MTL UpStarts brings students from 17 schools together

Editor’s Note: At the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, we believe that supporting and strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem at McGill and across Montreal is the best approach for all actors involved – a rising tide lifts all boats. We loved this story from MTL UpStarts and the work they’re doing with young people in high schools and CEGEPs across Montreal. We decided to feature it in The Dobson Chronicles. Have a read about their recent entrepreneurial community bootcamp for youth hosted at the Notman House. You can check out the event’s atmosphere and photos here.

Montreal’s first entrepreneurship bootcamp for youth kicks off at Notman House 

By Astha Agarwal

From November 18 to 20, students from 17 high schools and CEGEPs came together to compete in Montreal’s first-ever entrepreneurship bootcamp for youth, held at Notman House.

The theme of this first edition of MTL UpStarts was “The Smart School,” in which participants were challenged to develop and pitch a technological solution to a real-world problem students encounter daily at school.


The conference kicked off on Friday with a spoken word performance by Emma Hason, who talked about the struggles of being sixteen years old and the importance of being true to oneself in the face of societal pressures.

Participants then attended a Values workshop on the importance of personal and business values, during which they narrowed down the values that were to be held in highest regard by their team, or company, throughout the weekend.

MTL UpStarts co-organizer Diana Baranga got students to formulate their own product ideas through a workshop titled “IBM Design Thinking.” Using an empathy map, teams were asked to envision the character of a fictional high school student, complete with the character’s interests, likes, and dislikes. Baranga then asked participants to identify “pain points” the student faces in situations throughout their day or week, and propose possible solutions.

“Design thinking is the process of ideation with the end user in mind, exercising empathy,” Baranga said. “It’s a team based approach to a solution in which everyone gives input and everyone’s ideas are taken into consideration. That’s its strength.”


Teams left on Friday with a project idea they would work on throughout the weekend – their solution to a pain point they had identified.

On Saturday, each team member was assigned a specific role in their company, and attended training with a coach who specialized in their area. The delegates were coached in Sales by Danial Mazhar Shafi, Marketing with Haider Ali, Product Development by Toby Welch-Richards, Design with Stuart Spence, User Validation by Peter Wilkinson and Finance with Alice Ying.

Returning to their company with expertise in their respective roles, team members worked to develop their product idea and pitches throughout the day on Sunday, doing practice runs with pitch coaches Diana Cheptene, Abhishek Gupta, and YK Sugishita.

Baranga said she hoped that students would finish the weekend having learned at least one fundamental of starting a business.

“If one student comes out of there saying I learned how to pitch, or I now know what marketing is or sales is, I’ll consider this event a true success,” she said.

And they did.

On Sunday evening, all six companies pitched their products before judges Alice Dinu of OOHLALA, Yeona Jang from eXplorance, and Ali Khadjavi from AmpMe. Some of the ideas pitched included Echo-X, a transcription app for hearing-impaired students and C2C, a portal for students to connect with career mentors in their area of interest.

The delegates said they were blown away by what they had accomplished over the weekend.

“I didn’t know we had the potential to do this much. It was truly mind-blowing,” said Kenza El Ghomari, the 15 year-old User Validation expert from Team Lit, which took first place with its app ‘Phocusing is Phun,’ designed to combat procrastination through gamification.

“The pressure pushed us forward,” said Sammir Rahman, the 16 year-old Sales expert, also from Team Lit. “It was good pressure. You’re hungry for it. You actually want to get out there and pitch your idea.”

Baranga said the idea for MTL UpStarts was born out of a conversation she had with her co-founder Bonnie Chau. After organizing Startup Weekend Sustainable City together in January, Baranga and Chau wondered what it would have been like to become entrepreneurs earlier on in their careers, and decided to bring the opportunity to younger students. They joined forces with Abdaal Mazhar Shafi, a friend and colleague passionate about youth leadership and with extensive experience in organizing youth-oriented events, to make MTL UpStarts a reality.  Monika Potocki, the event experience lead from Sustainable City, made a return and helped the team with the logistics, food planning, and volunteer coordination over the weekend.

Peter Wilkinson, who coached students on User Validation, said he was immensely proud of the work students had accomplished.

“As a student, you’d probably be thinking ‘We’re going to be the future,’ but I think what you guys proved during the weekend is, you are now. You worked as a team, you worked like professionals and you pulled it together,” Wilkinson said.

Marketing coach Haider Ali encouraged students to continue working on the projects they began at MTL UpStarts.

“People who are experiencing these problems in life are usually in the best place to solve them,” Ali said. “The event ends, but all of your projects better continue, because you are solving the problems for your friends, for your community. I’m excited to see what you guys are going to do next.”

El Ghomari had a few words of advice for students considering participating in UpStarts in the future.

“Just do it. It is way more interesting than you think. The event went way beyond my expectations,” she said. “You gain a lot of experience, you get to meet people, and you get a feeling of what it’s like to be in the business world. The day after [the event], I had to go up in front of my class [at school] and explain something, and I was confident.”

Students said they formed unforgettable friendships throughout the weekend.

“Initially when I came here I had hoped I would stay with my schoolmates because I didn’t want to get to know anyone new, but actually getting to meet new people was one of my favorite moments of this weekend,” said Zayd Boucaud, the 15 year-old Sales expert from Team Empire which pitched ‘U Matter to us’, a platform to support students who have been bullied at school.

“The day after the weekend, I felt like the vibe and team members were missing. [Our team] worked really well together and, although we were a dysfunctional family, we all had one goal and we agreed to accomplish it,” Rahman said. “Most of the success was in our Team Lit chemistry.”

El Ghomari agreed.

“Make sure that you bond with your team, because no matter what types of people are on your team, you’ve got to have fun and make sure that every person on your team is satisfied,” she said. “That’s how you can make it work.”

El Ghomari, Rahman, and the other members of Team Lit, will pitch their gamification app for procrastination, “Phocusing is Phun,” to engineers at Google Montreal.

The first, second, and third place-winning teams will be coached by entrepreneurs, Arun and Amrita Saigal of Thunkable, a Y-Combinator startup that allows users to build free mobile apps.

The UpStarts community shared their experiences on social media sites throughout the weekend with #mtlupstarts, as well as on the MTL UpStarts app provided by OOHLALA.

Check out the Storify version of our weekend here and don’t miss this video of student testimonials from the weekend! Like MTL UpStarts on Facebook or follow @mtlupstarts on Twitter for more coverage of the weekend, including the infamous #mannequinchallenge video.


Dobson Chronicles

Dobson Chronicles

The Dobson Chronicles is the official blog of the McGill Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship.