Sunday, February 1, 2015
PHOTO BY SANDOR FIZLI
To get Gerry Pond’s attention these days, it helps to have some horsepower driving your dreams. For the past five years, Pond has played Gabriel to the Atlantic region’s angel investors, heralding the arrival of new entrepreneurs with big ideas. Up until now almost all of them have been in the tech sector, but this past year Pond began looking farther afield for entrepreneurs with ideas that might change our world.
That includes people such as University of New Brunswick PhD student Christy Clarke, who has captured Pond’s imagination with her start-up company, Gratitude Works. From a rural property in Sussex, N.B., Clarke operates an education-and-therapy program that employs horses as both teachers and healers. The process, known as Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL), allows clients to learn, through their interaction with the horses, how to develop life skills such as anger management, leadership, co-operative teamwork, and non-verbal communication. “Christy’s a natural entrepreneur,” says Pond. “It didn’t take me too long to know that I wanted to be on her team.”
Clarke is a social entrepreneur, a new breed that applies business principles to address and solve social problems. To date, social entrepreneurs have operated almost exclusively in the not-for-profit and volunteer sectors. However, there’s a small but growing cadre of senior business leaders across North America who believe that social entrepreneurs are destined to be game-changers over the next decade, much like such innovators as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page were in the early digital days.
Over the next five years, Pond intends to start five social entrepreneurship entities. Gratitude Works is one of those five. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between Clarke’s horse therapy and the web analytics of Pond’s most famous former protégé, Chris Newton, the creator of the technology behind Q1 Labs and Radian6.
But of course there is: They each seek a solution to a problem and, right now, Pond believes our social problems need our immediate attention. It’s why he partnered with Boston-based billionaire, angel investor, and philanthropist Gurunraj “Desh” Deshpande to create the Pond–Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UNB. Deshpande, who, like Pond, is a UNB alumnus, is passionate about matching innovative ideas with existing problems to develop common sense solutions that have impact. To do that, Deshpande believes in supporting ideas developed within the community, which is what Pond has been doing for over a decade.
Together, Pond and Deshpande have provided $5 million to establish the centre, which will support local researchers and help entrepreneurs transform ideas into products and services. Both men are clear that the centre is meant to support both traditional business entrepreneurs and the new wave of social entrepreneurs.
Pond’s entry into the world of social entrepreneurship began in 2009, while he was co-chairing the New Brunswick government’s consultation process on poverty reduction. That volunteer role led him to Seth Asimakos, the founder of the Saint John Community Loan Fund, which provides micro-credit to low-income applicants who want to start a business. Since its creation in 1996, it has disbursed over $200,000 in loans and generated over $3 million in new income; its average loan is $1,250.
Asimakos’ story fascinates Pond, so much so that while the rest of the region continues to talk about Radian6, Pond is just as happy telling people about Community Loan Fund client Paul Reeves, “the bike guy” who developed a lightweight bicycle saddlebag made of corrugated plastic called Trunx 4 Bikes. Pond was on the team that provided Reeves with business advice. “We need to understand the ties between strong communities and strong businesses,” says Pond of his new direction. “I’m still a student of all this, but I know this is the right thing to do.”
They’re not famous—yet—but these entrepreneurs are developing new products and services in the ICT and social enterprise sectors: