Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)
Without Joelle Foster there would be 87 fewer youth-led businesses operating locally – and that’s just in the last three years.
As the Manitoba, Nunavut and NWT director of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation (CYBF), Foster has financed and mentored 87 businesses. And many of these start-ups – like Shawarma Khan, EPH Apparel and Nest Family Centre – are having a big impact on small business in Manitoba.
“Small business is what drives our economy, especially here in Manitoba,” Foster says. “How do you think McDonald’s started? It started with an idea and an entrepreneur. A small business can become a large business.”
CYBF is a national organization that offers financial support and advice to entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 39. Without CYBF, many young entrepreneurs would not be able to secure the business loans or receive the expertise they need to start up.
“Our organization, we lend on character, not collateral.”
Although CYBF has operated in Canada since 1996, the Manitoba, Nunavut and NWT chapter only opened three years ago. And in three short years, Foster’s diligence has helped CYBF to co-fund over $1 million in loans – helping the local chapter outpace growth in CYBF’s other regions.
“The Manitoba youth, now they’ve got an option that they never had before. They’re taking advantage of it more than other provinces.”
How has Foster helped to encourage such impressive growth? Collaboration and commitment.
“I’m about true collaboration, I’m not trying to make a name for myself,” she says. “It’s not ‘What did Joelle do for Winnipeg?’ It’s about ‘What did we all do together?’”
She has worked to overcome perceived competition and misunderstandings between local companies, in turn bringing businesses together and fostering collaboration – all for the sake of sake of entrepreneurship.
“I’ve been called Switzerland – I don’t mind that.”
Foster believes the province must develop a culture of innovation or risk losing innovative entrepreneurs to other markets. Doing so can mean breaking long-held business traditions.
“CYBF is doing so well in this market because I truly care about Winnipeg… It really is an old boys’ network right now,” she says. “You have to chip away at that because the old boys’ network doesn’t get innovation and change, they’re resistant to it, so I’m not going to give up.”
“Winnipeg is waking up, but you need people to push it.”
While part of this hands-on tenacity is ingrained in Foster’s character, it was also fostered while studying Business Administration (Advanced) and Microcomputer Applications through Red River College’s School of Continuing Education in the mid-1990s.
“I found [university] was a lot of bookwork,” she says. “I had talked to a lot of people about Red River College and everything I kept hearing is ‘It’s hands-on.’ I am the type of person who learns from doing, not reading. For me, I learned a lot more [at RRC] because everything was put in to practice. It wasn’t theory.”
Foster has continued her involvement with RRC as a judge and mentor for Business Administration’s Entrepreneurship Practicum.
“That program is slowly evolving and it’s just getting better and better,” she says. “[Students in the practicum] have to work together. That’s one of the things I really like: they force people to work together that maybe normally wouldn’t. When you’re going to become an entrepreneur you’ve got to be able to get along with everybody,” she says.
“I don’t think the universities are doing that, so Red River College is unique.”
Involvement with RRC is just one of many examples of Foster’s community involvement. She also sits on the Financial Literacy Partnership Committee and the Aboriginal Business Service Network Intermediaries Committee, is a board member for the Eureka Project and Ramp Up Weekend, and a judge with Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Spirit Gala Awards, amongst others.
In September she represented Canada at The Prince’s Youth Business International Global Youth Entrepreneurship Summit in London, England, where she met Prince Charles.
“It was such an honour,” she says.
Foster believes the kind of hands-on skills development offered through RRC can be especially attractive to younger demographics.
“I think that with this new generation, they’re very difficult to manage. They’ve got their own ideas, so they actually make the perfect entrepreneurs,” she says.
Although young people are often criticized for being lazy, Foster says the opposite is true.
“The Millennials, I’m starting to discover that they’re not lazy. When they’re working for someone else it’s just that they’re not challenged,” she says. “[As entrepreneurs] they’re working harder for themselves then they would for anyone else.”