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Ryerson Startups: Growing North (Part 1)

If you’ve ever visited this blog, you know that we’re really into campus involvement. Getting involved on campus can change your life in unexpected ways, and Business Management graduate Stefany Nieto (marketing, business law minor; class of 2016), and current student Ben Canning (entrepreneurship) are prime examples of this. In 2013, Stefany and Ben began the development of their non-profit organization Growing North, which aims to eliminate food insecurity (the lack of reliable food sources) in communities across Canada. Having first started as a project within the student group Enactus Ryerson, Growing North has become a seven person team, operates a Geodesic Growing Dome greenhouse in Nunavut, and has a space in the Ryerson SocialVentures Zone.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ben to discuss Growing North, how his studies prepared him for his current path, and what it’s like to turn an extracurricular project into a full-time career. Check out part one of our interview below, and stay tuned for part two!

Where did the idea for the organization come from?

Growing North started three years ago, with Stefany and I wanting to address a real Canadian issue: something that affected a lot of Canadians but wasn’t necessarily on the radar. We started researching these issues, and found that food insecurity was a serious problem. When we found out that almost 70% of people living in Nunavut don’t have access to enough fresh, nutritious food, we were shocked. From there, we were inspired to solve the issue.

I grew up on a farm about four hours outside of Toronto, so my background is in horticulture. It’s funny because my parents are farmers, my grandparents were farmers, and I moved to the city and learned I wanted to become a farmer. It took us nearly a year to develop it to its full potential.

Source: Rodney Volkmar

The program initially started as a project with Enactus Ryerson. What was it about Enactus that inspired you to join the group?

When I came to Toronto I didn’t have any friends or family in the area, so I joined Enactus to make friends. It was one of the first student groups I saw on campus, and I thought what the group offered was unique. But most of all, everyone in the group was smiling and happy. Stefany had been a part of Enactus for a year, and wanted to start something new. We became friends through our interest in solving a Canadian problem, and our similar thoughts and ideas. All my friends are from Enactus, and I encourage everyone to join the group, get involved, and develop their own projects.

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Source: Ben Canning

Growing North is now based in the Ryerson SocialVentures Zone. What pushed you to take the project into this space?

It was the scale of the problem. There are communities across the country that don’t have access to fresh food. We found our project to be successful, but more people needed it. It was time for us to use those results to no longer be Project Growing North, but Growing North. We are now a Nunavut non-profit society, and our mission is to reduce the cost of food where we see it. The SocialVentures Zone was a great platform to increase our traction and have access to better technology, partners, media exposure, and many different things that propelled us forward. Now it will be my full-time job upon graduation, and Stefany’s part-time job.

You’ve travelled all over the world through your organization. How have these opportunities helped you develop personally and professionally?

Growing North has been the catalyst that has taken us to these different countries. However, I’ve also had the opportunity to travel with a number of different student groups, like Ryerson International Experiential Learning (RIEL), and Ryerson Global Innovation Challenge. I’ve been to Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia will be the last continent for me to visit. It’s crazy because before university I had never left Canada. Every other week I was applying to go to that next opportunity. For example, I spent a month in Egypt over December working on a new water sanitation project. While I was there, I was writing the proposal to go to Australia.

I came from Delta, a town of 200 people. To come to Toronto, live in a city of three million people, and have this international experience, is the epitome of multiculturalism. I’m always looking for that next opportunity, and Ryerson does a good job with [promoting] that. It’s an instilled mindset of finding best practices and always looking for opportunities.

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Source: Ben Canning

Growing North is competing in Google.org’s Impact Challenge, a competition that supports Canadian non-profits who are tackling the world’s biggest challenges. Growing North is one of the ten organizations competing for a $750,000 grant to help turn their ideas into reality. Until March 28th, join the Ryerson community and vote Growing North into the top five. Click here to vote!

Good luck Growing North, we’re rooting for you! 

Featured Image: Ben Canning