by Patrick McDonagh
The scene from the idyllic town of Lac Mégantic in Quebec’s Eastern Townships was horrific: a runaway unmanned freight train carrying crude oil crashed and exploded on July 6, 2013, killing almost 50 people and destroying half of the town core. A year later, the people of Lac Mégantic have started the long and painful process to heal and rebuild. Joining them are three McGill students, whose vision of an incubator facility for young entrepreneurs to help revitalize the town centre has been embraced by the local community.
Bernard d’Arche, Cécile Branco-Côté and Ségolène Rolin, BCom’14, developed the idea of the “Centre Magnétique,” as they have dubbed it, as a project in Anita Nowak’s “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation” course. Upon returning the assignment, Nowak, BA’97, BCom’97, PhD’11, encouraged the trio to enter the proposal into this year’s McGill Dobson Cup startup competition, organized by the Desautels Faculty of Management.
After three rounds of pitches and presentations, the team was announced co-winner of first place in the social entrepreneurship category on June 5, claiming $5,000 in seed money.
“One of the great things about this competition is that in each of the three rounds you receive coaching, which helped us evolve our project,” says d’Arche. “The judges challenged some of the ideas in our earlier versions, so we had to rethink whether they were central to the project.”
But the most important test comes from the people of Lac Mégantic, and their support has been evident since the project was conceived.
“When we started our class project we sent a survey to local businesses, and in three days we received 84 responses,” says d’Arche. “The community’s passion and commitment became a catalyst; we had to give our very best to this project.”
Since then, the team has visited Lac Mégantic three times to consult with people, build networks and formalize plans, working closely with local entrepreneur and teacher Jacques Cloutier, who has served as a mentor. As envisioned, the Centre Magnétique would occupy a new edifice housing both established organizations such as the local Chamber of Commerce, while also providing space and facilities for young entrepreneurs to nurture their startups.
“The Centre Magnétique would be a collaborative space for all of these organizations involved in supporting entrepreneurship,” d’Arche explains. As Cécile Branco-Côté said in an interview with Montreal’s The Gazette, “We want to create something that would help retain young people in the area.”
How do they plan to turn talk into action? Construction requires a hefty investment, so the team will apply for support from government organizations and NGOs.
“We are bringing together important local actors, which fits within the economic development strategy of the region, so we fit a lot of funding criteria,” says Branco-Côté. “When we came here, we found people who have shared our vision for a long time. So we are doing the organizational spadework. We’ve listened to what our partners in the community want, and we are the hands that will make it happen.”
“Collaboration is at the heart of all of this,” d’Arche stresses. “We are bringing different agents together in one building to promote collaboration and incubate startups, and the idea of the Centre Magnétique itself results from collaboration. We wouldn’t be at this stage without the help of the local community, the McGill Dobson Cup and our professor.”
The three students share a deep interest in social entrepreneurship: Rolin is considering pursuing graduate studies in this field; in 2012 Branco-Côté, as a junior fellow with Engineers without Borders Canada, organized a five-day conference on social entrepreneurship for secondary school and university students in Ghana; and last year, d’Arche helped launch Standpoints, an online journal that encourages students to debate ideas, and which has led to a student-run conference on social entrepreneurship.