Gray Graffam (standing) is the director of The Hub, where students can put their entrepreneurial skills to the test (photo by Ken Jones)

Navigating the entrepreneurship waters at the University of Toronto Scarborough

Beware the sharks. Embrace the dragons.

That is just some of the advice offered to budding entrepreneurs at The Hub, the University of Scarborough's three-year-old facility supporting students who want to start a business of their own.

A good example of the dragons is coming up on October 9, when The Hub will host a session for students to pitch tech-related projects that could get them up to $7,000 in team funding and the chance to develop their idea inside The Hub.  

It’s not quite TV’s Dragons’ Den, as the judges – four UTSC academic and co-op representatives – won’t be taking an ownership position. But that’s part of what The Hub is all about, says its director, Gray Graffam – preparing students for the time when they will be ready for real venture capital investment.

“The common thing is that people get a great idea and they think, we’re all going to become millionaires,” says Graffam. “Then they realize it’s a little harder than that.”

Learn more about entrepreneurship: visit U of T's Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrpreneurship

Through workshops and informal chats, Graffam teaches students about creating and refining a product, making a plan, registering a business, pitching to funders, and much more. He also highlights concepts like the Blue Ocean strategy, the subject of a recent workshop in a series held every two weeks at The Hub.

“Blue Ocean strategy is how to create uncontested market space,” he says. “The opposite is a red ocean, where you have sharks in the water, all competing, and they tear you apart and the water is bloody. You can either stay there and bleed, or you can redefine your strategy and bring yourself to a blue ocean where you have a much greater ability to be successful.”

Roughly 56 students now access The Hub, and the “Dragons” event is expected to draw almost two dozen more. While The Hub is extracurricular, with support from Ontario Centres of Excellence, its relationships with academic programs are getting tighter every year, and Graffam says it is now also co-curricular.

“On the academic side, we have terrific expertise in management and computer science at UTSC, and we want to support that,” he says. “You cannot learn entrepreneurship without doing entrepreneurship—you just can’t. Hopefully we provide the tools for people to engage, and that dovetails with the academic program.”

Already, student Dikshant Batra is doing a management co-op with The Hub as he works on a consumer goods project. He lauds the connections and support he has found there. “Over a four-month period, I couldn’t have imagined that my business would reach the point that it has,” he says. Graffam sees much more co-op involvement in future.

But students from any discipline are welcome to pitch an idea to Graffam about any kind of business, and join in the networking and learning that goes on at The Hub. Once accepted, they will be treated to a parade of industry mentors, often UTSC alumni, and workshop presenters who offer valuable insights.

Not least is Graffam himself, a onetime U of T anthropology professor who spent 10 years in private industry helping to start digital companies before rejoining academe at the University of Waterloo. In 2012 he was recruited by UTSC to start The Hub, part of U of T’s wider network of tech and business incubators located on all three campuses.

“I try to be a resource for what students themselves want to do,” says Graffam, also a media studies lecturer who was named a Professor of the Year in 2014 by The Underground. “There are so many things in entrepreneurship that you have to get right.”

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