Mentor Spotlight: Innovation Labs, Systems Thinking, and Social Enterprise – Sitting Down with Jake Wildman-Sisk

Editor’s Note: During the semi-finals of the 2017 McGill Dobson Cup powered by National Bank, we had the chance to sit down with some of our amazing judges and have them tell us about their experiences and perspective on startups and innovation. This week, the judge in the spotlight is Jake Wildman-Sisk, who was there as a judge for the Social Enterprise track of the competition. Jake has been involved in social innovation and businesses for a number of years now, and contributed to create the first innovation lab in New Brunswick a few years ago. Together, we had the chance to talk a little bit about his background, the competition, labs as drivers of innovation, and how they relate to social business and innovation.

Jake Wildman-Sisk has worked with startups and community change leaders in Canada and overseas with Right To Play and United Way; founded an aquaponics venture, Oasis Farmery; and co-developed New Brunswick’s first social innovation lab, NouLAB. He is now a Social Innovation Fellow with the RECODE program of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, which aims to fuel a culture and practice of social innovation and entrepreneurship in Canadian higher education.

Hi Jake, how are you today?

I’m great, I feel great being here! What about you?

I’m good too, thanks. So Jake, you spent the entire morning watching the candidates in the McGill Dobson Cup pitch their startups, how has it been so far?

It’s been great, it’s always nice to be at pitch competitions in general, there’s a very nice general energy about them. The McGill Dobson Cup seems to be a fairly large competition, both in terms of the quantity of the startups participating, and in their quality. I’ve seen some pretty strong ideas this morning.

You helped founding the first innovation lab in New-Brunswick. Would you please tell us a bit more about what it is, and whether similar initiatives exist in Montreal?

I don’t know any similar initiative in Montreal, even though a lot of people use the word “lab” to describe their activities. In the case of NouLab (New Brunswick’s first innovation lab), what we were doing was trying to figure out a collective way to address complex challenges, challenges that are very difficult to define, that look very different depending on the perspective of the person; but that have grand impacts. An example would be homelessness, which looks very different depending on where you stand on the issue, but nevertheless remains the same issue in its manifestation. Lots of people are working on these challenges, but the problem is to get them to coordinate their efforts towards attaining the same goal. That’s what our lab was trying to do.

How did it work in practice?

The lab is actually not a physical space, it’s more of a process, a practice. It was a partnership between different organizations, who facilitated the initiative. People with content expertise would come in throughout the process, and would be facilitated by a series of workshops.

Jake (top row, 2nd from the left) was one of the judges during this year’s McGill Dobson Cup in the Social Enterprise track.

The idea was to put several people’s expertise and knowledge in common so that it’s easier to leverage. Is that something the startups you’ve seen today seem to be doing too? Do you think it’s part of a more general movement?

I think that more and more, entrepreneurs are being forced to take a systems’ approach to their work, because they are starting to realize that their work does not exist in isolation, and that what they do has profound implications for things that they might not see right in front of them. There are a lot of ideas of the lab thinking that are actually applicable to startups: understanding diversity of thought and perspectives, and abilities to address challenges, how to build strong relationships and leverage them to solve complex problems etc., is really important. It’s also important to look for solutions that already exist out there and how can you use that to meet your needs. It’s encouraging to see a lot of these young startups integrating those principles.

Coming back to the McGill Dobson Cup, you’ve had the chance to meet the other judges. Did you know some of them, how have those new relationships enriched your experience being here today?

In my room we struck a nice balance: I was the good cop, and the other judge was the bad cop.” Seriously, it’s really a plus to have judges with such different backgrounds. Going back to the idea of labs, you need different perspectives when assessing social businesses: the business side is not enough. There’s also the policy side, the community perspective, etc. to really understand the value of the work you are doing. It’s nice to have a representation of that diversity of stand points in the panel of judges, who can provide those lenses in their critique of the contestants. It’s helpful for the students, and for us, the judges, it’s certainly really nice to connect with other people who are in support of the McGill Dobson Cup and the work that’s being done here at McGill.

Finally, you mentioned that you have been part of a jury listening to social enterprise startups pitching their ideas quite a few times already. Have you been able to pick up on a trend in the way young entrepreneurs create organizations with a social purpose, like certain topics or target industries?

My ideal, although probably not realistic, is that the idea that social enterprise will eventually dissipate in some way because all organizations will come to think socially. I think that we’re moving towards that. I observe that more and more companies are very conscious about the impacts of their operations, and that’s particularly the case in the social enterprise stream, where these questions are addressed from the inception of the companies.

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Charlotte Gauthron

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from Sciences Po Paris, Charlotte decided to join the Desautels Faculty of Management, where she’s now pursuing a BCom, majoring in Information Systems. Now a staff writer for The Dobson Chronicles, she loves learning about new ideas. She hopes to one day be able to find her dream job - one that will allow her to reconcile her deep interest for social enterprise with her love of food.