This month we head all the way to Nunavut, the largest and most northern region of Canada. A unique place in the world has a special social enterprise called Pinnguaq, a nonprofit tech startup that aims to provide tech education to young people in the region. We were fortunate to catch up with Ryan Oliver, the owner of Pinnguaq, to learn more about the organisation.
How did you identify the need for Pinnguaq?
I grew up in a small settler town in Ontario, Canada that is about 1.5 hours away from Toronto. We were fortunate in high school to have a complete and complex computer science program. Many of my peers went into the growing Canadian industry at the time (I didn’t, I gave up on math too young!). I moved to Nunavut in 2004 and realized how fortunate I had been to grow up where I did. Computer Science was not only a rarity in Nunavut, but in all of Canada. As my kids grew up, because of my love for video games we had many in the house and their peers starting coming over on a regular basis to play games. At the same time my own peer group from when I grew up was 10+ years in the gaming industry and it was clear that the Canadian games/tech industry was going to be a huge part of the future of our country.
That’s the basics. An underserved market/population, connections of my own that I could leverage back into the territory that I loved, and kids growing up that I wanted to do what I could to help bring them the same opportunities I was given.
What is or are the key ingredients to you being so successful and winning so many awards?
The communities we’re serving.
If not one cared about what we were proposing, we would have stopped a long time ago. However, with each release, each educational session we run, the interest grows and the way we do it changes and grows. We’re far from perfect in our implementation and constantly learning with each step we take. The community has grown with us and been fantastic at keeping our mandate and our mission on track. To that effect, another key to our success is to not be satisfied with anyone iteration of what we do. Each time we go out we aim to improve upon what we did before and when that stops happening, we will have worn out our usefulness.
How is the social enterprise scene in Canada developing?
I think a formal definition of ‘social enterprise’ in Canada, and the support systems one would anticipate having around that is still largely still undefined. While there is much support for not for profit and for-profit companies alike, it relies on the companies themselves to define how that support can shape what it means to be a ‘social enterprise’. That said, I could be missing something. I knew what we were trying to do, but didn’t have a name for it until we won the award as “best social enterprise startup” in Canada. I get it now!
My immediate comparison point is our neighbors in the US, and to that extent, Canada has a ton of support for growing businesses, artists, and not for profits. With the current government, we also have a significant amount of support now for technology and coding as a whole. That said, we are a settler defined country with significant inequality and a long history of colonization. What is available from a Government support standpoint often requires an ability to navigate a complex application process and red tape. There are indications this is shifting but the reality is that often those who can benefit the most from a strong social enterprise system are not provided with the experience and education to navigate the mandatory bureaucracy.
All of that said, there are many good people here who want to do good things and increasingly, it seems, we have a system that is adapting and figuring out a way to empower and enable that action.
Can you tell us one of your favourite stories, maybe the impact you’ve had on one of your users?
With each passing month, I have new favorites that emerge. When we first started the company and created a language app called “Singuistics”, it was incredible to see it being used in my kids daycare and by their peers. From there we started hosting te(a)ch sessions (computer science camps across Nunavut communities) and seeing a participant go from having no experience with programming to an employee who designs and teaches future courses has been a pleasure to watch.
That said, each passing month brings new highlights and the past few have been among the best. We recently completed our newest te(a)ch sessions in Rankin Inlet and Arctic Bay, Nunavut. Four years of refining our curriculum and our teaching style has been incredible and these sessions were among our best ever. Our goal with te(a)ch is to offer something to Nunavummiut (people of Nunavut) that isn’t currently available through the traditional education system, and the impact of that is more and more evident with each session we run.
What advice would you offer to new social entrepreneurs or social enterprises?
It’s too easy to say, “do what you love”, because a lot of people love things that won’t allow them to also be successful. I’m still figuring it out myself. I know for Pinngauq it was a combination of our luck, timing, and privilege that led us to this place and we acknowledge and work towards sharing and growing that with each project we undertake. My recommendation would be to expose yourself to everything relevant to your field. Don’t insulate yourself, meet everyone, get to know every project, every idea. Follow things that have nothing to do with what you’re doing as you’ll learn plenty from every walk talk of life. Never stop learning, never be satisified.
A great example of how a social enterprise can succeed in the most remote of areas by meeting the needs of the community. It also goes to show how red tape and bureaucracy affect both developed and underdeveloped countries in the world, and therefore how important it is for us to play a part in shaping the sector.