Transforming New Brunswick one young leader at a time: The role of 21Inc.

From a recent column in the TJ:

The 18th Century German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote “the destiny of any nation, at any given time, depends on the opinions of its young men”.

A decade or so ago, a few visionaries such as John McLaughlin, past president of the University of New Brunswick, had a collective light bulb moment. They realized that if this province was ever to fundamentally change its destiny, it would need to focus more on youth leadership. If the destiny of New Brunswick was in their hands, we had an opportunity to shape them and in doing so shape our destiny.

In 2014, New Brunswick boasts a growing infrastructure mandated to support and mentor young leaders across the province and beyond. The Wallace McCain Institute at the University of New Brunswick targets high potential young entrepreneurs with a variety of leadership programs. Organizations such as PropelICT and Planet Hatch help young entrepreneurs transform good ideas into ambitious startup companies.

Another strategic young leaders program is 21inc. Launched in 2007, 21inc. was set up to provide an opportunity for high impact young people in Atlantic Canada to foster leadership skills, expand networks, engage with their local communities and help them achieve their career goals. The 21inc. leadership experiences is meant to provide participants with the tools, networks and confidence to become effective 21st Century leaders.

21inc. started in New Brunswick and has now grown to encompass all four Atlantic Provinces. It has also evolved as a platform for two other strategic youth leadership events: The 21inc. Ideas Festival and the Emerging Leaders Summit.

I recently had the opportunity to work with 21inc. on an alumni survey to evaluate the impact of the program across Atlantic Canada. Over one hundred 21inc. alumni filled out the survey and the findings highlight a portrait of impact, community engagement and ambitious entrepreneurship.

The 21inc. alumni are building successful careers. There are five times as many of them earning $100,000 or more per year compared to the population in that age group as a whole across Atlantic Canada.

However, the alumni are not exclusively in corporate environments. Over 40 per cent of them are employed in social enterprises, education or government.

They are locally based but globally connected. More than a third of them do at least some work in international markets. Of the entrepreneurs in the group, 65 per cent of their firms serve markets outside their home province.

The 21inc. alumni are embedded in their communities. Seventy-five per cent of them active on at least one volunteer board or committee and there are 16 super-volunteers active on at least four boards or committees. When asked to comment on the benefits of the 21inc. program, one of the top responses was that it helped them expand their perceived role in their local communities.

One of the most exciting attributes of the 21inc alumni is their entrepreneurial spirit. Forty-one of the survey respondents founded one or more businesses or social enterprises. In total, the forty 21inc. alumni-founded entrepreneurial ventures located in Atlantic Canada employ 475 people and generate an estimated $74 million worth of annual revenue.

While most of the startup firms are relatively new, the ones that have been in business for several years reported an annual average revenue growth rate of over 100 per cent per year.

We need some of our ambitious young people to raise up the entrepreneurial banner. Only 4.6 out of every 100 workers in the age group 25-34 in New Brunswick are self-employed. This is the second lowest self-employment rate in Canada among the 10 provinces.

Goethe was wrong about one thing. Nearly half of all 21inc. alumni across Atlantic Canada are women including the organization’s dynamic Executive Director, Nadine Duguay.

Herself a 21inc. alumnus, Duguay has a vision to expand the reach of 21inc. even further while creating a stable, long term financial model for the organization. She also hopes to strengthen the network effect arising from the interaction of the 200+ alumni across the region.

McLaughlin and others lit the fire. It’s now starting to burn across Atlantic Canada.

I am hopeful this emerging generation of leaders will not settle for the results of the past. I trust they will envision a dynamic and growing region full of ambitious entrepreneurs that is attracting immigrants and investment from around the world.


David Campbell
An economic development consultant based in Moncton