When we talk about startups, we automatically think about the dynamic and ever-changing working environment that defines them. There, success is often determined by how entrepreneurs can navigate unpredictable waters. Being adaptable in the face of uncertainty is exactly what Julie Hommik brings to the Urban Digs Farm team as the social venture’s operations and business development summer intern. Julie studied mechanical engineering in her undergrad and left a management consulting role in Toronto to pursue her MBA degree at the Sauder School of Business and explore career options within Vancouver’s growing social enterprise sector. Read on to discover how Julie turns chaos into order and helps build a path to sustainability for this social venture supported by the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub incubator program.
As a student, what are the top reasons you were attracted to entrepreneurship and particularly, social entrepreneurship?
I knew I wanted to make a career shift from working at a large pharmaceutical consulting firm towards socially-minded initiatives and ventures; I wanted to make a difference somewhere. My search for an MBA program was focused by my interest in social enterprises with my enthusiasm for entrepreneurship as a whole coming as a later discovery. The more I got into my UBC Sauder MBA program, the more I realized that the majority of social enterprises are small- and medium-sized businesses, likely because social entrepreneurship is an emerging space that’s only really become prominent in the last five years.
Once at Sauder, I started taking all these entrepreneurship courses and realized how cool, fun, and exciting it is. Then I became more involved in the entrepreneurial community here, like Sauder’s Centre for Social Innovation & Impact Investing which was really helpful in cultivating my interest. My thinking is that, since I’m going to be working for the next forty, fifty years of my life, I might as well focus on something that I can look back on and say, “Hey, I actually achieved something meaningful,” and not just, “Hey, I got x-amount of dollars in my bank account.”
What’s your biggest win to date?
Probably my biggest win was helping Urban Digs Farm quadruple the number of deliveries per week. When I realized this increase was in the imminent future, I put some processes in place, developed some lovely little Excel macros, and steps to go through to make sure we were actually able to scale from about twenty deliveries to eighty. This will allow Urban Digs to scale their business even more in the future and better manage their ‘growing pains’. When you only have twenty deliveries a week you can force your way through the process by handwriting stuff and manually typing it in, but you can’t do that with eighty deliveries a week.
What’s the toughest challenge you’ve faced to date?
In the first week, during my onboarding meeting with the Urban Digs team, the initial scope of my summer project basically exploded from what I anticipated it to be. The social venture was facing so many challenges that the founders didn’t really know what would be the most effective use of my time and skills; it gave me a lot of flexibility to figure out what needed to get done and then go do it. I’ve never had such a free job before; my work has always been very project-based, with clear goals and boundaries. Despite the initial shock, I believe I have been adding value to Urban Digs by running my own hands-on projects, like building processes for deliveries, inventory and CRM, or investigating the company’s cost model, as opposed to just putting together a PowerPoint presentation for them and making recommendations.
Of course with a startup, when there are maybe a dozen people working there, you have to be prepared to pitch in when necessary. When I signed up for my internship, I didn’t realize that I would be running Urban Digs Farmers’ Market booth after the person who usually does it broke their foot. It’s been neat because I got to interact with customers, understand the selling process better and how we can increase our sales. It was really interesting being able to see that, being right on the ground with the people who buy our product.
Your turn— give a piece of advice for someone in your shoes next year wanting to be an intern at the iHub
My advice to fellow students is to go for an internship with a startup because it is an incredible learning opportunity. You will learn what parts of a business you like and don’t like and whether this sort of life is for you. By working at a startup you get to understand the spectrum of things that go on in a business. I am working on finances, marketing and operations at the same time from how we price products and improve the display at our farmers’ markets, to how we manage our inventory and retain our employees.
It’s a neat opportunity to be part of the iHub community. All the other interns are probably going through the same problems and speed bumps as you are. Although the startup you’re interning with might only have two or three people on the team, you have access to incredible resources from the iHub and e@UBC community as a whole.
Interview conducted and written by: Amanda Bamford