Who sets out to generate solutions for the problems facing society?
In our world of brazen business, hardnosed economic competition, rabid milking for profits, who cares to dedicate their days in service to that noble icon of human society – Solutions?
Meet Pramilla Ramdahani.
Ramdahani dominates a room. She stands petite, pleasant, polished, yet talks with animated aliveness – and a disarmingly matter-of-fact tone, about “social enterprise”. For her, the world cries out for enterprises that generate solutions for all sorts of social problems.
And, being a woman of action rather than mere talk, she launched her passion for solutions into a venture that today turns heads all across Ontario. Here’s an immigrant woman, with a dream in her heart, a passion in her soul, and a fire in her bones for blazing a new trail – not for her glory, but to build from the ground up a sturdy startup generator of solutions enterprises.
Seven years ago, Ramdahani closed shop on her consultancy business, ignoring the MBA she had secured to become a successful business owner, and set about forming a new kind of organization, one to reach people outside the economic status quo.
Back then, Ramdahani leaned on her husband to become the breadwinner at home, along with her savings, and the understanding of her now-adult daughter, to invent her dream, mustering the courage and inner resolve to come up with an organization she labeled Community Innovation Lab, now popular in the Startup and Innovation ecosystem in Ontario as CommunityiHub.
For three years, Ramdahani faced an uphill challenge, failing to generate any sort of funding for her non-profit organization. She slugged it out alone, with a Board of Directors backing her with advice, and a patient husband believing in her ability to make a success of this brand new initiative.
“I saw this gap – a social and economic gap – in the system when I worked as a business consultant. So I came up with this idea that, through social innovation and social enterprise lens, maybe we could make a difference,” Ramdahani said, in an exclusive interview with the Millionaire Mindset magazine.
Today, 45 years old, Ramdahani operates CommunityiLab out of a 6,000 square-foot space the organization leased from the Catholic School Board in Oshawa. As CEO, she has overseen a monumental success story, inspiring, instructive, and a perfect metaphor for carving one’s dream into reality.
“I wanted the Lab idea as an intentional concept where users could experiment and engage with each other to come up with solutions as enterprises,” Ramdahani said, and the concept – the only such in Ontario, is a runaway success story.
Ramdahani started out in a small office space at Core21 in Oshawa, below the Spark Center, Durham Region’s innovation hub. But she could not find much traction in those early years, failing for the first three years to attract any funding or to even gain a footing in the innovation and startup ecosystem. But she plugged on, staring at the shut doors with determination to never give up.
Ramdahani, however, never entertained the possibility of failure. Instead, she waded out into the community, launching events such as “idea jams”, where community conversations produce “lists which would become our ‘needs’”. Durham Ideas Den is one of her favorite initiatives, and “out of this community, we designed a comprehensive social innovation program”. For the first time in Canada, here was birthing a new idea – a startup for non-profits, social enterprises, and solution generators, without an emphasis on entrepreneurship purely for profits.
Initially, Ramdahani focused on youth but expanded her program to attract women, and seniors, believing that changing, evolving comes with the territory of social entrepreneurship. “If we use same old, traditional mindset, we would not get anywhere,” she said. In her world, words like values, mindset, social conscience take on weighty meanings. “I work with a paradigm that is always aligned and equal to each other, of profit, people, planet, and purpose. And I see every challenge as an opportunity to make that alignment happen”.
Ramdahani honed her thinking on this through her consultancy business before CommunityiLab, where she worked with non-profits in Toronto to build and develop community-minded social enterprises. “Through those experiences, I felt there was something greater I could do. And the first three years I bootstrapped this whole thing. I got no funding at all. My husband supported me but it was challenging,” Ramdahani said.
But she persevered, and today, CommunityiLab secures one million dollars plus per year to carry out signature programs that benefit scores of women, seniors, and youth.
One program, the three-year Refinery Program for women entrepreneurs, benefitted 1,335 women in Durham Region. Ramdahani is working to upgrade that refinery program to 5,000 women over five years.
She said that CommunityiLab is “the only women entrepreneur support organization in Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada certified CommunityiLab as the only certified women entrepreneur center in Ontario”.
Canada’s government earmarked $85M for women entrepreneurs, including $20M for women of diversity, and Ramdahani is working for CommunityiLab to support women through the process of training and accessing this funding. In fact, so much funding is available for women entrepreneurs, that BDC operates a loans program of $1.4 billion to support women entrepreneurs, with individual funding running up to $100,000 per venture. This funding flows through the Women’s Enterprise Organization of Canada (WEOC). And, Ramdahani said, WEOC designated CommunityiLab to offer programs for this funding to channel out to women entrepreneurs with social enterprises.
With a 400-person intake per year in its women entrepreneurship program and 25 coaching packages per year, CommunityiLab is making progress in setting up new women-run enterprises and ventures in Ontario.
Her organization also trained 300 young people to become entrepreneurs.
Ramdahani is also piloting a new program to train and equip seniors to launch enterprises.
Her big break came in 2015, when the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development granted her funding of $100,000, in collaboration with the Community Development Council of Durham. Battling “lots of obstacles along the way”, Ramdahani never gave up, launching a campaign for all the Members of Parliaments and MPPs of Ontario to back her initiative. Eventually, even the Canada Treasury Board saw the light of her vision, and, through the Poverty Reduction Strategy, granted CommunityiLab funding. Ramdahani also secured funding from Social Enterprise Accelerator, which is Government funded through the Ontario Center of Excellence.
Ramdahani said in every aspect of one’s life, being business conscious is necessary – even in planning one’s family and career. Hence, CommunityiLab provides business and finance training as a necessary pillar of its work with clients.
Her passion and focus, however, is to develop and launch start-ups of social enterprises that generate new solutions for Canada.
Ramhadani migrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and today she lectures business courses in social enterprise at the University of the West Indies when she could take time off from CommunityiLab for a weekend to fly to the Caribbean. She also lectures at Trent University.
Ramdahani is leading her ground-breaking initiative at CommunityiLab as a Canadian of exceptional excellence, dedicated discipline to her vision, and resolute responsibility for the women, youth and seniors whose lives she’s set out with determination and that winning attitude to impact for society’s benefit. Ramdahani, in her life at CommunityiLab, personifies how to be and live a vibrant solution for Durham Region, Ontario, and Canada.