On May 19, Jon French stepped into his new role as the director of University of Toronto Entrepreneurship (UTE), a community that gives potential entrepreneurs at the university the opportunity and resources required to lift their business ideas off the ground.
U of T is an entrepreneurial hub, and UTE sits at the centre of it. In the last decade alone, U of T entrepreneurs have launched over 500 research-based startups and amassed over $1.5 billion in investment.
French has been in the entrepreneurial space for the last nine years, working at NEXT Canada, an entrepreneurial network that aims to raise the next generation of entrepreneurs by providing them with access to education, funding, and mentorship.
He holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from Wilfrid Laurier University and a Master of Business Administration from the Schulich School of Business, and also recently received an executive program certificate in artificial intelligence from the Rotman School of Commerce.
French is excited to take the next step in his entrepreneurial journey with the U of T community. “U of T has always punched above its weight with regard to how successful their entrepreneurs have been,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.
“When I heard that there was an opportunity to be the connectivity inside the university, and with one central voice tell the story of all the great work that the University of Toronto is doing on the entrepreneurship file, it was a no-brainer.”
Vision as director of UTE
As director of UTE, French’s goal is to support the various entrepreneurial programs, sometimes called campus-linked accelerators, across the three campuses and provide them with the resources they need to assist students interested in entrepreneurship. He spoke about improving communication and accessibility aspects of entrepreneurship at U of T, which help students with ideas turn to and move between these accelerators.
“I want to help U of T students create a toolbox of entrepreneurial skills so that when they graduate, even if they do not start a company, they have got the skills around critical thinking and identifying questions, pitching and presenting an idea that will help them regardless of where they work,” added French.
In light of COVID-19, French commented that UTE has been adapting its programs and services by providing the same resources as before and using online platforms to deliver them. “I have been really impressed by how quickly leaders across the U of T entrepreneurial community have pivoted or changed their delivery due to COVID,” he said.
French spoke about the Collision from Home conference, a major tech gathering that was held virtually last week. 300 U of T students and staff participated, according to French. “It is a real opportunity for the university to showcase our stuff to a global audience,” he said.
French also emphasized a desire to increase participation among underrepresented groups. On June 17, French sat in on Pride Pitch, a pitch competition that was delivered by the ICUBE entrepreneurial program at UTM and was hosted virtually over Zoom. There were five finalists, each with at least one member who identified as LGBTQ+.
French talked about the upcoming plan to roll out a free intellectual property training module on Quercus in the fall for anyone at U of T who wants to learn how to protect their ideas. “Whether you are a researcher in engineering, artist, or journalist that has created a novel or piece of art, and want to copyright that, [the training module] is going to be available to you across any program,” French noted.
He also spoke about continuing to support the development of entrepreneurship at the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre being constructed at the intersection of College Street and University Avenue, and supporting ONRamp, a 15,000 square feet facility that hosts numerous networking events and initiatives to support entrepreneurs and startups across U of T’s three campuses and partner universities.
Staying motivated in the entrepreneurial space
The Varsity asked French about how he remains excited in the entrepreneurial space after spending a decade in it. “I love the energy and being associated with and surrounded by people who are passionate about solving problems. To me, that is what entrepreneurship is. It is about looking at an opportunity or challenge, figuring out a creative way to do it,” French noted. “Part of the reason [I’ve stayed] in this field for so long is to feed off that energy.”
A proud Canadian, he also spoke about the need to support small businesses in the Canadian economy, given their important role in accounting for the majority of jobs in Canada.
French stressed that entrepreneurship is key in facing major global challenges, from COVID-19 and health care, to sustainability, to poverty. “I think a lot of the problems that the world is facing right now can be saved by entrepreneurs.”
In this light, French is eager to advance U of T’s role in building a future that can solve these problems: “I am excited about equipping students and grads with the tools to succeed regardless of what they do.”