Julia Deans

Q&A: CYBF’s new CEO Julia Deans talks youth, entrepreneurship, and olive farming

There’s a new voice leading youth entrepreneurship in Canada.

Julia Deans, an entrepreneur and lawyer by trade, has been appointed as the new CEO of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation — an organization that provides mentorship, support and financing to thousands of businesses across the country. It has already enabled the launch of 5,300 Canadian companies (creating nearly 21,000 jobs) since its inception in 1996, and plans to greatly expand these numbers in the coming years.

Deans, the former head of CivicAction and former chair of Ontario’s Expert Roundtable on Immigration, has been a key figure in Ontario’s economic, social and environmental growth. She is now spearheading CYBF as the organization expands its reach across Canada and fights to bolster the reputation of Canadian small businesses on the international stage.

Star Business Club editor Tom Henheffer spoke with Deans to discuss her past, her views on Canadian entrepreneurship, and her vision for the future.

Full Disclosure: Tom Henheffer has, in the past, received a business loan from CYBF. This loan has been repaid and the business relationship has ended.

Tell me about your first entrepreneurial venture.

It was called QD Legal, a legal recruitment firm that started in the U.K. I built the Southeast Asian operation in 1997, which recruited Singaporean and international lawyers.

Why move from law into business?

I didn’t love practicing law, but I liked working with lawyers. I had really strong networks, and knew I was good at connecting with people. I figured I should put the two skills together and see if I could make money.

Why, after coming back to Toronto, did you move into social entrepreneurship by joining Civic Nation as it’s CEO?

I have a really strong sense of public service, and realized I could take the same skills and focus on the public good. In many ways it’s more challenging because it’s not related to profit, it’s building things. We were building Luminato, DiverseCity and the Emerging Leaders Network. They had a huge impact on both our economy and our society, and that really excited me.

Tell me how you came to be where you are now.

I was at CivicAction for almost seven years. I led it through the death of it’s founder,David Pecaut, recruited John Tory as the new chair, rebuilt and rebranded, and decided it was time for something knew.

Last year I chaired Ontario’s Expert Roundtable on Immigration, but I realised that my heart lay with entrepreneurship. The CYBF opportunity was the perfect sweet spot for the things I like to do.

What attracted you to the organization?

It has an incredible track record of helping young entrepreneurs succeed. It has a model that works; what I want to do is innovate and do more.

How so?

Expanding our reach — working with partners active in the field, and those who aren’t, to get more people contributing to the success of young entrepreneurs. And figuring out how to leverage the international connections we have to help Canadian entrepreneurs sell themselves overseas.

You’ll see us working with new kinds of community partners, some who have an extensive a national reach, as we expand. We have an incredible group of 4500 mentors across the country, and will be figuring out how to work with them to get the word out. Anyone who knows CYBF really loves it, the trick will be getting them to get more people into the fold.

What are the biggest challenges you’ll be helping Canadian business owners overcome?

Getting financing is top of mind for most entrepreneurs. But if you peel that back, it’s often about getting guidance on how to position and sell themselves. To me this speaks to a need for mentoring, business planning and marketing and communications services.

CYBF can’t do it alone, but if a young entrepreneur is looking for direction to get themselves launched and moving toward success, CYBF is a pretty perfect place to go.

Why the concentration on youth?

We know that young people are going to have five or six careers in their lives, and whatever they’re doing they’ve got to know how to sell themselves and their ideas. By encouraging them to think entrepreneurially we’ll position them for whatever it is they’re going to do in their life. But if we don’t get people to try, we won’t have the next companies to fuel our economy.

Why has entrepreneurship become such a hot topic since the recession?

The truth is we’ve seen a lot of jobs in traditional occupations dwindle. People are laid off and there isn’t a role to return to, so they’ve had to turn their minds to other things.

The media attention is terrific, when you see a young person become a billionaire in their early 20s, it’s inspirational.

It’s helped organizations like CYBF ramp up quite a bit. For example, our age group has expanded from 35 up to 39, and we’re looking at more drivers for entrepreneurship, such as people retiring from the military, that we haven’t tapped before.

Why does CYBF place such a strong emphasis on mentorship?

I’m a huge fan of mentorship and love that CYBF uses mentors. That’s the person who can give you context and help you realise and deal with the struggles ahead. People who come through CYBF a have a much higher success rate (than first-time entrepreneurs in general) because that mentoring helps prevent them from being thrown off their feet.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ll face in this new position?

I’ve got pretty high expectations for myself, and from my boards, in terms of expanding the number of young entrepreneurs we’re helping. We’ve helped 5,300 entrepreneurs launch since we started, I’d love to do at least that in half the time moving forward, but that’s a personal goal.

One last question, your Twitter bio says you’re a part time olive farmer?

(Laughing) I have 80 olive trees on a little patch of land in France. I picked them for the first time in fall. I only got 18.3 kilos, but I was so excited to go in and sell them — I made about 9 euro. I don’t think I’ll make a killing selling my olives.