Sam Haque, founder of Wise Media, joined Regent Park’s Centre for Social Innovation four years ago. He now employs one staffer and hopes to add more, (STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR)
Mowat Centre report says basic income could spark social innovation by giving marginalized groups support to become social entrepreneurs.
For many years, Regent Park resident Sam Haque thought the Disney adage: “If you can dream it, you can do it” was advice only for people of privilege.
“I thought it was only something rich parents tell their children,” he says. “But I’m proof that everyone can do it. And that’s the message I’m trying to get out there.”
Haque, 35, who came to Toronto with his mother from Bangladesh when he was 15, turned his back on an opportunity to go to law school about eight years ago to follow his passion for doodling and design, and created Wise Media.
But it wasn’t until he joined Regent Park’s Centre for Social Innovation four years ago that he felt the true social mission of his graphic design and printing business.
“When you get a job, you are only helping yourself,” he says. “But when you become a social entrepreneur, you can help a whole lot of other people by giving them jobs too.”
Haque is an example of the kind of social entrepreneur that could benefit enormously from a basic income, says a thought-provoking report to be released Thursday.
“What if the people who were most at risk — people from low-income and marginalized communities who are living day to day with real challenges — were able to become social entrepreneurs?” asks the report by the Mowat Centre, a public policy think tank affiliated with the University of Toronto.
“With the right support, these are the folks who will unlock meaningful work for people, create vibrant communities and solve intractable problems,” adds the report, which drew on research from Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).
“Ultimately, they will even help save public money,” the report suggests.
Last fall, Haque hired his first staff person — another local resident — who works about 20 hours a month on projects ranging from logo design, to “full-on” ad campaigns. He pays the aspiring 20-year-old designer $15 an hour, but hopes to one day pay more.
He is now branching out into T-shirt design — with equipment in the apartment he still shares with his mother — and plans to hire local youth to help him complete the orders.
As the Mowat report notes, social businesses create 126 jobs for every 94 jobs that a regular business creates.
In Toronto, the vast majority of social entrepreneurs — whose businesses tackle social woes and create jobs for the marginalized — come from middle and upper-income households and about 69 per cent are of European descent, according to a survey of CSI members.
As Ontario embarks on a basic income pilot project that would pay low-income individuals up to $16,989 annually with no strings attached, there is a chance to broaden the social innovation playing field, the report says.
“We want to be encouraging people from marginalized communities to build enterprises aimed at solving problems in their communities which they probably understand better than most people,” said Mowat policy associate Michael Crawford Urban who co-authored the report with Christine Yip. “So we think there is a real opportunity to unlock that value through a basic income.”
In his provincial discussion paper on basic income last fall, Hugh Segal assumed the three-year time-limit for the experiment wouldn’t provide enough cushion for would-be entrepreneurs and therefore wouldn’t likely have much impact on entrepreneurship.
But Crawford Urban said the CSI data shows most social entrepreneurs expect to be making a living through their business within three years and that many would benefit from a basic income to support them during the development stage.
“We would like to see the government capture that unpaid labour in addition to the paid labour people may be doing, as part of its data collection,” he said.
A spokeswoman for provincial Social Services Minister Helena Jaczek, who is overseeing the basic income pilot project, said the government will “definitely” consider entrepreneurs, including social entrepreneurs as part of the research.
The experiment, to include about 4,000 low-income people, is expected to begin this summer in the Hamilton and Thunder Bay areas and in Lindsay next fall.
Tonya Surman, CEO of CSI, which includes four sites in Toronto and one in New York City, hopes Ontario’s pilot project is successful and that basic income becomes available more broadly so more people like Haque get the support to follow their dreams.
“That’s the kind of pride of entrepreneurship that brings dignity and opportunity to folks,” she said. “It’s about how we create meaningful lives for people.”