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INTERVIEW: Brock Dickinson and Entrepreneurship at Environment

Redefining Success through an Environmental Lens

By: Michelle Angkasa

Tucked away in the sunlit corridor between EV3 and EV2 is the Entrepreneurship at Environment Office, the Faculty’s hub for resources for aspiring student entrepreneurs. Brock Dickinson, the Entrepreneurship in Residence, organizes workshops and networking events to help startups at any stage: from the undergrad student who may have a spark of an idea, to the seasoned entrepreneur practicing for a pitch competition, Brock and his team provide support for all. 

Last week, I sat down with Brock to discuss Waterloo’s famous start up culture, society’s narrow view of corporate success, and his visions for the Faculty in the coming decade. 

Michelle: Can you tell me the story of how you got here, specifically your position here at the University?

Brock: Sure. I’ve been working in the interface of entrepreneurship, environmental issues, and community development for almost my entire career. I sold my last company two years ago, which coincided with the Faculty here starting to think about being a little more proactive on the entrepreneurial side. And so the timing kind of worked out that we made an arrangement for me to come in a couple of days a week on campus. 

Waterloo is this kind of amazing place for entrepreneurial ideas; the support, programs, and incubators – all these sorts of things. But it always feels like it’s a certain kind of startup or student that can tap into that. It’s the engineering student or it’s the IT startup. A lot of the success has been geared in that direction. There are a lot of great programs out there, but sometimes a lot of students who have other backgrounds or interests don’t necessarily know how to connect to all of that, and that if we really wanted to help accelerate some of the ideas that are coming from Environment students, we needed to find a way to better link students to these supports. 

Michelle: Did your previous company have an environmental focus? How did you get into this line of work?

Brock: It didn’t explicitly have an environmental focus, but a lot of the economic growth work done out there takes a traditional approach. Oh, we’re going to start a business, we want factories to come to our town to create jobs, and I was much more interested in the kind of holistic, triple bottom line approach. It seems to me that if you’re trying to build a community, you want to do that in a way that creates sustainable growth. And not even thinking about sustainability in that environmental context but just that notion of long term health and success. 

Michelle: So sort of the business case for sustainability. I’m interested in knowing if you see the evolution of that idea today. Do you see more companies adopting that and operationalizing it? 

Brock: I think so. There are a number of reasons for that. Some companies are run by a lot of good, wise people who are starting to recognize that we’ve created a lot of issues and we need to spend as much time solving them as accelerating them. I think some others do it because they think the market is shifting in that direction, and maybe they don’t have the best motives, but need to keep up with their consumers’ demand for change on environmental and social issues. And I think some companies need to be pushed there by legislation and things like that. Sometimes it feels two steps forward, one step back but we’re moving in the right direction, but it would be nice if we were moving there faster. 

Michelle: My next question is something you touched upon. Waterloo has a big reputation for its start up culture. What sorts of unique skills or perspectives do environment students bring to a space normally dominated by engineering or math students?

Brock: One of the most interesting things for me to see is how misaligned sometimes these existing structures can be. I think that because of the dominance of these fields in this startup ecosystem, a lot of the programs have been designed for those highly scalable businesses, like Blackberry. It’s all about “How can I get from one founder to ten employees to a thousand?”. That could apply to some of the ideas coming out of the Faculty around GIS or autonomous vehicles, but we have a lot of people interested in the circular economy or sustainable or environmental consulting. Those are the kinds of ventures that can grow, but won’t be ten thousand employee companies. Some of the structures that were created in the past don’t know how to support those ideas or ventures, and so we’ve had to do some educating for the existing programs. 

For example, the Accelerator Centre, which is up in the research department in the north of campus. They’ve been around for fifteen years, and they launched a Clean Tech pilot program, and I think it’s been a real learning experience in the notion of how you work with clean tech companies and how that differs from things you might have done in the past. Things like the access to financing, the time it takes to commercialize, the kinds of relationships you have with regulators and government agencies, all are really different in the environmental space, than say, the software space. The question becomes how best we can serve these different startups a little better. 

I also think that some environment students don’t think about startups just in terms of making a profit. They’re thinking about social ventures, social enterprises, and we’re not as strong in Waterloo for those cases. We do have some great places like GreenHouse up in St. Paul’s, but the programs are relatively small compared to the high tech support structures. The different ideas of entrepreneurship from environment students really shapes how we look at starting businesses. 

Michelle: I have a slightly tangential question, but you talked about how the propagation of this narrow paradigm of “We want a highly scalable business that can be easily commercialized”. I was wondering if you could speak to how that one strict sense of what it takes for a business to be successful, and how environment students change that mindset. 

Brock: I’m hoping we can shift that mindset a little bit, because I think one of the things that’s happened is that we’ve defined startup success on the basis of these myths we tell ourselves about Silicon Valley, or about big companies like Blackberry, here. There are a lot of problems with this. Firstly, we’re very narrowly defining success, and so we miss a lot of opportunities, and this leads to a very corrosive startup culture. One thing that Silicon Valley and Waterloo to a certain extent is known for is this sort of “bro culture” of the tech startups. You know, it’s very male, it’s very white, it’s very belligerent, and this sort of thing. It isn’t a very comfortable space for a lot of entrepreneurs. By focusing too much on one area, we haven’t created safe spaces for the diversity of entrepreneurs that are out there. So part of what I hope we can do over time is to change that. The ideas, approaches, and philosophies that environmental entrepreneurs bring to the table force a rethinking of a lot of those ideas. 

The things that entrepreneurs are being taught about the purpose of a business was all about the old fashioned, single bottom line, how to be profitable or make sales, rather than any attempt to teach the notion of the triple bottom line approach to things. I think there are a lot of interesting opportunities now to think more holistically about what kinds of training or knowledge entrepreneurs need to succeed in the current economy, and the economy we want to build for the next generation. 

And so that’s what led me the last couple of years to do some work with The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which is a part of NAFTA. There’s an environmental side agreement and they’ve appointed me to their Eco-Innovation Committee, which basically got a dozen universities in Canada, the US, and Mexico to start to talk about how to green innovation ecosystems and startup support systems, and teach entrepreneurs to create businesses that think about the social impacts, not just profitability. And for a lot of incubators, these are brand new ideas that no one really thought of before. 

Michelle: What do you think is one misconception or common barrier that prevents people from pursuing an idea or starting their own business?

Brock: I think that there are a lot. But especially fear, external pressures – societal pressure, parental pressure, like that. We’re always encouraged to think about that “good job” we’re going to get after we graduate. It’s all about going to work for somebody else. We don’t have those same kinds of introductions to the idea of being self employed. I think some of it is breaking away from the idea of the “safe job”. It can be a little frightening. Someone can have a great idea for a product or service or tool that they want to get out there, but being an entrepreneur can be kind of lonely. Those thoughts of “Am I good enough? Do I know enough? Am I ready for this?”, those kinds of fears can be a real barrier. But I think that sometimes the best entrepreneurs are the most nervous because they’re recognizing their own limitations, and so they can be wiser and more cautious as they jump into these new spaces. But I do think a lot it was like we talked about, that what we celebrate as entrepreneurship is only narrow slice of what it really means to be an entrepreneur: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, all these sorts of people we hold as up icons of entrepreneurship, stars of these multi-billion dollar firms. It makes it hard for people to recognize themselves in those stories. I don’t have a tech startup, I’m not from California, I’m not some middle aged white dude. It’s this whole range of things that creates barriers of “maybe that’s not me”, when in fact we’re just misrepresenting what entrepreneurship is all about. 

Michelle: What is one piece of advice you would give an aspiring entrepreneur?

Brock: Be prepared to take risks. Especially for students, we frown on failure. We try not to fail classes, we want to do well. There’s a kind of concept in entrepreneurship that talks about ‘failing fast’, that it’s okay to take risks. Entrepreneurship is all about risk-taking; risk is what creates reward in some sense. I think that sometimes we need to break out of that mental space that tells us we’re not allowed to fail. We need to give ourselves permission to try things that might not work out, and to learn from those failures.

Michelle: Do you have a favourite entrepreneurship story from Waterloo?

Brock: I think the one I like to talk about now is SheCycle. They’re still in the early stages, they haven’t taken over the world yet, but I think they’re well on their way. They’re a group of students who’ve come up with a more sustainable feminine hygiene product, and they’re looking to introduce the product into markets that have real constraints around the kinds of products that women can access due to cultural issues. They’ve targeted Uganda as their launch point, but I think they have some great ideas, they’ve perfected their pitch, they can talk about it really comfortably. They’ve won some pitch competitions both on campus and elsewhere, which has given them enough money to actually launch the company. They’re now in Concept Science, where they’re making prototypes and getting ready to take it to market. They’re creating a viable company that’ll have a really positive social and environmental impact in the communities they operate in, all while being full time students. As they develop, it wouldn’t surprise me if they went global with this project, and be able to take it to many communities that could benefit from it. SheCycle is a great example of what students can do and how they can benefit from it at the same time.  

Michelle: What are your visions for Entrepreneurship at Environment and the Faculty in the coming decade?

Brock: That’s a good question, a tough question. We’re still a relatively young program; my hope is that there will be continued growth and interest around the concept of environmental entrepreneurship. I think there are amazing students with amazing ideas here, and we as a Faculty, as a university, can be better at supporting those students and helping those ideas come to fruition. I don’t think we ever want to open incubators or a whole bunch of programs; a lot of that already exists out there. But we can create the kind of pathways and safe spaces to allow environment students to explore and connect to the things out there that will see more and more impacts on the economy and the world around us. I think about the needs of Canada and the world over the decade, as we begin to really wrestle with big issues such as climate change. A lot of the solutions will require environmental approaches, new tools, tech, and one of the ways that we’ll get them out there is through entrepreneurial ventures. My role is to lay the seeds for that. I can safely say I won’t be here in ten years, but I hope that there will still be an Entrepreneur in Residence, still programs going on, that there will continue to be a place where students with these ideas can have a partner in conversation. 

Michelle: Just to wrap up; one final plug for the program and what you do here. 

Brock: I would say at the most basic level, we’re a startup entry point. We don’t run a huge number of programs; we have some pitch competitions, we have some workshops, but really we’re about helping students connect to all the amazing services, resources, and structures that are already out there. We’re just an easy place to begin that conversation, and make sure that anyone who wants to can access those things. So I would say come to our events, drop by our office, spend some time, chat with us. There’s no agenda, there’s no pressure, no sort of registration or sign up or that sort of thing. It’s meant to be a starting point, and after that first conversation, if you’re interested, we can get you connected to the best place to start your first steps. 

Thank you, Brock, for your perspective and thoughts on success, entrepreneurship, and the unique value of environment students in the more holistic and sustainable economy we must strive to create! For more information on entrepreneurship or opportunities within the Faculty, feel free to visit the Entrepreneurship at Environment in EV2-2004. 

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