At SFU’s Surrey campus, Georgiy Sekretaryuk holds a prototype of his company’s wearable device, which allows users to contact police via an app
At the BC Chamber of Commerce’s first #TradeTalks forum, three young entrepreneurs will pitch their export plans. Still in their teens, these go-getters are already veterans of YELL, a crash course in proving business ideas
Georgiy Sekretaryuk works in the jewelry business, but not in the way you might think. The 18-year-old Coquitlam resident, who speaks Russian and Mandarin in addition to English and his native Ukrainian, also has Asian markets in his sights.
Sekretaryuk is co-founder of Cering, a wearable-technology startup that seeks to make women’s lives safer by letting them discreetly signal for help. At the BCBusiness offices, he shows off the first version of his company’s product: a small white gem with a touchscreen on top. Inside are a battery, a BlueTooth chip, an LED light and an accelerometer.
Cering will probably sell its offering as a bracelet and a pendant, says the self-assured Sekretaryuk, the company’s chief technology officer, who recently finished his first year of computer science and mathematics at SFU. “If you’re a woman walking down the street and you feel in danger, you can press the button three times,” he says. “Through an app in your phone, it will send your GPS location and an emergency call for help to the local authorities and your key emergency contacts.”
The gadget—conceived by Victoria Teo, who has since left Cering—is aimed at female university students on campus, where they face a relatively high risk of sexual assault. Why jewelry? Unlike, say, a keychain tag, it’s an attractive item that people wear passively, explains Sekretaryuk, who expects Cering’s bling to retail for between US$100 and US$149. “You want to wear it every day but not have to call for help,” he says. “But in the worst-case scenario, if you do, it’s right there on you.”
On June 29 at the Vancouver Convention Centre, Sekretaryuk will be one of three teenage contestants in the Youth Export Pitch Challenge, part of the inaugural #TradeTalks forum presented by the BC Chamber of Commerce. Joining him to make a case to potential investors are Emily Naing, co-founder of Swave, which is developing an electronic device to help people sleep better; and Cristian Mihailescu, whose tech startup, UP2U, is creating an easy-to-use website for students seeking their ideal university in Canada and the U.S.
All have participated in Young Entrepreneur Leadership Launchpad (YELL), an educational program for high-school students, where their teams were the past three winners of its annual spring Venture Challenge. “The way I usually describe it is it’s entrepreneurship class on steroids,” Sekretaryuk says of YELL.
The BC Chamber of Commerce is expecting upward of 300 attendees at #TradeTalks, which features four panel discussions on the theme of exports and trade, with guests such as Lower Mainland MP Pam Goldsmith-Jones, parliamentary secretary to the minister of International Trade, and Lynne Platt, U.S. consul general Vancouver. Also on the agenda: a Virtual Global Marketplace where entrepreneurs can meet the local consuls general of at least 15 nations.
“The majority of the entrepreneurs you talk to, they ended up there by accident or serendipity, not by design,” says BC Chamber president and CEO Val Litwin. “The whole point of #TradeTalks is to get our B.C. business community thinking about trade as part of their strategic opportunity moving forward, as opposed to a happy accident along the way that produced awesome results.”
B.C. offers a wealth of resources for companies that want to prepare to export or grow their international business, Litwin notes. One example is Export Navigator, a pilot program by government-backed agency Small Business BC that connects small- and medium-sized companies with export specialists. “Part of what we’re hoping to achieve with #TradeTalks is to simplify the conversation a little bit and make it more accessible to all businesses around the province,” Litwin says. “This will be an interactive experience—get your questions answered in the moment, and get the tools you need to get trade-ready.”
Exporting may not be top of mind for smaller businesses, notes Dan Baxter, the Chamber’s director of policy, government and stakeholder relations. “They might have a great product, but even if they do have a thought about trading internationally, they just don’t know where to start,” says Baxter, a onetime policy adviser to former International Trade minister Ed Fast.
Many owners of small and medium-sized companies look at international trade as much more complex than it really is, says Colin Hansen, president and CEO of AdvantageBC International Business Centre Vancouver, a non-profit that promotes the province as a location for international business. “The minority of small-business owners who do venture out and start to explore export opportunities show an amazing success rate for their efforts,” adds the former B.C. minister of Economic Development. “So I think the challenge is to overcome a certain amount of inertia that’s there, and helping small and medium-sized business owners to realize how they can explore some of the opportunities.”
Hansen suggests that B.C. companies fly the Maple Leaf because Canada has a such strong brand. The country is well positioned for international commerce, he contends, citing the pending Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union. Canada is the only nation to have such a robust EU trade deal, Hansen says, predicting that the North American Free Trade Agreement will remain important for it and the U.S. “That gives us the opportunity for companies to do business with half the world’s economy.”
For young people thinking about exporting, though, there aren’t many opportunities, says YELL executive director David Cameron. “The beauty of this #TradeTalks and the BC Chamber stepping up and taking a lead to say, ‘We want to partner with an organization to bring youth to the table,’ is this becomes a wonderful mental exercise for all these young people to imagine what it would mean, what it would imply, what’s at stake, what needs to happen to take a company to that level.”
Emily Naing wants to build a career as an entrepreneur. Like Cering’s Sekretaryuk, Naing, 18, is a graduate of Pinetree Secondary School in Coquitlam. She just completed her first year at the University of Toronto, where she plans to study finance or management. In YELL, noticing that they and their fellow students were having trouble sleeping, her group hatched Swave. This device, which may end up being a small, flexible pad that slips between a pillow and a pillowcase, uses a 1970s audio technology called binaural beats to help users reach a deeper state of sleep in the time available to them. “It’s restorative instead of light sleep, where your eyes may be closed but you’re not recharging your body,” Naing says.
The Swave team, which started at six but now has three active members, is considering crowdfunding and hopes to have a product by next year. When it comes to exports, the company’s main focus is Japan. Because Japanese workers put in such long hours, they take naps throughout the day, Naing says. “So them getting that quick, short burst of high restorative sleep is very important.”
Sekretaryuk and his four colleagues—average age 18—are looking at China and India. At #TradeTalks, Cering will launch a Kickstarter campaign for its product. The goal is to raise US$100,000 and ship the first units in September or October, Sekretaryuk says. He thinks Cering could start distributing in China, where its jewellery will be made, by next January. To get the word out, the company would have a small team working on Chinese campuses. Next stop: the neighbouring Indian market.
As Cering prepares to go global, don’t expect Sekretaryuk to take no for an answer. “Whenever someone told me, ‘You can’t do it,’” he says, “I’ve always had the idea that ‘Oh, yes, I can.’”
A YELL OF AN IDEAYoung Entrepreneurship Leadership Launchpad (YELL) was founded in 2013 by B.C. entrepreneurs Rattan Bagga, Punit Dhillon and Amit Sandhu as a Saturday program for high-school students in Richmond and Vancouver. The trio decided to launch a version in schools; now a charity, YELL operates throughout Metro Vancouver, is expanding across B.C. and plans to go nationwide, says executive director David Cameron.
The three-semester program, focused on grades 10 to 12, has grown from one class to five, with a total of about 130 students. Because classes draw from different schools, most take place after regular hours.
YELL has two parts, Cameron explains. First, students learn theory in the classroom, where they hear from local leaders. The second part? “They go and apply it, in messy learning where they’re guaranteed to get rejected along the way, fail along the way, be uncomfortable, be stressed out, have conflict in teams, et cetera,” Cameron says. “That’s where the real learning is forged.”
For each class, YELL sources 10 to 15 leaders from diverse backgrounds as guest lecturers. “But they’re not coming in to teach,” Cameron stresses. “Entrepreneurs are terrible teachers. They’re really good at talking about what they do.”
After forming teams of five, YELL participants must create a business that serves a need or solves a problem. Each team meets with a mentor once a week over three months. YELL culminates in the Venture Challenge, a pitch to entrepreneurs and investors. But unlike most such youth programs, the emphasis isn’t on coming up with an idea and pitching it, Cameron says: “Our ethos is, ‘Come up with an idea and prove it.’”
Only about five per cent of YELL graduates continue with their company, he estimates. “When they start, the majority of students think business is about making money or selling, and they don’t understand how it’s for them,” Cameron says. “They end up leaving realizing that the entrepreneurial mindset and skills they’ve learned will apply to any career focus.”