Accelerating “Radical Doers” at Vancouver’s RADIUS Ventures

Transforming perspectives, shaping a movement, and growing social entrepreneurs through RADIUS Ventures, an accelerator based at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business

Themes: Accelerate Collaboration

By Sarah Trent

Entrepreneurs can do amazing things in the world when they have a confluence of three things, says Donovan Woollard, director of social venture accelerator RADIUS Ventures in Vancouver, BC. First, he says, you need a deep connection to a purpose and a passion that motivates you. Second, a nature of work that resonates with who you are, how you perform best, and the type of tasks you actually want to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Lastly, you need a viable, sustainable business model.

“I love working with people to find that trinity and be successful when they do,” Donovan says. “RADIUS gives me the opportunity to do that.”

But we should back up for a moment, because at one time, Donovan’s own passions and the type of work he found suited him best seemed to be deeply at odds with each other. And yet the places where they intersect are what make his work accelerating social ventures and entrepreneurs – or “radical doers,” as RADIUS calls them – possible.

Inside the accelerator at RADIUS, part of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

Inside the accelerator at RADIUS, part of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University.

From Activism to Business School

“The key driver for the work that I do has always been a deep passion for addressing environmental issues,” he says. Donovan grew up in a logging town in the interior of British Columbia, attended university “at a time when there was a lot happening in the environmental movement,” and found that environmental issues resonated at his core. At one time, he says, he was a “tree-sitting activist” who would stand on a logging road unafraid of being arrested.

But he was uncertain with his role as a “foot soldier in a campaign, and not terribly interested in becoming a general,” he says. After a year visiting Vietnam and seeing how 10 years of market reform had “dismantled civil society” in that country, his interest grew in community economic development and he started working on environmental advocacy and solutions, primarily with First Nation communities on the British Columbia coast.

“After doing all these business strategies and business plans for how to create the most sustainable – and basically impossible – kinds of ventures, people kept telling me to go do an MBA and become an entrepreneur in my own right,” he says. Being strongly anti-corporate and not exactly pro-business, he says, “it horrified me at first, because I never would have seen myself as an MBA. But once I got in it I realized that this is a type of analysis that I do well, and a type of work that I really enjoy.”

Transforming Perspectives

When Donovan talks about major wins throughout his career, he names building a venture that put a 6,000 square foot vertical farm on top of a Vancouver parking garage, which grows “enough leafy greens for 15 grocery stores and 15 restaurants, directly replacing leafy greens coming from California at an enormous environmental and climate cost.” He also names his work with Offsetters (where he was founding COO) making the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games the first to be carbon neutral and transforming a local airline, with routes between Victoria and Vancouver, into the world’s first carbon-neutral airline.

 “(The airline) would never have seen themselves as a green company,” Donovan said, even though they were the cleanest way of getting back and forth between Vancouver Island and the mainland. “We worked with them and we all gained an understanding of their relative climate impact versus the car ferry or heli-jet, and how to turn that into a compelling carbon neutrality story. When they were able to change their perspective and change their narrative on how they interacted with the whole concept of green business, they made massive transformations that could never have happened in the old perspective.”

Environmental discourse in British Columbia has seen a huge shift in the last 20 years, Donovan says, through which these types of transformations are now possible. The movement has matured, he says, to include multi-stakeholder solutions, unusual partnerships, and non-zero-sum outcomes. “The outcomes that you can get when you understand the perspective of the folks that would otherwise be your opposition are oftentimes better for you and better for them than they would be if you just fought to the death over what you could see in front of you,” Donovan says.

The ecosystem supporting social ventures – whether they address environmental or social justice issues – is seeing similar shifts. It’s a shift that makes organizations like RADIUS, where Donovan brings his passion for environmentalism and community economic development and his experience launching social ventures, possible.

RADIUS, an innovation hub and venture accelerator at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, brings together experienced business advisors, a university setting, support from Canada’s largest credit union (Vancity), and a number of other partners to support “radical doers” from “switched-on undergrads” to venture capital-ready companies “who are seeking an opportunity to apply their work and their career development towards economic transformation in a positive direction.”

Donovan knows that his work is part of a movement that is changing the landscape of business, simply by defining its purpose around impact rather than profit alone. “If you’re trying to be transformative, you have to look for those places the mainstream infrastructure isn’t already serving,” he says. “That’s the place where we have to find new delivery models, new funding models, and be willing to take different sorts of risks.”

Not unlike standing on that logging road, risking arrest – and then walking off the road to earn an MBA and a new perspective on the movement he cared most about.

“I’ve been bringing the same principles and doing the type of work that replenishes me,” he says, “and I like to think it has actually created some positive change along the way.”

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