Youth Enterprise Network (YEN) is an initiative of the local Black Creek Coordinating Committee (a network made up of agencies in the area) made up of entrepreneurs and local organisations that have come together in aims of providing support and increasing opportunities for young entrepreneurs living in the Black Creek community. YEN was created in 2009 by the Black Creek Community Collaborative as a response to concerns around youth employment issues in the community. A major component of the initiative is a youth store called Ascend, which was established in 2012 as a cooperative social enterprise, managed and run by community youth.
The main target audience of YEN is defined as local youth (ages 18 to 34). There are many community organisations and independent organisations collaborate with YEN. The primary aim of YEN is community economic development. The initiative is designed to provide a comprehensive set of supports to equip youth entrepreneurs with the tools, networks and qualifications needed to succeed. Through YEN, participants will take part in a workshop series. They will further be referred to YEN partners, Blueprints YU and SECE (Jane-Finch based non-profits which focus on life skills mentoring, entrepreneurial training), for more intensive training. The YEN curriculum includes the following two phases: (i) Training: introduction to entrepreneurship and financial literacy, life skills, getting your business started: market research, social entrepreneurship, life skill, business planning, networking, financing, public relations and marketing, distribution, financial management and business planning. (ii) Implementation: At the end of the first six months of the programme, workshop graduates are provided with a space in the YEN store (Ascend) to showcase their products. The graduates further receive support to apply to the Black Creek Community Capacity group’s micro-credit loan initiative to finance their business. The second six months of the initiative focuses on producing and distributing the product, and marketing the business.
Earlier in the report it was mentioned that there is a dire need for social infrastructures for youth in the community. Thus while maintaining its obvious focus on economic development; the store also functions as a safe space for youth where they can hang out in their free time. The programme manager further asserted that the store functions beyond just a retail space for selling products, rather it has a strong focus upon two areas: community development (via providing a space where young people can meet, exchange knowledge and experience, and feel connected to their community), as well as building economic self-sufficiency (by helping youth firstly identify their own goals and thereafter by providing them with appropriate training according to those goals). Ascend is also involved in arranging community events, gatherings, flea markets. in the Black Creek neighbourhood. Ascend has two permanent staff members, namely a store manager (funded by Trillium) and a system manager (City of Toronto).
Perception and use of the concept of diversity
YEN serves a very diverse range of youth in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and cultural background. Diversity is addressed mostly in terms of individual interests within the program. Among the individuals serves by YEN and Ascend are also newcomer youth and also young people out of incarceration who in particular get involved through a programme called Making the Cycle. The programme aims to help youth with a criminal path reintegrate back into society by offering them with part time employment opportunities and traineeships at the store. Diversity among youth also resonates very well into the activities organised and the products sold at the store.
The general approach towards diversity is very positive within the store as well as other YEN programmes and focuses on fostering leadership capacities and self-sufficiency among diverse youth as emphasized by our respondent.
“We have so many different personalities, and we have so many different age groups, but when they are together, it is just like a bunch of people who like to be in each other’s company, even the quietest of people they have the opportunity to be a leader.”
Main factors influencing success or failure
The initiative and the store in particular, are still at early stages of their development. Thus while the extent to which YEN is successful in terms of achieving its primary long term goal of community development is yet to be seen, some of the internal factors contributing to its current outreach are the following: (i) strong focus of YEN upon creating self-sufficiency among youth through a comprehensive curriculum which covers a broad range of topics and trainings; (ii) giving agency to the youth in terms of designing, managing and running the store; (iii) passion and commitment among staff; and (iv) inclusive safe community space. Meanwhile, the biggest external barrier currently facing the initiative is limited sources of funding.
A key innovative component of YEN is that in spite of its small scope, the programme offers a curriculum that is integrated and comprehensive in that it is designed in line with both long term (community development, building community capacity, self-reliance and financial independence among youth) and short term objectives (i.e. re-integration of criminalized youth, creating temporary employment opportunities for youth, and creating friendships). It functions as a space of encounter among youth; recognition of their individual interests and capacities; and redistribution of resources by providing them with retail space and financial training. The initiative further works in cooperation with other youth agencies and service providers in the community in order to improve its outreach. The primary future development plan for the store at the moment is to increase its revenues (through internal entrepreneurial activities or additional external funds) so that it can sustain itself in shape of a small retail space while serving the community as a social enterprise.
 The dynamic members of YEN include NYKE, Blueprints Youth Unlimited (YU), Doorsteps, Black Creek Community Collaborative, Involve Youth, Soulfull N Soulless, Mr. Fresh (INI’s Entrepreneur of the year), Greenwin Inc, Broker Carmen Shoukralla, SECE (Social Enterprise Centre of Excellence), as well as other partners. Trillium foundation is the primary funder of the initiative.