The Métropolitain

Funding cuts will behead entrepreneur program

By Isaak Olson on July 10, 2008

Government funding for a local program dedicated to young entrepreneurs will be cut at the end of August—a move that, according to program officials, will have an economic ripple effect on the region.

“It’s going to have a huge impact on the economy of Quebec and I don’t say that lightly,” said Iris Unger, executive director of the Montreal-based nonprofit called Youth Employment Services (YES). “Right now we have a support system in place—a network—we know what the community’s needs are. To arbitrarily make a decision on a political level (to cut funding) doesn’t make any sense to me.”

In this year alone, the program, which helps give young entrepreneurs the tools they need to jumpstart and maintain a business has helped over 2,000 people, Unger said, and it has an annual average of 2,800 clients. Through workshops, networking, counseling, mentorship programs, legal advice, financing tips and a gamut of other services, the program is designed to help people cut through Quebec’s red tape while at the same time allowing them to see the whole picture of running a business.

With over 700 volunteers, the $250,000 in government funding is easily matched by unpaid hours, said Unger, noting the wide-range of experts who volunteer their time to help young people learn the ins and outs of business free of charge.

The Canada Economic Dev-elopment (CED) Agency for the Regions of Quebec, headed by Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, has been footing the bill thus far but, come August 31, the government will be rerouting the money directly to the entrepreneurs in a strategy that has yet to fully materialize, according to Unger, who said YES officials are still waiting to see exactly how CED is planning to use the money effectively. Giving the money directly to the entrepreneurs without proper business tools, she said, is not necessarily going to help anybody.

With the government funding on the chopping block, Unger said the economic effects will be felt throughout the region as young entrepreneurs are left to fend for themselves in the tough world of business—a world where one in 10 new businesses shutdown in the first year of operation.

With a strong network of volunteers and mentors, the program has developed over the years into a superior gateway for new entrepreneurs by providing them not only the counseling and education they need, but also priceless contacts within the community, said Unger. It’s a program that has solidified and grown with age, providing not only a launch pad for potential businesses, but also a backbone for growing companies.

“We are the only service of this type in Quebec,” said Professor Harold Simpkins, volunteer president of the YES board and senior lecturer of marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business. “We provide free English language services to anybody. Nobody is turned away.”

According to Simpkins, starting a new business is not easy and people, even with a business degree, often don’t take into account the whole picture like market value, competition or demographics. The entrepreneurship program works to change that through things like educational workshops, mentoring and one-on-one counseling. It’s a program that, both Simpkins and Unger agree, gives the local economy a helping hand. Virtually all of Canada’s employment increases come from small businesses, said Simpkins.

“It’s impossible to quantify what would happen if all of sudden these people don’t have access to the services we provide,” said Simpkins. “But we can be sure that a lot of new businesses would not get started or businesses would get launched and fail because they didn’t have the support they need.”

 YES, a 15-year-old downtown-based program that helps young people find employment and start businesses, is hosting a petition against the potential cut in funding. The petition, which can be found on the nonprofit’s website, has drawn a strong response from the community, according to Unger, who said over 1,400 people have electronically sent their support to Minister Blackburn’s office.

“One the reasons new businesses fail is people get into them without any idea what business is all about,” said Simpkins. “Often, people have a great idea and they start a business up without any assessment of the market. Thomas Edison said ‘genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.’ A lot of budding entrepreneurs really think it’s the other way around. They have a big idea and they think it will just take off. It’s always the opposite.”

YES gives people the tools they need to successfully face the tough world of business, said Unger. They learn how to clear legal hurdles, draw in clients and raise funding. They build networks, learn tricks of the trade and much more. It’s a service that is particularly important to the English-speaking clientele that face a language barrier when trying to get a business off the ground in French-speaking Quebec, she said.

“The entrepreneurship program lives or dies with that funding,” said Simpkins. “If the CED funding were cut, we would not be able to support these thousands of people every year.”

Minister Blackburn’s spokesperson was unavailable for comment as of press time.