what’s next! 

Elsie Amoako, Founder and CEO of Mommy Monitor

As the founder of both Mommy Monitor and the Racialized Maternal Health Conference, Elsie Amoako is a rising leader in racialized maternal health. A CSI Spadina Member, she first joined CSI through our Agents of Change: Community Health program, where she worked with leading advisors and received a $10,000 grant to accelerate her enterprise. Now, Mommy Monitor is a full-service social enterprise and app that offers customized maternal health services, support and education. The vision? Provide maternal health services globally in a way that is virtual, culturally safe, promotes autonomy over the body and birth, and prevents adverse outcomes. 

Maayan Ziv, Founder of Access Now

 In 2016, Maayan Ziv also took part in CSI’s Agents of Change: Community Health cohort for AccessNow, a crowdsourced mobile and web platform that pinpoints accessibility information for locations worldwide. Known widely as a leading advocate for disability and inclusion, Maayan catalyzed her experiences in community (including three years at CSI) to create a grassroots movement: anyone anywhere can review locations by dropping a “pin” on AccessNow’s map, thereby improving accessibility through accountability and knowledge sharing. 

Adrianna Couto, Co-Founder of Inwit

Adrianna Couto, alongside co-founder Erika Reyes, wants to make sustainability “irresistible to all Torontonians.” The two met through our DECA program and now, after participating in our WOSEN incubator, ‍Inwit is on a mission 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. It’s been a great joy to witness and support their success from the start. Now, the world is catching on: Inwit was recently chosen as one of the top 15 solutions out of Toronto, New York, Amsterdam, Glasgow, and Copenhagen, to move on to the second phase of the Circular Innovation City Challenge

Daniel Bida, Executive Director of ZooShare

ZooShare, a nonprofit cooperative, built a biogas plant at the Toronto Zoo’s existing compost facility that converts zoo poo and food waste into renewable energy, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You heard that right! Using Zoo poo as a source of energy is a beloved solution in the CSI zeitgeist. 

Back in 2012, the biogas cooperative and CSI member won the Toronto Community Foundation’s Green Innovation Award after participating in the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge, a collaboration between CSI, the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Toronto Community Foundation. At the time, Executive Director of ZooShare, Daniel Bida, said “Participation in ClimateSpark really helped to hone the unique selling points of the project as a result of getting feedback from so many individuals and experts from around the city.” Since then, ZooShare has been going strong, financing its operations by issuing Community Bonds (something we know a little about) with over five hundred impact investors.

Peter Deitz, Co-Founder of Grantbook and Unwrapit 

In our latest Next Economy Conversation, Peter sat down  to discuss his organization’s journey to employee ownership through an Employee Shared Ownership Plan (ESOP). Reflecting on his career as a serial social entrepreneur, he credited CSI as a “core influence” in his life. Having been a part of the CSI community for over fifteen years, Peter has incubated, launched and scaled multiple social enterprises out of our spaces. His latest venture, Unwrapit, is 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.

Myra Arshad, Co-Founder of ALT TEX 

ALT TEX is creating sustainable textiles out of fermented food waste. Best friends and co-founders Myra Arshad and Avneet Ghotra developed a polyester alternative with an eye to disrupt the near $104 billion (USD) polyester industry by creating a circular, biodegradable, and carbon neutral product that addresses two major consumption problems: plastic and food waste. They recently closed their pre-seed round of funding at $1.5 M, proving there is a major appetite for solving fashion’s microplastic problem and upending the fast fashion market. 

When we asked our 2021 Earth Tech venture what this support means to them, Co-Founder Myra Arshad said: “Having support from organizations that offer a platform, mentorship and funds is the reason ALT TEX has been able to get this far – it’s incredible how this ecosystem comes together to support entrepreneurs.”

Amoye Henry, Co-Founder of Pitch Better

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. Amoye expands on this mission as one of our WOSEN coaches. 

Taking their work to the systems-level, Pitch Better is currently completing the first national market analysis of Black women founders in Canada. The FoundHers campaign aims to address gaps in the social economy by resolving gaps in data collection.

Ilana Ben-Ari, Founder of Twenty One Toys

One of CSI’s Youth Agent of Change award winners, Ilana Ben-Ari began Twenty One Toys with the belief that toys could be the new textbooks by, in part, teaching us collaboration, creativity and empathy. She first created the Empathy toy as a way to bridge gaps between visually impaired and sighted communities through play. It turns out, the toy bridged gaps and evoked empathy in anyone who played – from students to teachers to business executives and beyond. Since then, Ilana has been “mass-producing empathy,” as the toys show up all over the world in professional development workshops, leadership programs and even in job interviews! What’s next?  A true innovator in heart and spirit, she’s currently launching new toy to reframe how people understand failure, aptly named the Failure toy.

Network Weavers 

Social Innovation Canada

Catalyzed by CSI, Social Innovation Canada is working to provide the collaborative infrastructure to strengthen Canada’s social innovation ecosystem, empowering people, organizations and systems with the tools, knowledge, skills and connections that they need to solve real and complex problems.

How it works: SI Canada consists of a small ‘secretariat’ team at the national and operations level, working in partnership with regional ‘nodes‘ or host partners in various parts of Canada. Each node has a ‘weaver’. These ‘weavers’ are natural networks who are responsible for convening regional gatherings and learning events to revel, share, unlock, and enable people, organization and systems to thrive. They meet regularly and work together to reflect the vibrancy, diversity and knowledge that is emerging from coast to coast to coast. CSI is proud to be Ontario’s node and the backbone, operational support for SI Canada as we work to connect Canada’s social innovation ecosystem.

Ontario Nonprofit Network

The Ontario Nonprofit Network breaks down silos by developing working groups, provincial strategies and building regional nonprofit networks to actualize the potential of the Ontario nonprofit sector. Back in 2007, when the ONN was a fledgling initiative with a vision to build a network of nonprofits, CSI incubated ONN. We acted as a trustee, providing insurance, bookkeeping, leadership, accounting, management, and a board of directors. In fact, our CEO, Tonya Surman, was the founding co-chair for ONN’s steering committee. This allowed the ONN leadership to figure out what worked (and what didn’t), build a strong foundation, and grow their network. In 2015, after spending seven years at CSI, they incorporated into a stand-alone organization. We’ve watched with complete admiration and inspiration at the incredible impact ONN continues to achieve.

Community Builders

Tapestry Community Capital

CSI Member Tapestry Community Capital is a non-profit co-op that supports other co-ops and nonprofits in raising and managing community investment. With the help of Tapestry (and 120 incredible community investors), CSI was able to raise 1.9M in under two months in our most recent bond project. Tapestry has been a key player in our Community Bond initiatives – an innovation CSI invented that allows nonprofits to leverage nonprofit social capital into financial capital. To date, Tapestry has helped organizations across sectors raise and manage over $70 million from 3,900 investors. Building community by building resiliency, they are not only vital to CSI but to our social innovation sector. 

Toronto Tool Library

Much like CSI’s founding mission to resolve the “photocopier problem” by sharing resources and space, Toronto Tool Library is on a mission to maximize the benefits of the sharing economy. A part of the broader tool sharing movement as one of over forty tool libraries across North America, this CSI Spadina member provides tools, skill-sharing, and community assistance initiatives that enable individuals, nonprofit organizations, and communities to connect through cooperative sharing. It’s been such a privilege to provide space to TTL over the years as they give so much to our CSI community. 

Cycle Toronto

Long-time CSI member Cycle Toronto has been with us through every key stage of their journey, from starting small, moving from office to office at CSI Annex as they grew, and then eventually landing at CSI Spadina where they’ve expanded their team and their vision. Now a registered charity, Cycle Toronto is a vital part of Toronto, shaping policy, infrastructure and community to transform the city’s cycling culture to make cycling a viable option for Torontonians.

Fresh City Farms

Fresh City Farms delivers organic produce, groceries, meal kits and a variety of prepared meals right to your door. Recipients of a CSI Catapult Loan in 2015, and part of our 2016 Agents of Change cohort, their growth has been nothing short of phenomenal since then. In April of 2019, they acquired Mabel’s Bakery & Specialty Foods. A month later, they announced the acquisition of The Healthy Butcher, a pioneer in organic and 100% grass-fed meat and sustainable seafood. Last year, during the pandemic, they waived delivery fees for a while, providing food access and stability to many of our community members.

Silo Breakers 


 Canopy works with “the forest industry’s biggest customers and their suppliers to develop business solutions that protect these last frontier forests.” Taking a truly systems-level approach, the organization transforms unsustainable product supply chains by engaging business executives on the importance of forest conservation and the power of greening their practices. 

When the Vancouver-based organization looked to branch out to Toronto, they chose to call CSI home. A decade into seeing their work up close, we were thrilled when Ashoka Fellow and Founder of Canopy, Nicole Rycroft, recently won the prestigious Climate Breakthrough Award. Last week, she sat down with Barnabe Geis, our Executive Director of Climate Ventures, for a Climate Ventures Conversation to discuss where their work will take them next. 

Breaking silos is at the heart of what we do. When an organization expands their impact by branching out into our spaces, their vision invariably influences ours. We are so grateful to those who’ve chosen to be a part of the community! Honourable mentions include: the David Suzuki Foundation, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Jack.Org, and the Greenbelt Foundation.

With that, cheers to seventeen years! 

Green Economy Law is Demystifying New Legal Frontiers in Canada

Green Economy LawGreen Economy Law logo Professional Corporation is a corporate and commercial law firm for ecopreneurs, social enterprises, and nonprofits working to build a sustainable and regenerative economy. More specifically, it’s a law firm that works with clients creating innovative solutions to environmental problems. It was also one of the first law firms to take the Law Firm Climate Pledge, a commitment organized by Law Students for Climate Accountability that encourages firms not to take on any new work supporting the fossil fuel industry. 

“People are contributing to the green economy in such diverse and creative ways. I find a lot of the work I do super rewarding,” says Marc Z. Goldgrub, the firm’s founding lawyer. 

The firm’s services include traditional corporate law work like assisting clients with incorporation, contracts, and intellectual property management, as well as more niche offerings, like helping enterprises align their policies to attain B Corp and ESG status. Clearly the firm, which is based out of CSI Spadina, is in the right place. In fact, some of the firm’s earliest clients were other CSI community members, and more continue to reach out. 

“The CSI network has been a great place to be plugged into,” Marc emphasized. “It’s been nice to feel the support of the community.” 

While our network has been welcoming, starting a firm in 2020 was not without obstacles. As Marc notes, “It’s difficult to start an independent law firm for the green economy in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a real, tall order.” 

Despite the difficulty, Marc made the most of the year by continuing to do what he could for the common good; when many people found themselves facing unemployment and evictions during the pandemic, the firm began offering legal services pro bono to low-income community members in landlord-tenant disputes.  

As the world begins to open back up, Marc is excited to expand his firm’s areas of focus. In addition to working with clients in the green economy, the firm now offers legal services in secondary practices areas, including health and psychedelic law. 

Marc explains: “When we got through the legalization of weed here in Canada, I started looking into psychedelics. I wasn’t aware it was so helpful to people [in terms of] the massive health benefits.” 

According to the firm’s website, Green Economy Law “does not engage in, or assist parties engaged in, illegal activities. But we are happy to provide corporate and commercial legal services and advice to parties operating legally in and around the psychedelic industry. The firm is also happy to support psychedelic legalization efforts by means of speaking engagements and educational presentations.”

Noticing a lot of confusion surrounding the legal status of psychedelics in Canada, the firm also launched, a website meant to serve as a comprehensive guide to Canadian psychedelic law. 

Carving out a legal niche in emerging industries, it’s no surprise Marc continues to dive into new legal frontiers. The firm recently launched a third website, Law on Mars, which covers space, Moon, and Mars law. On the site, you’ll find explainers breaking down international space treaties, the Moon agreement, and other intergalactic legal developments. 

While Marc doesn’t practice space law himself, he is interested in seeing where the work might lead, especially as Elon Musk and other futurists continue to pursue their mission to make humanity a multi-planetary species.

Marc hopes other Canadians share his enthusiasm for exploring where the law will take us next. If you’re interested in following Green Economy Law’s activities, including its coverage of ongoing climate and environmental law, news, and policy, you can sign up for the firm’s monthly newsletter

Reclaiming the Narrative: A Spotlight on Queer of Colour

headshot of Eileen Liu
Eileen Liu (Photo by Emily Ding)

Eileen Liu is “fighting injustice through storytelling.” The full-time writer, podcast host, and author of four novels founded Queer of Colour, a storytelling platform, as a way of reclaiming how queer people of colour are represented in society and by extension, how they see themselves. 

Through long-form interviews and photographs, her work gives space for the kind of sincerity and candour people often yearn for online. Eileen reaches out to friends and strangers across different communities, inviting them to tell the stories of their lives. From there, she often meets participants in parks across the city where, sitting across from her for a few hours, people unfold themselves. They share their passions, struggles, careers, upbringings. “I always tell them that if there is a question they don’t want to talk about then we don’t talk about it. They have full control over what they want to say. But up until now, no one has refused to answer a question,” Eileen explains, smiling. 

Joining CSI as a member after participating in the fall 2020 iteration of the WOSEN Start program, Eileen says what she thought would be a how-to on business management quickly turned into an eight-week, therapeutic deep dive into her purpose. WOSEN gave her the opportunity to sit with her “overarching why?,” a question, incidentally, she’s more used to asking than answering since she started Queer of Colour last February. 

Continuing to carve out her “why?” through storytelling, Eileen is set to start a second round of interviews for the project soon. Before she does, we sat down last week to chat about Queer of Colour, the nuances of intersectionality, and the power of telling your story in your own words. Here are hers. 

N: What is Queer of Colour? What made you start this project? 

E: Queer of Colour is a storytelling platform for queer people of colour, primarily in the Toronto and GTA area, to really take control of the narrative of their own stories and to share their stories on their own terms.

It grew out of the recognition that the stories that we tell about ourselves and that are told about us are really powerful. Stories can shape our role in society and shape how we live. So, rather than having systems around capitalism and white supremacy and colonization tell our stories, it’s an exercise in reclaiming the power of storytelling and reclaiming our own stories so that we take control of what we want our lives to look like.

Photo of Dai Alvarez in the park
Dai Alvarez: "I want to be a beacon for other asexual people." (Excerpt from the profile, "Living Authentically at the Intersection." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: Why these stories? 

E: The idea of intersectionality is really important when it comes to social hierarchy and where people fit in, in society. The reason I focused on queer people of colour is that 1) that’s my own identity and 2) it’s this intersection of being a person of colour in a white dominated culture and the struggles and challenges that come with that, as well as being a queer person within a family or community of colour where being queer might not be as widely accepted or as talked about as it might be in mainstream culture. 

So, I’ve talked to people who find that they don’t fit in no matter where they go. They’re in their families or their communities or whatever culture they’re from and they’re afraid to be themselves. They’re afraid to be out because of stigma, because of how their family and their friends and their community members might react. And then they go into a queer space and they find they don’t really fit in there either because they are a person of colour and they get treated differently than their white counterparts. Focusing on this intersection of people who have to navigate those two types of marginalization – and there are a lot of other marginalizations – but focusing on these two particular marginalizations and sharing the stories and having people talk about their experiences, both positive and negative, is important. 

To be able to put words to some of the thoughts and feelings they may have is definitely a cathartic, therapeutic experience. It can exist outside of us so we can step back and process and understand what those stories mean to us and how we are shaped by those experiences.

Agnes Teodoro: "I feel like I’m becoming more of the person I want to be, the person I should have been way in the past." (Excerpt from the profile, "Life is Messy, But I'm Still Here." Photo by Eileen Liu.)

N: What resonated with you most during this process? 

E: What has really stayed with me in these interviews is the similarities between all of the stories and my own experiences around mental health. Depression and anxiety. Ideas around suicide. That’s a huge thing that almost every single person has experience with. 

Another theme is the lack of mentorship for queer people of colour. One of the questions I ask is: do you have a mentor? Do you have a role model? Do you have someone you can go to, to ask questions? And most of the time, the answer is “no.” When they have questions about their sexuality, they just Google things or they have friends who are going through similar stuff and they just figure it out. And while I wouldn’t say it’s a shame, it’s a missed opportunity. When we think about cultural inheritance and how we inherit things like language, belief systems, religion, values and history from the people who raised us, we can see how cultural heritage gets passed down. But for people in the LGBTQ community, if they don’t have older elders from the LGBTQ community, none of that gets passed down. So, they don’t know the history of LGBTQ rights in this country. They don’t know the significant events that have brought us to where we are today. They don’t know definitions of various identities and how those identities can be lived out in real life. They all have to figure that out themselves. It’s like every person has to start from scratch rather than build on what’s already been done. I do think that’s a missed opportunity. That’s what has really stuck with me the most: seeing that theme across so many different stories. 

Jeff Ho sitting on a bench in a park
Jeff Ho: "I’m a lot softer these days and a lot more tactful, but back then I would just rage. That rage was a form of activism against injustice." (Excerpt from the profile, "Activism, Anger, and Forging a Life in the Arts." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: You mentioned that participants often talk about both positive and negative experiences. That’s what resonated with me when reading their stories; it feels like they are sharing their whole selves. 

E: In my own experience, as an immigrant and as someone with an East Asian background, there is so much pressure from family, from society, and from myself, to be perfect. To embody what I am supposed to be or should be. The truth is, nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And that’s one thing I appreciate about the storytellers in this project. They are open to sharing their mistakes and the crappy things that have happened to them. The things they did that maybe they regret or the things they did when they were younger when they didn’t know any better. But also, how they moved through it, how they learned, how they are older and wiser now. One mistake didn’t completely derail their life. We have multiple chances and we can pick ourselves back up and rebuild our lives. People have agency to say, “I don’t like what my life looks like now and I want it to be different.” They can make decisions and try to make it different. They are not just subject to whatever the world is putting on them. 

That’s also something I carry through in my fiction writing as well. This idea that queer people deserve to find love. Most of my characters are East Asian queer people and again it’s those intersecting marginzalitions. They deserve to be messy people just like anyone else. They don’t have to be the token Asian or the gay character that gets killed off first in the story. Those are very common things we see in the media. I want to bring these people into the centre so that they are the main characters. They are the heroes. For Queer of Colour, the queer person of colour is the main character in their story. They’re not the sidekick or the comic relief. They get to go on the journey and they have agency about where they end up. 

N: Storytelling is powerful. 

E: Language in general is really powerful. In the last however many years, with more exploration into trans identities and the asexual umbrella of identities, [we are exploring identities using language that] people who are a generation or two older than me didn’t have. That’s not to say those identities didn’t exist. It’s that they didn’t have words to describe them. Now that we are developing this language around it, it’s really empowering and really opening up questions like: what does sexuality mean? What is sexual identity? What is gender identity? It’s really challenging the idea of gender binaries and sexual binaries. 

I read an article recently that said Gen Z is a lot more queer than previous generations. It’s kind of a misnomer because I don’t think they are a lot more queer, they are just a lot more aware and open about it. They have the language now and they’ve grown up in a society where it’s normalized to claim those identities and to use that language. I think what we are starting to see is there are a lot more queer people around than we used to think.

Denim Blu sitting at a picnic table in a park
Denim Blù: "Sex is taboo back in China, especially for young kids. I didn’t know what sex was, or that men can fall in love with men." (Excerpt from the profile, "Breaking Stereotypes as a Gay Chinese Musician." Photo by Eileen Liu).

N: What do you hope people take away from this project? 

E: I think the most important thing is that the people who participate in the project and the people who are the audience for the project feel seen and heard. 

It’s really important to have the stories shared publicly for other folks who are in similar situations to know that they’re not alone, that there are others who have been in the same situation or who are going through the same things. Maybe they can find solidarity in that and feel hope that there is an end to whatever challenge or struggle they are going through. 

[These stories also] help us understand people we might not normally come in contact with. It’s pretty common for folks to surround themselves with people who are like them. Most of my friend group has shared the same experiences as me and that’s probably the case for most people. When we have these stories of people who are different from us or that we think are different from us, we hear their stories and we think, “hey, they’re actually not that different’ or maybe there are aspects that are different but that helps me understand them more. And that’s the first step towards things like reconciliation and community-building. If we really want to create bonds in society that help to increase equality, inclusion and diversity, it’s really important for people to at least understand where people are coming from and to think, “maybe I don’t experience that myself but that experience is still valid.”

N: What’s next? 

E: I need to do more interviews. The first set of people I talked to were from my network or certain Facebook groups. They all have similar demographics. Mostly in their 20’s, a lot of them are artists and Asian and that’s because of the groups I reached out to. I’m going to be starting the second phase soon. One of the things I want to be conscious of is talking to people from more diverse backgrounds. I want to talk to a lot of older people. I want to talk to people who work in other industries and obviously, different ethnic backgrounds. That’s something I want to explore.

In addition to founding the Queer of Colour project, Eileen is a full-time author and podcast host. She primarily writes queer romance fiction, among other stories. Her latest novel, Hard Sell, came out on Tuesday under her pen name, Hudson Lin. She also co-hosts the podcast, World of Stories, about how stories shape our lives. The second season, focusing on how we live, work, and process a pandemic, is out now on all major streaming platforms. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“Waste to Wardrobe” Venture Closes Pre-seed Round at 1.5M

ALT TEXALT TEX founders Myra and Avneet in research lab is creating sustainable textiles out of fermented food waste. Best friends and co-founders Myra Arshad and Avneet Ghotra developed a polyester alternative with an eye to disrupt the near $104 billion (USD) polyester industry by creating a circular, biodegradable, and carbon neutral product that addresses two major consumption problems: plastic and food waste. They recently closed their pre-seed round of funding at $1.5 M, proving there is a major appetite for solving fashion’s microplastic problem and upending the fast fashion market. 

When we asked our 2021 Earth Tech venture what this support means to them, co-founder Myra Arshad said: “Having support from organizations that offer a platform, mentorship and funds is the reason ALT TEX has been able to get this far – it’s incredible how this ecosystem comes together to support entrepreneurs.”

More from ALT TEX:

“ALT TEX, a Toronto-based biomaterials style startup, has closed a $1.5 million CAD pre-seed round to scale the production of its waste-to-wardrobe biotechnology. […] The pre-seed round brings ALT TEX’s total funding to $1.7M, following $200,000 previously raised through non-dilutive sources.

Short for ‘alternative textiles’, ALT TEX is creating circular, biodegradable and carbon neutral textiles engineered from one of the world’s largest landfill contributors – food waste. The company’s novel bio-polymer technology re-engineers sugars extracted from the food waste into high performance, polyester-like fibres and fabrics for sustainable fashion brands. The closed-loop alternative is aimed to replace polyester, which makes up over 60% of textile manufacturing. Their closed loop technology allows them to do this at a competitive price to other sustainable options, and without sacrifice to performance.

ALT TEX was founded in 2019 by Myra Arshad, a third-generation textile entrepreneur alongside her best friend, Avneet Ghotra, who has a background in environmental science and biochemistry. ‘This industry has always been close to me given my family’s background in this space, but the level of customer, investor and general stakeholder interest we have received really validates that the environmental and ethical problems are also becoming personal to the general population,’ said Arshad. According to the Ellen MacArthur foundation, the fashion industry could use more than 26% of the world’s carbon budget by 2050 – ALT TEX claims that a single t-shirt created with its material can divert up to 9 kg of carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

‘The industry is growing rapidly and with over 60% of consumers indicating a willingness to pay more for the clothes we wear, our highly scalable technology has the ability to completely replace one of the most polluting textiles we use daily.’ With the polyester manufacturing sector valued at $104 billion, ALT TEX expects to expand globally in the coming years to tackle the large market gap.

The NEXT 36 and Creative Destruction Lab backed startup has been well supported through the Canadian tech ecosystem which also includes Centre for Social Innovation, Schulich Startups and University of Toronto Entrepreneurship. They’re now attracting attention from the global fashion ecosystem with several pilot agreements locked in for their 2022 launch. With this funding, they are now looking to quickly grow their team with several new research positions and expand their R&D operations to begin serving these fashion brands by next year.”

Continue Reading:

Read more about our Earth Tech Ventures’ recent wins!

The Centre for Social Innovation is helping to prove that the Next Economy – one that is regenerative, inclusive and prosperous for all – is possible. 

Our Climate Ventures initiative fast-tracks the success of early-stage entrepreneurs who are developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis. We also work with governments, large companies and partners to solve challenges and scale solutions. Learn more at

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.