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Social Impact with Karen Greve Young

By July 8th, 2023No Comments20 min read
Home » Social Impact with Karen Greve Young

There is so much hope in young entrepreneurs and promising future to every startup that we tend to forego. Conversely, Karen Greve Young never misses out on these business ideas that may actually change the world. CEO of the Futurpreneur Canada, a non-profit organization that has been fueling the entrepreneurial passions of Canada’s young enterprise for two decades, Karen touches on how they help manage young entrepreneurs launch and grow their business. A master consultant and fundraiser, she reveals the way to keep everyone moving in the same direction given that they are the only national non-profit organization that provides financing, mentoring, and support tools to aspiring business owners aged 18-39. As she goes through the surprises in her CEO journey to date, discover the challenge that national organizations face these days and how it gets sorted.

Listen to the podcast here:

Social Impact with Karen Greve Young

We have Karen Greve Young on the show. She is the CEO of Futurpreneur Canada. She is a master consultant and a fundraiser. She’s also been an important member of one of Canada’s great investments in innovation at the MaRS Discovery District. Welcome to the show.

Thanks a lot, Doug. It’s great to be here.

For those who may not be familiar with Futurpreneur Canada, can you tell us a little bit about what the organization does?

Futurpreneur Canada, for over twenty years, has helped young entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses. We basically help aspiring entrepreneurs, aged 18 to 39, who may have an idea for a business or maybe already ready to start, who are looking for the financial resources and the mentor support to get going. We give them that support. We help entrepreneurs start businesses. We do it in every province and territory across Canada to the tune of around 1,000 entrepreneurs every year.

How do you manage to support all those entrepreneurs?

We have a fantastic team across the country in sixteen different locations. Our biggest presence is in Toronto, where I’m located with our headquarters. We have business development teams – from Saint John, to Fort Saint John and Terrace, BC, so from Newfoundland to BC, and even working into the territories – who are out in the community, meeting entrepreneurs, meeting graduating college and university students. Who may have skilled trade degrees or people who are starting to think about next steps, and come in our door realizing that we might be able to help them. These business development teams across the country let people know that we could be part of helping them realize their dreams.

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What are the archetypes of the people who come to join your program?

They are so varied. What we are not is an organization focused exclusively or primarily on technology-driven entrepreneurs. We have people who would fit the proverbial stereotype of the twenty-something guys starting a tech company out of his garage, but that would be the exception rather than the rule for us. Over 40% of the entrepreneurs we support are women. Close to 4% are indigenous. A lot of newcomers are a part of our programs. From a demographic’s perspective, we are diverse. From an industry perspective, it’s everything from technology to main streets. Restaurants, retail, either bricks-and-mortar retail or a lot of online retailers, food companies and construction companies, everything running the gamut from the auto detailer to the bespoke suit designer. It’s a great mix. It’s one of the things that I love the most about what we do is that you couldn’t characterize these entrepreneurs except to say that they are young people taking their career into their own hands and realizing their dreams.

I can hear your excitement in your voice. You’ve got a real passion for the role. You’ve been in the job for almost a year now. How has the organization changed since you walked through the door on your first day?

The organization is changing a bit. My approach, which we may have done in the past, but we probably weren’t doing as much when I first joined, is to try to make sure that the regions and the front lines of the organization are represented in all our decisions. This may have been happening before, but I took the stuff that was a bit unusual for us of having our regional directors report directly to me and visiting every single region within my first couple of months. It’s important for a national organization to be very locally informed. Our job is to help entrepreneurs launch businesses. We need to hear from the people who are working with the entrepreneurs every day and include that perspective in all our decisions. That’s probably a big difference. To a large extent, a lot of what we’ve been doing is trying in all aspects of the organization to make sure that we are focused on the entrepreneur’s experience, how we can work better and more effectively to improve that experience.

When you were at MaRS, you were responsible for corporate partnerships and corporate development. It’s very large-scale investments, both practical and philosophical a lot of the time. How was that different from the on the groundwork that Futurpreneur is doing?

I think of Futurpreneur and MaRS as being very complementary. In some ways in both organizations, I’ve not been in the role that is necessarily directly working with entrepreneurs but very much indirectly supporting them. MaRS’ mandate is more working with those scaling technology and science fuels entrepreneurs while also being a Canadian leader in social innovation. My role as a member of the executive team is driving strategy, operating planning, marketing and impact measurement as well as a lot of our key partnerships. It was a very fulsome role. I will say here at Futurpreneur, partly because of the changes that we’ve made, I do feel more connected to the front line of what we’re doing and that was important to me. The difference in the organization, the fact that Futurpreneur is more explicitly national and how’s it been was important to me.

It’s been interesting for me having to focus very much in my time at MaRS on helping people understand the importance of betting on the companies that actually have the chance to grow and scale, many of which are focused on the cities and getting our cities working as economic engines. That was a lot of my focus at MaRS. That is important. What I’ve come to think more and more about though, which is what led me to Futurpreneur, is that while that is important, having our city’s firing it’s economic engines and scaling technology companies, it can’t be the only thing we do. We ignore our rural regions, our smaller towns and our main street entrepreneurs are in peril. If we want inclusive economic and societal prosperity that’s driven by innovations, we need to help entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes in all sizes of communities, launch their businesses. They may grow and scale. SkipTheDishes is an example of a Futurpreneur supported company. It is tech-related in its platform but certainly also has a food and consumer bent to it. It’s based in the prairie. That’s an important aspect as opposed to being a Vancouver or Toronto Company. It’s that inclusion and that focus on communities of all sizes and helping all of them be vibrant which has been a very important part of Futurpreneur’s mandate for me.

That’s a big, bold vision and one that is quite inspiring. How has the board responded to that emphasis on being truly national and throughout all regions of the country?

We have a fantastic board and that’s not new. It’s new for me in my career in Canada to be focused nationally. I’m practicing my French with our teams. Our board is national. Our Chairman, John Risley, the Founder of Clearwater Fine Foods out of Halifax. He travels all over the country but is originally from and based in Atlantic Canada. We have board members, including two entrepreneurs, Harry Chemko and Devon Brooks in Vancouver. We have David Aisenstat as well, an entrepreneur. We have entrepreneurs and board members across the country. They do believe in our national mandate, and they do want us to think and act boldly. If anything, I was brought in to realize the vision that they already had to a great extent.

I would imagine that many entrepreneurs on your board getting everybody in the same room at the same time is difficult but also keeping them focused on the same strategy. How do you keep everyone moving in the same direction?

I should credit my predecessor first of all because everyone around our board table is there for the right reason. The great thing is that they do all care about what we’re doing. We do try to make it easy for people to engage. We meet quarterly, two times in person and two times by teleconference. That way it’s easier for people to become involved. It’s all about respecting the fact that while the staff is focused on what we do every single day, day-in, day-out, the board champions us year-round but focuses deeply at those meetings and key touchpoints. It’s giving them the questions and challenges that they’re best suited to solve for us. Making sure that they have all the information that they need but not burdening them with the minutia of how we operate day-to-day.

You don’t get them in a room and show them a PowerPoint presentation for three hours?

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No, we try not to and to be honest, that wouldn’t probably be the best use of their time. Certainly, for me, the value of having such a rich, diverse board is learning from them and getting their perspective. What I try to do is make sure that those meetings are structured that we do get their perspective. The great thing that they do, which started before I came, is that they start off by giving their observations on the management report. They lead the beginning of the meeting. We assume that they’ve read the materials. There aren’t a lot of materials. We make it easy to digest. They start off by sharing their observations and that fuels a conversation that will be on a couple of our strategic topics, whatever is relevant for the meeting. I do engage with all of them one-on-one between meetings particularly when I’m traveling. I try to see members in person where they are whenever possible.

That’s one of the big challenges of the social profit sector regardless of geography, regardless of country, is getting board members to bring their best business selves to the table. Organizations that are able to harness, that are able to advance quickly and advance a strategy very quickly. Many more organizations, unfortunately, find themselves in a place of trying to get that best advice at the end of a three-hour long meeting with a PowerPoint. It sounds like you’ve done a good job. I liked that idea of having the board start the meeting with observations on a management report. Does that put a lot of pressure on you to fill that with the great meaty content?

That pressure would be there. We have to inform them. They are governing the organization. We need them to be informed about what we do. What we try to do is make the management report and this is the management report that they get in advance of the meeting. It’s something we are presenting in the meeting and they’ve been able to digest. It’s a gift to be able to have them focus a lot on the material and they give their feedback. I will share one of our board members has now implemented that practice in his own board meetings for his company. It obviously has legs. It’s worked well. I do think one of the great gifts that the Canadian non-for-profit sector has are these board members who are giving up their time without compensation to help make organizations drive an important impact more effective in what they’re doing.

One of the biggest challenges I see for the sector and you see a lot of in our work at the Discovery Group is making sure that board members understand the core of the business or the operations of an organization so that the advice they can give is something that can be implemented or can advance the organization. Not having board members jumping into the operations but to have them understand what the day-to-day looks like, what it feels like, and it gives a better frame for the strategic potential of any organization.

It does take time and work. The onus is on the non-for-profit CEOs and their senior leadership teams to make sure that they are putting the time into providing the right level of information and insight to the board so they can do that effectively.

It takes a fair bit of vulnerability on the part of non-for-profit CEOs to be able to say, “Here are the challenges we’re having. Here’s what we’re doing that’s not working. How can you help us with this?” That can be a very vulnerable place or feel very vulnerable for a lot of leaders.

It can and it’s so important. If the CEO or the non-profit leaders also want the organization to succeed, it doesn’t help to have surprises because the way that I think about it is if I have to share a hard truth with the board, it doesn’t make it truer than it was before I share it. It means that I have some great brains helping me solve it. I’ve made mistakes. We all make mistakes. I will make more mistakes. We will have challenges, but by addressing them and being thoughtful in how we address them, we can help more entrepreneurs.

The better the ideas around the table, the better the organization is going to perform. It is that simple and it is risky. Too often, organizations aren’t willing to be that transparent even around the board table to have those hard truth discussions.

I do think that a lot of it does come to the board and the chairman in particular. I’m very lucky with the way that John Risley works. He has said, “Share with me what’s helpful to share with me. I will always give you my honest opinion. I will always support you in whatever decision you decide to make.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. “I have your back. I will share with you the wealth of my experience, but I’m not running the organization. You are. I will support whatever you decide to do.” That is such a gift as a CEO to have a strong chairman and a strong board.

That is a great place to be in with your board chairman. I worked for a chairman years ago who said in my first meeting with him after he became chairman, he said, “Doug, here’s how I work. I don’t have to be right, but we have to get the right answer.” He was inviting a conversation about what was best for the organization and not quite, “I’ll support you as you got,” but more, “I’m willing to be convinced.” He was a great chairman and was able to drive the organization forward. I’ve always appreciated that open-mindedness that he brought to the table.

It’s so valuable. Let me not leave the false impression that John doesn’t give me some tough insight sometimes, but it’s always helpful. It always gets us closer to the right answer.

Has it been what you expected to be in this job? Have there been any surprises in your journey so far?

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There’ve been quite a few surprises. The biggest thing, I had one lucky thing happened for me going into the job in that, MaRS where I’d been for several years, had a new CEO start eight months before I left. I got to have the experience of helping to onboard Yung to MaRS and see what we could have helped him more with, in the things that I thought he did well. The things that I suspect he might’ve done differently the next time, which is we all wish we could get some mulligans. By virtue of having had that experience of having brought in a CEO, that was itself helpful. Even with that, the biggest gift that gave me was the realization that for all the day I started was a new job for me.

It was also a new organization for everyone else who worked here. They hadn’t changed jobs, but they changed leaders and things were new to them. I’m trying to be sensitive to that and yet, there probably have been times when I have not been sensitive enough to the impact of change on people. I was brought in partly for my style of working, but it is new to the organization. It’s very open, transparent and trust based. It’s not that it wasn’t before, but explicitly and deliberately and that is new. Transparency is not always the most comfortable thing. It’s an interesting seat trying to get that right balance of helping the organization develop in a certain direction while also respecting and being true to the heritage of what was already a great organization before I got here.

Was there a particular moment when you realize that the openness, the transparency was difficult for your team?

We have monthly all staff meetings. We call them #SameTeamMonthlyMeetings and thinking about bringing your whole team together across the country by Webex. It’s a team meeting that meets a town hall. In the first one we had, I was shocked by the extent to which at the end of it, when I asked if there are any questions, there were no questions. There was a bit of a sense of discomfort and silence. We had some questions that the staff had prepopulated. We had people who had submitted anonymous questions, which I answered. My sense was that usually those were aggregated and answered generally. Whereas, I answered them a question for question very explicitly, which was a new approach. People had to take a step back and said, “We were going to get straight shots.”

The next meeting, the questions got even tougher, which was great. By the fifth or sixth meeting, people started asking questions. We still have questions pre-submitted, but more of what happens in the meeting is that responding to what’s on people’s mind and what’s happened in the meeting, there is a dialogue afterwards with questions and insights from people across the country. That’s what I had been hoping for. I was a little bit surprised by how long it took them. People are putting themselves out there in front of their 90 colleagues, all of whom they can’t see. It’s not like we’re all physically in the same room at the same time. I have gotten good feedback that people are enjoying that dialogue that happens there. It was an interesting learning for me that it wasn’t automatic. I couldn’t say, “I’m open. Therefore, ask any question.” I had to prove it and earn my stripes for people to go there with me.

You got to make it clear that there weren’t consequences for asking hard questions.

Please ask me the tough question because if you’re thinking it, then other people are, too. The worst thing that happens is you don’t like the answer. It’s the board truth. It doesn’t change the answer and don’t you deserve to know?

I’m convinced that for non-for-profits or social profit organizations, the culture dies in the hallway and not in the board room or the meeting room. The more you can get those conversations happening amongst the team, either with the senior leader present, which is preferable, or maybe even meeting without the CEO, the healthier organization is going to be, the clearer the board is going to be able to see what’s happening in the organization. Having transitioned myself from organizational leadership into this governance and strategic planning, consulting, getting to see what happens within organizations and say, “If they’ve got a great plan, an exceptional plan, this should be working.” My experience so far has been that when it’s not working, it’s because of the conversations in the hallways. It’s not because of the work that’s happening at any one person’s desk or what’s happening in the meeting rooms. It’s the culture that’s tripping up the organization.

This was new to me also. The challenge is when the hallways are virtual. We have 90 employees. We have three multi-person offices. We have thirteen one-and-two person offices. It was really clear early on that those teams felt disconnected. Within a month of me starting, we implemented Slack, a good Canadian company. We have Slack channels across the country. Donut dates across the country on Slack. That dialogue, people in the larger offices benefit from it and enjoy it. It’s the other offices that suddenly feel connected. A lot of our water cooler chat happens there because we have few members who don’t have water coolers. They have a water bottle at their desk in a co-working space with other organizations.

That’s a great way to establish culture or a place where that culture can happen that isn’t hidden or isn’t left to be very different across the country.

That’s the thing that leaders have to be open to learning from the teams. The team won’t necessarily give you the answer, but they’ll help you understand the challenges. Those visits I did across the country and even my first day I started with Webex with every team across the country. The themes started to emerge quickly. Things like we want to feel connected. We don’t feel connected enough. It doesn’t feel like my region is important.

That’s the challenge of all national organizations to make sure that what’s happening in the regional and provincial offices has the same relevance as wherever the headquarters are. It sounds like you’ve taken some important steps to solve that problem. It happens to be a problem of Canada generally.

We have vast geography and few people. That’s very true.

I wonder if you wouldn’t mind thinking about the advice you’d share to somebody who is about to take on their first CEO role.

Some of the great advice I got that has been resonant has been to listen to the team and yet at the end of the day, follow my instincts and follow my heart. If you’re appointed to be a CEO, you’re appointed for a reason. It’s important that you bring your team along. You have to lead the organization, your new organization, not your old one. You have to learn and make sure that you adapt. At the end of the day, you do need to trust your judgment. It can be helpful to do that to have some sounding boards of people you can try ideas on with and to some extent that can be the chairman, but you typically want things to be a little bit more baked before you get to that point.

I certainly still connect very closely with people in my network. I got an executive coach, which has been helpful to me. We agreed early on, her job is to make me the best CEO that Futurpreneur can possibly have. It’s not about my CEO career, it’s about Futurpreneur’s successful CEO leadership. She’s been extraordinary and so helpful. I’d say probably some CEOs are used to being able to solve things for themselves. It is a lonelier role. It is different from being part of a senior leadership team versus being the person the senior leadership team is looking for guidance, working with and guiding with. Listen to the team, have an open mind, but at the end of the day, follow your instinct and have the comfort that for most of us, if we make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. We will make some mistakes. We would do some things that we would have done differently if we got to think through it again. That’s okay. What’s important is to make the decision and stand by it. Also be willing to say, “Maybe we should try something else now.”

I usually sum up the conversations with three points that jumped out at me during our conversation, but you did a perfect summary there. I’ll just add the one, which was starting the board meetings with having the board members react to the CEO report or to the management report as a way to start that engagement. That’s something that would be great for organizations to try and if they do, maybe those CEOs could drop you a note and figure out how it’s done.

I’d be happy to. I’d give credit to the senior team from before I was here, who came up with the idea originally. It certainly has helped. Thank you for getting the word out. It’s so important that we learn from each other.

This has been great. Thank you very much for being on the Discovery Pod.

Thanks very much.

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About Karen Greve Young

Karen Greve Young is the Chief Executive Officer of Futurpreneur Canada, Canada’s only national organization dedicated to supporting young entrepreneurs. Futurpreneur’s unique model combines funding, mentorship and start-up programs to fuel the success of thousands of young entrepreneurs in every Canadian province and territory.

Karen is an accomplished non-profit leader dedicated to fostering economic and social prosperity through new approaches and partnerships.

Prior to joining Futurpreneur in 2018, Karen was the Vice President, Corporate Development & Partnerships at MaRS Discovery District, a global innovation hub based in Toronto. During her seven-year tenure, Karen led corporate strategy development, implementation and measurement, managed a global network of innovation partners, and oversaw community engagement including marketing, communications and events.

She has previously held finance, management and strategy roles in San Francisco, New York and London, UK, at organizations including Bain & Company, Gap Inc. and the UK’s Institute of Cancer Research. Along the way, she co-authored a book with her mother about their shared experience through her mother’s ovarian cancer journey.

Karen holds an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a BA in Economics from Harvard University.

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