The Digital Media Zone (DMZ) at Ryerson University is one of Canada’s largest business incubators and multi-displinary co-working space for future entrepreneurial leaders. Since its inception in April 2010, the DMZ has accelerated the growth of 180 startups and increased 1580 job positions. Presently, the DMZ houses approximately 334 innovators in 77 startups and envisions enlarging the size through extending their footprints to international markets.
What arches over the impressive numbers is DMZ’s mission to nurture entrepreneurship and innovation amongst the youth. “It is not just about creating companies but creating entrepreneurially-minded individuals that add much more value to anything that they put their minds to” Valerie Fox, co-founder of the DMZ, affirms.
How does this innovation hub foster its value and move forward with rapidly changing scenarios in the age of digital economy?
Imperatives to foster entrepreneurship on campus
“We need more ways to stimulate new jobs. We have to add more facets to [our educational model] so it embraces what we are able to do socially, think intellectually, share the knowledge, collaborate, and cross-pollinate amongst all the different faculties. An incubator enables us [to make] lots of the stuff happen.” Valerie points out the importance to foster such an environment as the DMZ in this day and age. To infuse the entrepreneurial thinking into the students’ mind, building a supportive environment for them to ideate their thoughts, learn required business skills, and work together on challenges is the thing to start with.
Building the environment around what the entrepreneurs need
The DMZ is built around entrepreneurs and what they focus on. A handful of entrepreneurs who sought help from the university to develop their businesses were the first ones to express what a startup needs. Responding to their needs, the school gave them an incredible space at Yonge-Dundas Square and invited mentors in. On top of that, “just-in-time” workshops are provided for those who know what they need to learn to move forward. Ryerson Futures – a for-profit arm attached to the DMZ – enables the hub to open doors to corporates who come in and interact with the incubated startups, providing access to future customers.
In the setup process, Valerie and her team realized that this is their calling: this is the space to make things happen. The students are exposed to one another and work on challenging projects together to absorb knowledge acquired in the classroom. Working at a startup offers great opportunities to apply learning in practice.
Bringing youth to work together across multi-disciplinary fields
DMZ introduced Zone Learning to students who would like to pursue and grow skills that they can use individually and collaboratively. Students have the option to join a zone and learn together with their peers about a specific industry, across multiple disciplines. “We are not expecting to get all the students to become entrepreneurs, but we put them from [different disciplines] to work on real industry challenges together.” Valerie adds. DMZ’s key function is then to link students’ learning to industry practice, giving them work experience and an entrepreneurial mindset. Presently, there are five other zones in place: Fashion, SocialVentures, Design Fabrication, Innovation Centre for Urban Energy, and Transmedia. A Launch Zone, along with other new zones, is in line to be kicked off.
Linking students to real industries
“One of the most important things [to help entrepreneurs with], is to connect them with the industry, existing organisations and companies that are out there so the new entrepreneurs can learn what is working or what is not,” Valerie reassures me. This learning helps the entrepreneurs to identify whom their target customers really are and fine-tune their businesses accordingly.
Another avenue that DMZ uses to provide students with access to industries is peer-to-peer mentoring. Entrepreneurs go through different stages of the startup process and share with each other where the obstacle is or how to cope with a particular situation. The learning from sharing is massive.
In this digital age, we have the possibility to do more things virtually and as a result have exciting possibilities to explore. The DMZ taps into this and stretches out to the international market by forging partnerships with foreign institutions. In February 2015, the DMZ finalized the trilateral partnership with Bombay Stock Exchange Institute in India and University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. This partnership will facilitate the startup incubation and growth opportunities for entrepreneurs in partnering countries. “We already have a fellowship program which brings in entrepreneurs from other countries that stay and live with for 4 months and cross-pollinate with our members. Now we have startups that are partly Canadian and partly South African/Indian. This helps the entrepreneurs to get out of just being local,” Valerie beams.
Enable youth to lead and become the leaders for tomorrow
“In order to have leadership, you [have to] give them opportunities to be leaders, Valerie explains. By trusting youth with responsibility and setting a supportive environment around them, you would be surprised at how good they are being leaders.”
Leadership is developed through self-discovery and experiences. Self-confidence, cross-cultural understanding, and leadership skills are the keys things that enable the youth to be leaders of tomorrow.
“An entrepreneurially minded person helps everyone,” Valerie reconfirms. Eventually, this is the faith that the DMZ holds tight. Going from the setup of the DMZ, the development of the Zone Learning, and the creation of the local/global connections, the DMZ sets a solid base in Toronto to foster the growth of entrepreneurship and expects to grow it impact worldwide.