• Ian Gerald King

Connecting Our Entrepreneurs

Creating a Networking Hub for Local Entrepreneurs in Willowdale

Written by Ian Gerald King

A model of fostering entrepreneurship already exists for us in Toronto that was experimented with throughout the 2010s: it’s called the “petri dish” model, which was referenced by one of the founders of the Digital Media Zone, Sheldon Levy, at a DMZ Christmas party in 2015. In essence, as facilitators – whether governmental, or scholarly as with Levy – we can foster entrepreneurship by creating the infrastructure for connections to arise between entrepreneurs. Similarly, microbiologists can foster bacterial growth by providing a petri dish with the proper environment for a bacterial colony to form. In other words, the facilitator isn’t doing the entrepreneurial work and the microbiologist isn’t engaging in bacterial growth: we are more like gardeners that are merely providing and setting the proper conditions.

The overarching question then becomes: what are the best conditions to set for entrepreneurship? The simple answer is that by providing an event venue and an event series, we can kick-off the initial work to bring our entrepreneurs in Willowdale together. As a reference point, the DMZ started simply by the provision of desk space to fledgling startups while simultaneously providing a common event venue – we should note that desk space was present because the DMZ was striving to become an incubator. Furthermore, I was a Community Lead for one of the leading accelerators in Toronto (Extreme Startups, which became HIGHLINE) and while we, too, had desk space since investments were involved, the bread and butter of our community development was an event series that I led for the operation.

Another metaphor that I can’t take credit for but have heard in the community is that the events function like a campfire – in particular, the main speaker or the theme of the event acts like a campfire. We gather around the campfire and then side-conversations start emerging. The true value of the event was not in the campfire, per se, but in the side-conversations that emerged as a result of the campfire being present. A side-conversation turns into a scheduled coffee meeting; the coffee meeting leads to 3 more coffee meetings, which become progressively more brainstorm-oriented; multiple brainstorm sessions then turn into a side project; and side projects turn into startups. All of that happened because several people gathered around a campfire – a campfire that your city councillor can help ignite within the community.

In Willowdale, the Lily Cheng Team will launch a Willowdale Entrepreneurial Network that will strive to integrate many of the best practices learned from the Toronto startup community during the 2010s. All we will need in the initial year is the consolidation of a common event venue and the coordination of an event series in that venue. As hinted in the examples of the DMZ and HIGHLINE, there are evolutions that we can make to our Willowdale Entrepreneurial Network in terms of desk space and funding, but everything first begins with our petri dish, our campfire: creating networking opportunities for our entrepreneurs is the best first step we can make as a community.


Ian Gerald King is a venture growth specialist who has worked in venture capital, code schools, and early stage digital startups. He started his career with Extreme Startups and aided in its merger with GrowLab into HIGHLINEvc, building its brand through a recurring event series. He was on the founding team of Brainstation, seeing the school through to its acquisition; he founded, bootstrapped, and operated his own mobile development school, ThoughtKite; he helped NortheasternU expand into Toronto with their Level data analytics bootcamp. Some of his recent projects include launching a cryptocurrency exchange and managing a Toronto municipal election campaign.

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