Alex Gill: Ryerson’s Social Innovator

Alex Gill stands on the TEDxRyersonU stage and points to a photo of a Radio Shack ad from a ‘90s Buffalo newspaper.

The ad is filled with things like stereos and home phones. What’s the significance of this ad?  You no longer see these kinds of household electronics because they have all been replaced with the smartphone.

“The for-profit side of the economy continue to create innovations that are obsolete,” said Gill.  

Gill — social entrepreneur, Ryerson University professor, co-founder of Ryerson’s SocialVentures Zone, as well as founder and leader of the Mendicant Group — believes that we can make social problems obsolete by taking best in-class methodology from how the for-profit sector works and applying it to the non-profit sector for social return.

At Ryerson’s sixth annual TEDx event on Nov. 21, Gill explained this to the 400 conference attendees, and told them that non-profits need more ambitious innovation to initiate impactful social change, not more money.

Gill knows this works. He built a whole company on the concept.

In 2005, Gill started teaching at Ryerson and was learning about innovation, how it works, and how to apply it to organizations to get better returns. With 12 years of experience running non-profits, he realized there was a niche for helping charities and non-profits with very specific things, such as innovating new ideas and program structure.

“I unwittingly found myself in this bridging piece on how do you get new thinking and new ideas where people need it the most?” said Gill.

Thus, without a business plan and little money, Mendicant Group was made to help non-profit organizations deal with traditional problems by applying new thinking.

However, there is some skepticism over this radical way of changing traditional methods.

Mendicant Group helped organize a hearing in Queen’s Park that consisted of having kids in the child foster care system talk about their experiences.

“When you start a project like that, people would have said, ‘Foster kids? What can they do?’” said Gill.

In this hearing, a 13-year-old girl said the night she was taken away from her family, the social workers stuffed all her belongings into garbage bags and carried them out of the house. Watching the social workers do this made her not only think they were throwing away her things, but that she was going to be thrown away as well.

Within 18 months, the minister of child and youth services implemented the recommendations made by the kids in the hearing, and children’s aid societies started buying suitcases to help children pack their belongings instead of using garbage bags.

“That is a very small example, but think about the trauma that it prevents,” said Gill. “And that’s just an example of changing traditional thinking.”

Mendicant Group is one of a few companies like it in Canada, and one of the fewer that does work globally, having done projects in 13 different countries so far.

However, Mendicant Group doesn’t have a lot of manpower, with four full-time employees making it a middle-sized company of its type, but they do scale up, depending on the size of the project.

The company has had a major project in motion for the last five years, trying to network 20 NGO’s from 20 different countries, using 11 different languages, to pay attention to the youth unemployment crisis.

“It’s one of the biggest [projects] in terms of what it’s going to do for the world. It’s one of the biggest in terms of risk,” said Gill.

The project has tried to get the world’s 20 most prosperous governments to address youth unemployment at every G20 summit since its start in 2010.

At this year’s G20 Antalya Communique summit meeting in Turkey, the leaders recognized that the solution to the youth jobs crisis lies in encouraging young people to start their own businesses.

Mendicant Group has seen this as victory and will follow up on this with their respective governments.

This large project hasn’t been very lucrative, though. Mendicant Group usually has a couple of different sized projects on the go to help keep the company’s lights on.

“At the end of the day, there is enough work that is socially redeeming, that pays you well enough so you can actually pay your bills, and then you can take on the big projects,” said Gill.

TEDxRyersonU Iconoclast 2015 @ Design Exchange | www.fb.com/TEDxRyersonU | Photo by: David Chau, ENVISION'D | www.envisiond.photography

Photo by David Chau, ENVISION’D

Mendicant Group also gives a minimum of one per cent — but usually closer to five per cent — of their gross fees each year to different Canadian non-profits and charities.  

Gill believes that every company that is succeeding in the financial market needs to give back, but is very careful not to donate to organizations Mendicant Group has done work with.

They also support Mukwashi Trust, a project in Zambia, giving donations to the school instead of sending holiday gifts to clients.

“We try to give back in ways that are not about chequebook philanthropy. It is doing something innovative that we can help support,” Gill said.

Gill grew up in Newfoundland and not particularly wealthy, though he’d never tell you that.

“There are a lot of people in this sector who try and root what they do in, ‘Oh I grew up poor,’ but I don’t really do that,” said Gill. “But does it inform the way that I look at stuff? Yeah.”

Gill is the kind of person who would pay for a stranger’s coffee if they forgot their wallet.

His need to help others came to him naturally doing his first piece of public service on his local library board when he was 13.

“A lot of Canadians come from a tradition of giving back to community, so there has always been some sort of volunteer component to what I do,” said Gill.

Gill deeply and genuinely believes that people’s natural instincts are to help others, and by empowering people and giving them the skills they need they to succeed, they will change the world.

He has implemented this belief with the creation of the SocialVentures Zone.

Gill cofounded the zone almost a year ago and it is now one of the 10 available at Ryerson.

The zone is an incubator that allows Ryerson students across all faculties to bring their ideas for social innovation to a place where they will receive coaching from experts, financing, and a physical space to collaborate and work on their project.

“What the zone allows us to do is allow people to incubate crazy ideas with innovative approaches with new ways to fund things,” said Gill.

The incubator was part of Gill’s work as Ryerson’s first social innovator in residence.

Gill has dedicated his career to creating, and helping others create, social change. Despite a lengthy and impressive list of schools and programs he has attended —  such as Stanford University and the Rotman School of Management — when asked what is the proudest of his career, he reminisced about a surprise party some of his students in the SocialVentures Zone threw for him.

“They said, ‘You are going to sit there, and say nothing, and listen to us talk about how you changed our lives,’” said Gill.

Gill is one of those rare people who have their dream job.

He is humble in his work, and though hopes he makes an impact on the people he tries to help, he doesn’t seek recognition or reassurance for doing so.

“I want to keep doing a variant of what I’m doing for the rest of my life,” said Gill.

Photos by David Chau, ENVISION’D, courtesy of TEDxRyersonU