Meet Market Meet Vinod Rajasekaran, the man making waves — and connections — at a sleek new communal workspace for social entrepreneurs
By Dayanti Karunaratne
Vinod Rajasekaran surveys the new Hub Ottawa office. The largely open-concept 3,100-square-foot space includes a lounge area with views of bustling Bank Street; a corner nook, perfect for brainstorming sessions, with booth and chair seating around a large table; and, near the entrance, another shared table, this one made from reclaimed hemlock. There are also two meeting rooms and a seminar room for when privacy is needed. Now the members are moving in, and Rajasekaran sees a future in which this centre for innovation provides the perfect locale for group planning — and bumping into that next business partner.
Hub Ottawa differs from other communal workspaces in that it caters specifically to people focused on the emerging world of social entrepreneur-ship. While members work in fields that range from art therapy to fashion journalism, all must tailor their projects around a social or an environmental cause.
As executive director of Hub Ottawa, Rajasekaran brings a wide range of experiences. Born in India and raised in Australia and Toronto, he came to Ottawa in 2000 to study engineering at Carleton University, where he became involved with Engineers Without Borders. Upon graduating, he spent a couple of years in the aerospace field before entering the non-profit sector, working for organizations like the Canadian Hunger Foundation. This was a better fit for his people-before-profits mindset, but the pace of progress frustrated him. Then he entered Hub World.
“That was my aha! moment,” the 30-year-old recalls of his first visit to Hub Bristol, a chance discovery that occurred in 2006 while he was doing a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Bristol in England.
Hub is a global network of spaces for social entrepreneurs, with over 4,000 members, and counting, in 30 cities. There’s one in Madrid and one in Milan; Hub Amsterdam is leafy and bright, while photos of Hub Vienna show a space with café-style seating and chic decor. Each Hub operates separately, but working under the Hub moniker requires organizations to meet certain criteria (and submit a solid business plan). Members pay a fee — in Ottawa, monthly dues range from $30 to $350 per person, depending on usage — for access to a space that offers a chance to connect with others who value the qualities of social entrepreneurship, as well as programming like workshops and lectures.
These sorts of formal arrangements mark an evolution in the world of social entrepreneurship. In the past, businesses have worked under loose descriptions and with the support of larger organizations. Sure, they’re usually easy to spot — co-op housing developments, fair-trade coffee shops, and micro-finance banks all fit the bill. But how to define a social enterprise? Does it require definition?
Rajasekaran thinks so. He says a definition helps push policy forward and allows entrepreneurs to apply for tax breaks and other forms of funding, such as the recent impact fund announced by the Royal Bank of Canada. (RBC made headlines earlier this year as the first major financial institution in Canada to establish a special loan system for businesses that offer social or environmental benefits.) At Hub Ottawa, Rajasekaran and his team define a social enterprise as a business designed intentionally to create social change by way of its products or services, distribution systems, and employment practices. Ultimately, the business must address a pressing social and/or environmental need.
Currently, most self-employed entrepreneurs looking to schedule appointments (and get out of the house) set up shop in a café. In fact, Rajasekaran admires businesses like Bridgehead that have what he calls “place spaces”: areas with energy that attract socially conscious people to work independently or in groups. Last year he reached out to Bridgehead managing director Tracey Clark; they discussed, among other issues, what form of organization Hub Ottawa should take. In the end, Clark and the Hub team decided a not-for-profit status would mean spending too much time applying for grants and not enough energy pushing projects forward and ensuring that the businesses are sustainable. Clark’s savvy business sense and knowledge of the local market are an invaluable resource for the Hub team, and she’s now a member of the board.
What sets Hub Ottawa apart from a local coffee shop is the fact that there will always be at least one “host” in the space. “Supporting members requires interaction,” Rajasekaran explains. He goes on to cite a study that found that only about 15 percent of people are natural, effective networkers. It’s the job of the designated host (posted at that beautiful reclaimed-timber table near the entrance) to ensure that projects are moving forward. If members are at an impasse, the host will try to define the problem and put them in touch with others who can help.
Hub member Magda Baczkowska is particularly excited about the networking aspect. “It seems like the perfect place to find other people who are socially engaged,” says Baczkowska, a University of Ottawa master’s student who is developing art- and play-therapy classes for refugees. The project recently received a $30,000 fellowship from the Centre for Global and Community Engagement. It’s enough to keep her going for at least a year, but Baczkowska and her partners are looking to find a more sustainable approach to funding — something Rajasekaran is passionate about promoting.
“It’s not just about giving to a cause, but about investing,” says Rajasekaran. While a donation to a charity is always good, it’s an outdated model, something he calls a “post-profit” approach. Philanthropy has evolved, he explains: in addition to donations, businesses are now investing through loan assistance programs that allow them to invest in talent. He points to groups like the Community Foundation of Ottawa, which is currently exploring impact investments similar to the RBC model. “I want to help bring the philanthropic sector to a place where it can take advantage of the creative ideas that are out there.” He knows that novelty cheques and namesake donations are popular and easily score points for their media appeal. However, looking at the winding path that brought this energetic, charismatic man to the centre of Hub Ottawa, one gets the impression he’s prepared to work hard to create change. “I like to rock the boat. Sometimes that’s what being innovative is: going against the grain.”
This profile was featured in the April 2012 edition.