Cash Prize Rewards Entrepreneurship in the Downtown Eastside

Megan Branson, at Olla Urban Flower Project

New accelerator offers DTES small businesses interest-free loans and access to mentors

A new accelerator program in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is helping small businesses secure interest-free loans and access mentors such as investor Joel Solomon, a close friend of Mayor Gregor Robertson.

Dubbed the V Prize, it’s an initiative led by Building Opportunities with Business (BOB), a non-profit mothballed in 2011 after a loss of core provincial funding, but recently resurrected as a loan fund. The only catch is recipients must commit to use part of the money to hire at least one new worker with barriers to employment, addiction issues or mental health challenges.
“It’s a missing piece in this neighbourhood: employment options. There’s a real cycle of poverty that’s hard to break out of if you are in that web of government assistance,” said Megan Branson, owner and operator of Olla Urban Flower Project and inaugural recipient of the award.
For the last three years, Branson has been running a boutique flower shop in the Petrina Block, one of the oldest buildings in the city between West Cordova and Water Street on Cambie. In an interview nestled amid subtropical ornamentals, air plant terraria and colourful bouquets of myrtle and sumac, Branson — who plans to use the money for advertising, an e-commerce website and a new point-of-sale platform – told BCBusiness she already employs one person with barriers and hopes to grow that policy as she grows her business.

“I don’t know that I could find a better candidate. Since opening
 I’ve only had two people in that position. The retention rate is very high. And the return is very high in terms of work ethic,” said Branson, who studied international development at SFU before eschewing work in a third-world country — a common route for grads in her field of study — to start a local business with a social conscience.
It’s exactly the kind of thinking BOB wants to foster on its quest to ramp up business in the neighbourhood without alienating current residents, according to local developer and BOB board co-chair Mark Shieh.
“We found that what was most helpful for entrepreneurs was not only financial capital, but also technical expertise,” Shieh said in a phone interview. “We see this as an investment and are passionate about testing a sustainable model.”
Shieh says the goal of the V Prize is to grow 10 businesses and hire 100 people from the inner city by 2020. Prize recipients will gain access to a roster of entrepreneurs, consultants and advisers who have agreed to donate their time. Recipients themselves have been asked to mentor future winners. The interest-free loans are to be repaid within 30 months.