START A BUSINESS WITH FREE ONTARIO GOVERNMENT MONEY

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By Drew Halfnight

For most students, summer means getting a lame job and working lame hours in a lame uniform under the watchful eye of a lame boss. Good news: this summer, you can shed your lameness, and the Ontario government will pay you to do it.

The Summer Company program, now in its sixth year, provides funds and training to students who want to be their own bosses over the summer. It is run by the Ministry of Small Business and Entrepreneurship.

Eligible applicants — students between 15 and 29 years of age not in their final year of studies — design a basic business plan, budget and cash-flow forecast and submit them with an online application.

Once accepted, participants get $1,500 to kick-start their business in June, a minimum of 12 hours of mentorship and another $1,500 at the end of the summer.

Hailey Unterman was studying architecture at Ryerson in 2005 when she caught wind of Summer Company.

“I didn’t know the first thing about business,” she remembers. “I didn’t even know how to write a cheque.”

Against the odds, Unterman put together a modest business plan for an interior design company, Refine Design, and was accepted to the program.

“I was pleasantly surprised at how well it went. I was so young and didn’t have a lot of experience,” she says. “I had a very positive experience. The people at the program were extremely supportive.”

With the assistance of a business liaison supplied by the government, Unterman found 11 clients who gave her stimulating work and helped her turn a profit. “If you have an idea but you’re not sure how to make it happen,” says Unterman, “they’ll help you market that idea.”

Summer Company spokesman Dave Bauer said that 2007 is shaping up to be the program’s biggest year, with over 700 people likely to apply for about half as many positions.

Bauer added that the applicant pool is “an even mix” of high-school and university students. He recommended that people apply early because admissions are conducted on a rolling basis.

In the summer of 2005, over 250 young entrepreneurs participated in Summer Company. They ran businesses in Ontario towns as far-flung as Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Kapuskasing and Drumbo. About 30 of them set up shop in Toronto.

They sold paper, skateboards and leeches. They repaired bikes, cars and golf clubs. They taught tennis and swimming. A disproportionate number of them did landscaping and lawn care. They cleaned windows and boats, groomed pets, went fishing, and imported and sold clothing. One evevn student cut hair under a gazebo in her backyard.

Mentorship is a key feature of the program. Participants are encouraged to develop relationships with local entrepreneurs through a government-funded network of business consultants.

“They get access to good coaches,” says Dino Rocca, a spokesman with the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

“They’re given a taste of running their own show.”

Unterman has since graduated from Ryerson and now works full-time at one of Toronto’s most respected architecture firms, Kirkor.

And she’s still in contact with all of her former clients from Summer Company.

“The projects have continued. I’ve become their ‘question and answer’ person, and those clients have referred me to their friends,” said Unterman.

If past brand and business names are any indication — “Ghetto Couture” by Jennifer Valberg, “Le Roi Du Squeegee” by Mathieu Joly, “Charbonneau Knows Window Washing” by Levi Charbonneau — the program inspires participants to conduct business in a spirit of fun and creativity.

If you’re wondering what a cash-flow forecast is, or for any other information about the program, call 1-888-JOB-GROW or check out the program’s website at www.ontario.ca/summercompany.

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