USoup offers entrepreneurs in Ottawa a lot more than financial support. It’s one of the best ‘extra value meals’ in the city, writes Kenneth Ingram.
Three very determined and passionate teams competed last Saturday night at the Glebe Community Centre for a cash prize to support their business dreams.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the event and TV shows like Dragon’s Den or its newest Canadian edition, Next Gen Den; however, there’s a lot more to USoup than the cash prize raised by ticket sales and donations.
“This is a community coming together and pooling its resources together to bring ideas forward,” says Lina-Gaelle Budigi, Program Director for USoup, who co-hosted the event with Paul Milindi.
She explains that the “U” in USoup stands for Ujamma.
“It’s a Swahili word that means economic co-development and it’s also one of the tenants of Kwanzaa… an Afro-centric religion,” says Budigi.
For a nominal fee of only $10 per person, attendees gain access to an exceptional networking venue; hear innovative business ideas; gain advice from industry experts; pose questions to the competitors during six-minute breaks between project pitches and then vote for their favourite team of entrepreneurs—all while being treated to a wholesome meal, live music, and a silent auction.
Continuing on the success of its inaugural dinner event hosted last June, USoup is one of the best ‘extra value meals’ in the city. And while the butternut squash soup with Jamaican spice and a side salad with cranberries (generously donated by Rowland Gordon) were delicious, the event certainly abides by the adage ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’
There is palatable pressure on each team that has no more than four minutes to pitch their business idea. There’s also pressure on the attendees who collectively decide where the money is directed. Near the end of the night, each visitor votes for the best pitch by dropping a plastic spoon into one of three empty steel pots.
The pots represent each of the projects: Frize Frize, a salon initiative that aims to provide safe, natural hair products and services for people with curly hair; the Ubuntu Project, a legacy project pitched by the Cultural Arts Studio School of Afro-Caribbean Dance and Wellness that would pay for artists and their supplies; and third, a two-day summit for 150 youth (ages of 13 to 24) pitched by the Young Leaders Advisory Council.
Easing the palatable excitement and anticipation was soothing steelpan by Eddie Alleyne who played a variety of melodies including Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” from a safe corner in the back of the room.
Lighting from multiple stained glass windows in the spacious interior also had a calming effect, brilliantly reflected in the silverware set on long tables where more than 150 people of all ages mingled—eager to learn, dine, network, and vote.
“This is a community coming together and pooling its resources together to bring ideas forward.”
Dane Bedward was one of two keynote speakers and he led an “abridged Masters-level course in business” by sharing professional experience as an entrepreneur, investor, and strategic business consultant.
“Most entrepreneurs are technically competent but they don’t understand business,” he cautioned, emphasizing that the two skills are vital ingredients for success.
“You need to do your homework to ensure you’re prepared,” he explains, “and be prepared to compete.”
Bedward spoke to the reality of entrepreneurship, whereby most people need more than just a big idea and financial assistance to see their dreams come to life.
He called attention to the invaluable role of leadership, teamwork, and mentorship, noting that while friends, family, professional and academic contacts all help, there are also business incubators and accelerators such as MaRS, a Canadian innovation hub; C100, a collection of Canadian thought leaders in Silicon Valley; and StartX, a non-profit accelerator affiliated with Stanford University—all geared towards mature start-ups—if entrepreneurs can make it that far.
Moe Omer, a self-proclaimed “techy” who marketed a smartphone for less than $300, followed Bedward.
“I have 17-years of life experience,” he began, ushering loud laughs and applause from the audience by drawing a comparison between himself, now 17-years-old, and Bedward’s 35-years of professional experience.
Explaining the genesis for his startup as a co-founder of Frank Phone, Omer reminisces about his Grade 10 French class.
“I broke my phone and I couldn’t afford a new one,” he recalls, “and I didn’t want to tell my Mom [from Somalia],” he continues, highlighting the relatively high cost of smartphones in North America.
Omer explains he didn’t know a lot about phones back then but that his hard work, determination, and mentors have since enabled him to compete on Dragon’s Den. He also acknowledged a number of barriers he continues to face and implored the audience, many hopeful entrepreneurs, to remain focused—and to not give up.
Words of encouragement were also echoed by Musab Farah, a member of Team Purple that won $1,085 at USoup’s first competition in June. Contacted by Apt613 via phone, Farah says that the Young Leaders Advisory Council and Smart Start enabled his team to become cohesive. He looks back at the competition as a major stepping-stone.
“If we didn’t win that [prize from USoup], we wouldn’t be where we are now,” he says, noting that his group continues to develop an app that helps youth pursuing post-secondary training and education.
When asked if he has advice for future entrepreneurs, Farah doesn’t hesitate.
“There’s no such thing as losing. You learn from your mistakes. Always take that step forward,” he says, “Always chase your dream.”
“If we didn’t win that [prize from USoup], we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
Organizers intend to make USoup a quarterly event but Budigi admits that she’s hesitant to say another dinner will be hosted before the end of 2017. In the meantime, she encourages people to follow USoup on Facebook and consider donating to its GoFundMe page.
“It’s nice to see so many people,” says Clarecia Christie, a community member who sat down for a quick break while mingling with people at the centre.
“And so many new faces too,” she smiles.
“I hope more people will come.”