Vareia Boxill – Technovation Academy

Technovation Academy’s Engineers Got Skillz programs aims to engage children and youth, especially those from marginalized groups, in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, and foster ingenuity skills through hands-on project-based learning that promotes creative problem-solving, resourcefulness, entrepreneurship, and collaborative teamwork.

What is the story behind what you do and why you started it?

The program was inspired by my five-plus years of work with non-profit child and youth science and academic outreach programs. As a young Afro-Caribbean Canadian growing up in Toronto, I encountered a variety of racial and gender stereotypes regarding the types of individuals that can pursue and succeed in STEM education and careers. Through Engineers Got Skillz I aim not only to challenge these stereotypes but to inspire our program participants to address and challenge these educational obstacles, to succeed on their journey, and to become future professionals and innovators.

Why are you passionate about this cause?

I have a passion for education and working with children and youth. I have always valued the idea of lifelong learning, and I truly believe that education can be a viable, practical, and valuable path for all children and youth to achieve personal and economic empowerment, and a greater quality of life. I believe that all Canadian children and youth have a right to access quality education regardless of ability, economic or social status. I truly believe that for Canada to thrive and stay economically and technologically sustainable we need all Canadian talent and minds to be educated to make a contribution; we will need all hands on deck.

Who are your beneficiaries and how do they benefit from your service?

To date, Technovation Academy has launched our first club in Scarborough for children in grades 1 – 8. Many of my community partners are resident-led community hubs or centres seeking innovative and fun academic after school program support to engage their local children and youth. Our class sizes range from four to twelve participants per class. Our program has provided our students the opportunity to work with tools and materials (i.e. electronic components) and develop skills and knowledge they have not had access to in their schools. We do seem to be having positive impact: I’ve seen regular attendance from registered participants and received positive feedback, such as, “This was so much fun, are you coming back next Monday?” and “Can you come to our school do some experiments with us?”

Our clubs and programs are continuing to grow in 2015 as we gain new community and industry partners, and we will be launching two new clubs across Scarborough this fall.

How does your enterprise sustain itself financially / what is your business model?

[Since this story was written, Vareia has secured contracts for Technovation.]

I sustain Technovation Academy with personal capital. I am currently in the process of applying for grants. Although Technovation Academy is a non-profit organization I do offer our workshops for a fee to clients who can afford to pay. For community organizations that can show their funds are limited and that our program participants will not be able to pay, we offer our programs free of charge but our partnered organizations are expected to sign and abide by the terms of our “In-kind Contract”. We also seek and accept in-kind donations from interested donors who are engaged and excited about our services and mission.

What was your biggest challenge in starting your social enterprise?

My biggest challenge was both time and money. I have been employed since February of 2015 and have been using personal capital to address some of the funding shortfall. Although time management still remains a challenge, I have sought to address this challenge by hiring a small team staff on an honorarium contract basis in addition to recruiting volunteers to assist me with various areas of operations.

What are your key achievements / milestones?

To date my key achievements and milestones with Technovation Academy have included becoming an official incorporated non-profit this past July 1, 2015. I have presented workshops for the Toronto District and Peel District School Board for over 100 students this past February 2015. I have recently been able to hire a small team of paid staff to help me with operations. I am currently in the process of collaborating with two Scarborough organizations to launch two new Technovation Academy club sites for the local community children and youth these community organizations serve and I continue to work with current community program partners. I will also be presenting at the 2015 Toronto Maker Faire Festival for a second time, I presented at the 2014 Toronto Maker Faire to over 1000 Toronto residents that passed through the event. I have also finished completing our $10,000 innovation grant applied research project from Centennial College this past May 2015.

How has the SSE programme supported you in the development of your enterprise?

My experience with SSE Ontario has given me the confidence to build Technovation Academy and gain greater insight into the domain of social enterprise and business development. SSE Ontario has provided with the tools, resources, networks, and mentorship support to address start-up challenges and build my organization on a solid sustainable foundation. The friendships and support that I have received from my SSE Ontario cohort peers will continue to flourish in the coming years.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to continue to launch more Technovation Academy clubs and programs across Toronto. I hope to have my mobile makerlab innovation completed and delivering programming by next July. I also hope to have developed and launched my personal innovation STEM education kits by next year as well.

I also aspire to have a full-time team of staff employed and have secured major grant funding in the near future. I hope that Technovation Academy will be well on its way to building a solid brand in the social enterprise innovation and education industry.

What would be your advice be to a budding social entrepreneur?

Choose a business that you can be passionate about. An entrepreneur needs to be  persistent.