NAIT launches entrepreneur-in-residence program for students

Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship welcomes two seasoned business owners

John and Jess Steblyk are working hard to build their local business, Revolution Ice Cream. But knowing how to grow and who to turn to for support can be challenging for new entrepreneurs.

NAIT’s new Entrepreneur-in-Residence program aims to help NAIT student entrepreneurs like Jess, a third-year business student, and John, a grad (Mechanical Engineering Technology ’03). “When you first start off, there’s so much you have no way of knowing,” says John. “Just having someone who’s been there, who is there for that purpose, would be really helpful.”

The program, which launched this month through NAIT’s Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship, includes two local entrepreneurs who have volunteered for the role: technology design consultant Howard Suissa and culinary entrepreneur Brad Smoliak (Marketing ’88).

“The idea is really to have our student entrepreneurs connect with other entrepreneurs who already have that experience or that knowledge,” says Max Frank, the centre’s director. “NAIT and the Mawji Centre provides a safe place for them to test their ideas.”

Those student entrepreneurs will have a better chance of success, benefitting themselves, their future employees and the local economy, she adds.

Seasoned entrepreneurs

howard suissaSuissa and Smoliak were chosen in part because their fields of expertise fit well with many of the businesses students launch: marketing, consulting, design and culinary, says Frank.

They’ll review student business plans and offer suggestions to overcome challenges, she adds. “Should they be building some relationships? Is their pricing model right? Where do they need to go or what do they need to do to get to that next point in their business?”

Suissa, who owns Suissa Design, an Edmonton design agency, specializes in user experience. “I’ll try to get [students] to focus on who they’re actually helping. Is this a problem that people really have, or is this just a problem you think they have?”

“I’m there to do the best that I can in sharing my real-world experience with students."

brad smoliak, owner of kitchen, nait entrepreneur in residenceHe has a background in graphic arts, industrial design and application development.

“I’m there to do the best that I can in sharing my real-world experience with students in whatever stage of business they’re at,” he says.

Brad Smoliak, owner of Edmonton culinary studio Kitchen, says he wants to be part of the program because NAIT provided him with so many of his business skills.

“I’m a big believer in giving back, and though we can’t afford to donate money, we can donate our time, share our successes and failures over the years and the lessons we’ve learned from them.”

Alberta is a great location for culinary entrepreneurship, not just for restaurateurs, but for food producers as well. “We have some great artisan food producers who are going to do nothing but grow,” he adds.

A valuable resource

mawji centre for student entrepreneurship and new venture, NAITFor the Steblyks, having a connection to the NAIT program will be a big help, says John. While he knows there are resources in the community for entrepreneurs, they can be hard to find. “It’s tough to even know where to look. I’m aware they exist, but it’s not as simple as just Googling it and going to meet people,” he says.

Students from any NAIT program are eligible for one-on-one time with Suissa or Smoliak upon submission of a simple application. The main criterion is that they are well on their way to starting a business, with a well-formed idea and at least the beginning of a business plan, says Frank.

Those who aren’t at that stage can still take advantage of other opportunities for informal mentorship at the centre she adds.

Smoliak and Suissa will be available throughout the fall and winter. The Mawji Centre offers guest speakers, competitions, workshops and networking events throughout the year for students, alumni and community members.

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