Some cities learn it takes a village to foster a generation of entrepreneurs
On a cool night in April, a who’s who of Hamilton’s young professional world gathered in the back of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Design Annex, a space opened in 2012 on the increasingly hip James Street North stretch of galleries, shops, restaurants and studios.
There were city councillors, McMaster University professors, entrepreneurs, and business contacts in real estate, consulting and all kinds of creative industries. They were there to celebrate the two-year anniversary of an executive roundtable series that has hosted 24 sessions of senior business people passing on their knowledge to the city’s up-and-coming younger generation of entrepreneurs and professionals, discussing everything from marketing and social media to legal advice and property options.
On this occasion, Joe Accardi, the 28-year-old economics graduate from Toronto who started the roundtables, passes on the torch to a new chair.
“I used to get deflated by the local community when I would speak of the bright future and renewal,” Mr. Accardi said of the business atmosphere when he moved to Hamilton just a few years ago. “I would be told that ‘I’ve heard that before’ or ‘We already tried that.’ Now when I speak of what’s happening, there are more inspirers than deflaters: ‘Yeah, it’s happening.’ ”
Within the few years he has been here, Mr. Accardi started up the roundtable series, began running a property management company, and, just last year, opened The Green Smoothie Bar on James Street and a social business space called Platform 302, similar to Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.
He is a testament to what is possible when a city fosters its business-hungry, creative young people, something Hamilton and many several other middle-sized cities have focused on in the past five years.
In the city once known for its big industry, there is now a “spirit of optimism” among its small business community, says Marvin Ryder, an assistant professor of marketing and entrepreneurship from McMaster’s DeGroote School of Business.
Mr. Ryder says the positive outlook is largely due to a well-timed coincidence of effort from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, the local Small Business Enterprise Centre (SBEC) and McMaster’s Innovation Park in fostering the region’s newer generation of entrepreneurs and young professionals.
“Everyone’s trying to do a little something so you have what appears to be a nice ground swell,” he said.
Hamilton has had its share of attention in the past year as many are flocking to the city for its cheaper real estate and growing arts community, with the art crawl on James Street North as a symbol of renewal of the city’s downtown. Many of its 10,000 or so graduates from local post-secondary institutions, who once would have left the city after graduating, are staying. Heritage buildings are up for rent, and they’re affordable. And many businesses in the technology and arts sectors now require less startup costs than did the manufacturing businesses of the previous generation.
But many are pointing to the success of local networking groups such as Mr. Accardi’s executive roundtables that have connected the various generations of entrepreneurs and inspired further growth.
Another group called Hamilton Hive, which began in 2010, was promoted as a best practice in February at the annual conference of the Economic Developers Council of Ontario (EDCO). It is similar to a regional LinkedIn, but it also has a mentoring component and runs a large annual conference, Hive X.
“There are a lot of new young professional groups emerging from chambers of commerce and boards of trade,” says Nirvana Champion, chair of the Young Professionals Network within the EDCO, a committee she founded just two years ago. “It’s an increasing focus… It is quite important because those are your next leaders, your next entrepreneurs.”
Champion points to other groups in cities not too far from Hamilton that have been trying to inspire its younger wave of business people: Niagara Next, Emerging Leaders in London, Ont., and the Young Professionals Association of Greater Sudbury.
Examples of similar new groups exist across the country. Fusion Halifax, which started five years ago, went from 10 founding board members to a present-day 3,500 members. It hosts a monthly networking event and an annual mentorship program.
Current chair Sarah Levy MacLeod, 30, was a mentee a few years ago and says “mentorship is a critically important piece specifically when building that next generation of leaders.”
The group and its events, including annual awards and Viva City, a development symposium, has really helped make the business community feel closer, she says.
“The job market here tends to be quite closed, there are a lot of advertised positions but there are just as many positions not advertised. It kind of does become about who you know,” she says.
Back in Hamilton, 28-year-old Danielle Height, who co-owns the smoothie bar with Mr. Accardi, says the strategy is working.
“It’s a huge movement,” she says. “Once you know a few people in the business community, all they want to do is help you; they want to pass you around and help you thrive.”
Ms. Height also runs a design company with twin sister Melissa, who is the current chair of Hamilton Hive.
It’s a large business community, but somehow, they all seem connected, admits Michael Marini of Hamilton’s Economic Development Division.
“It’s a city of over 500,000 but it’s a city of 500 because everyone knows someone through someone.”