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Gregg Curwin BComm'90 & Shannon Susko BComm’89 BSc’92
(Photo Credit of Shannon: Farah Nosh)
Founder of Smooth Meal Prep
At Play in the Fields of Entrepreneurship
SMU’s Entrepreneurs in Residence Gregg Curwin and Shannon Susko teach a new generation how to build a business By Alec Bruce
It’s not that Nevell Provo was a stranger to pressure. You don’t get to play Division 1 college basketball in the United States without learning how to handle the heat. But when the North Preston native, now 24 and enrolled in his final year of business at Saint Mary’s University, returned to Nova Scotia with an idea for a new business, he was happy to find a home court advantage. “The Saint Mary’s University Entrepreneurship Centre was the perfect place to get started,” says the founder of Smooth Meal Prep, a company devoted to delivering healthy lunches and suppers to customers' doors. “As a young entrepreneur just starting out, there’s a lot of new challenges you don’t necessarily know about, taxes or accounting or whatever the issue. But, to have people here who’ve been entrepreneurs all their lives, who are seasoned in the game, who can really help with planning and strategizing … well, that’s just super encouraging.” Nevell and about 20 other SMU students are enrolled at the RBC Talent Hub, a three-year partnership between the university and the RBC Future Launch Program, thanks to a $695,000 contribution from the RBC Foundation in 2019. “There really isn’t anything quite like it in Atlantic Canada,” says Michael Sanderson, director of SMU’s Entrepreneurship Centre, which manages the RBC Talent Hub. “It is laser focused on providing young, entrepreneurially minded students with practical lessons that help them build real going concerns from the jump.” To this end, the RBC Talent Hub runs four main components: The Talent Fund, which covers the cost of student co-op placements in the region and helps participants grow their businesses as part of their school term; the Entrepreneurial Mindset Success Certificate, which provides students with multi-level and skilled entrepreneurship training workshops; the Student Consultant Team, where co-op students brainstorm and solve problems together; and the Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program, where nationally recognized entrepreneurs coach student business owners directly and intensively. The program is open to all SMU students. As the RBC Talent Hub’s name implies, talent is the key, especially to the EIR component, where veteran business launchers Gregg Curwin BComm'90 and Shannon Susko BComm’89 BSc’92 currently hold sway. “I think where you really see the difference is with these folks," says Sanderson. "The EIR program’s importance is central to the whole approach. When you work with students who are at the very beginning point in their ideas, you are dealing with passion, excitement and creativity. But what they need sometimes is that person who has already been through the trenches, through the good times and the bad, to just share stories. That’s what provides inspiration and guidance. That’s the key to a good EIR. What we look for are entrepreneurs who are real people who tell real stories. And Shannon and Gregg are real people.” In fact, it’s hard to get any more real than either of these two. Curwin founded TruLeaf Sustainable Agriculture, a world-leading indoor-vertical farming company, before selling his interest a couple of years ago. An entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in other industries (medical devices, biologics, and consumer packaged goods), he also consults with hospitals and governments on health design and disease prevention. He came to the EIR almost serendipitously. “I got to know Michael (Sanderson) a little bit, and I started to watch the Entrepreneurship Centre really evolve,” Curwin says. “It just so happened I ended up in his office one day, and he raised the subject of the EIR. I was at a point in time when I had some time on my hands.” That was in 2019 and, before he knew it, Curwin was named the program’s first entrepreneur in residence. Since then, he says, “It’s been fantastic. I just wanted to give back. I’ve been through seven startups, and I thought I might be able to help. I have a high regard for the whole approach, and that’s what has really hooked me. There’s a whole lot going on in the world of entrepreneurship and SMU really seems to understand that. This past year as the entrepreneur-in-residence has been incredibly exciting and very dynamic, from the students and the faculty to the awesome Entrepreneurship Centre.” Susko, who came on in June, sings similar praises of the program. She’s one of Caldwell Partners’ Top 40 under 40 and a Sarah Kirke Award winner for Canada’s Leading Women Entrepreneurs. Over the past two decades, she’s built and led high-growth tech companies in the financial services industry. She also wrote and published the book The Metronome Effect:The Journey to Predictable Profit (2014), which extols teamwork, a lesson she took from her years playing on three varsity sports teams into the boardroom. Today, she coaches organizations on how to invest in people to achieve results. Had Sanderson not pursued her, she says she might have asked to join. “The biggest thing that drew me to the EIR is being able to give back to entrepreneurs all that I received along the way to becoming an entrepreneur myself,” she says. “It’s almost like what goes around comes around. The easier we can make it for entrepreneurs to grow their companies, quite frankly the better it is for all of us. Why should young entrepreneurs bang their heads against the wall when others have been there and done that? Now all I do is give back and ensure that nobody is as desperate as I was to grow a company.” In practice, Susko runs weekly coaching sessions with individual student entrepreneurs, but also what amounts to monthly ideas summits for as many as 20 at a time. It’s a tack she takes in her own consulting practice where she lives and works in Whistler, B.C. The concept is to deal collectively with individual business issues as they occur and to emphasize the importance of people and teamwork in building any business’s durable value. “I use the same roundtable framework with billion-dollar companies I consult for,” Susko says. “Actually, the online aspect of this also works. Students can all see each other’s work. The learnings are really high. The clarity around their businesses is really high. Plus, it’s hugely fun.” That sense of fun also resonates with Curwin, who spent his first year onsite at SMU with his office door permanently cracked open. “Before the global pandemic sent us all home, that was probably the best time I’d had in 20 years,” he said. “I would have a constant flow of young men and women from all over the world coming to me with their ideas and talking about entrepreneurship and, in a way, talking about life. I would try to send the message that entrepreneurship is a way of life. Along with the exhilaration of working for yourself and building something new, comes the hard work. It takes perseverance and grit. But, crucially, they all have to know that they are not alone. I let them know I’ve been there. I’ve made all the mistakes. I’m available to help in any way that I can.” Provo is certainly getting that message loud and clear from both Curwin and Susko. Thanks, in no small measure to the examples they’ve set and the guidance they’ve given him as EIRs and the RBC Talent Hub Program as a whole, he’s upped his entrepreneurial game. “Last year, our first year, we did about $200,000 in sales,” he says about Smooth Meal Prep. “To date this year, we’ve done about $260,000 and we have about 14 employees. So, we’ve really validated the business. I can really see how we have something now." He says the next stage is growth. He wants to scale the business to become a leader in the field across the Atlantic region in two or three years, and from there become a national brand. As for his time at SMU, at play in the fields of entrepreneurship, Provo smiles warmly: “Entrepreneur is the term they give to people like myself. I love the idea of building something. I love the idea of helping my community, of creating jobs in my community of North Preston. What does that say?" It might just say it all.
By Kim Hart Macneill
Faculty member Dr. Rachel Zellars
By Kim Hart Macneill
Faculty member Dr. Rachel Zellars
2020 will be remembered for many things,
COVID-19 lockdowns, the murder of George Floyd, global protests against anti-Black racism among them. But for Dr. Rachel Zellars, a big take away is that it's the year Nova Scotians stepped up. Through two GoFundMe campaigns, Zellars and a team of community activists and educators raised over $322,000 dollars to support the African Nova Scotian community. Zellars is a lawyer and assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice and Community Studies. "It really is a testament to the incredible generosity and spirit," she says. "I mean literally the spirit of giving that we have to think about when we say, 'I'm Nova Scotian'. Nova Scotians are often cast as poor. The province is often described as one of the poorest in the nation. But I learned through this process that I can't imagine a more generous province at this moment." The first fundraiser, the Black Lives Matter Solidarity Fund Nova Scotia, started in March. Like other mutual aid funds that popped up across North America, its goal was to provide one-time stipends to Black community members affected by COVID-19. Her partners in the project are Dr. Lynn Jones, a community elder; Twila Grosse, who worked in finance and managed the accounting as the fund grew vastly; and El Jones, a poet, professor, and activist.
"We wouldn't have BLM without Black women, and I always feel like Black women have been saving the world for a very long time," says Zellars.
The fund's original goal was to raise $10,000, but within a week, far more applications had come in. After George Floyd's murder by police on May 25, donations poured in again, and didn't stop. By fall, the fund collected more than $300,000. Small businesses, artists and individuals across the province held sub-fundraisers to support the project. In all, over 600 African Nova Scotians received disbursements. The remaining funds will support projects in African Nova Scotian communities in each zone of the province. Zellars says looking back on the Solidarity Fund fills her with a mix of gratitude and intense sadness. "The execution of a man who should be alive with his children today was really the fuel for the incredible increase in our mutual aid fund. It raises really important questions about what allyship needs to more fully bring itself into existence. The death of a Black person is the thing that makes people move; not our stories, not the endless books that we've written about our experiences of witnessing Black death. That brought a ton of remorse. But ultimately, the Solidarity Fund and the generosity of Nova Scotians is a beautiful and good thing. It opens up a door for lots of opportunities about allyship and need."
Some of the teachers from the African Nova Scotian Freedom School Photo Credit: Brooklyn Currie/CBC
The other GoFundMe campaign raised $22,000 to support the African Nova Scotian Freedom School this summer. Freedom schools have a long history dating back to the Civil Right Movement in the American South. Zellars was inspired to create the school after enrolling her own children in a Chicago freedom school. "I put them in that program because I did not have the capacity as their mother to speak about George Floyd in any great systemic detail," she says. If she felt overwhelmed as a mother of three Black children, then other parents did too. "I also thought of our children returning to school in the fall with peers and teachers who certainly were not prepared to translate our current moment to them. I wanted them to be prepared."
She says she saw a gap in local summer programming for students age 12–18. Alongside co-founders Karen Hudson, Wendie Poitras Wilson, Malik Adams, Marsha Hudson-Ash, Venessa Brooks, Rashida Symonds and Kim Cain, the African Nova Scotian Freedom School was born. Throughout August, 30 Black students and nine Black educators met each Tuesday and Thursday to discuss African Nova Scotian organizing against state violence and systemic racism, Black Lives Matter, abolition and how to shape the world students want to live in.