Mark Dhillon doesn’t have to tout the efforts that led to his MBA from Carleton’s Sprott School of Business or a gig at a top entrepreneur incubator – his impressive resume speaks for him.
“I got lucky,” maintains the Gloucester native about his induction as a 2016 fellow in this year’s Venture for Canada (VFC) program. The incubator has just a three per cent success rate among candidates and Dhillon bested more than 1,700 other applicants to get in.
“It’s basically a huge community coming together to try build a better economy for Canada,” says Dhillon.
Founded in 2014, Venture for Canada bridges the gap between the brightest university graduates and promising startups across the country. The five-week training camp for this year’s 58 fellows is as intensive as its six-month application process.
VFC was based on the model of Venture for America in 2014, though they are not officially affiliated. To prevent top graduates from business schools from taking on “safe and lucrative” professions after graduating, VFC is designed to encourage new growth and risk-taking in all sectors.
As the son and sibling of mechanical and computer engineers, Dhillon took up the family’s calling after high school. But he found a different vocation on a trip to India in 2014, where he was struck by rampant poverty and decided he would try to effect positive change through international development.
“Learning about business really explains how the world works and how people think,” said Dhillon. “I knew at the same time that I only wanted to work for myself, so doing the MBA was me just following my heart.”
To know anything about Dhillon is to know how loyal he is to his family and friends.
He changed career paths “at the last minute,” which, in his terms, means completing a Ryerson master’s degree in civil engineering before taking a year to travel and to start a sunglasses company with friends.
Shitty Shades (or SH Shades in polite company) was co-founded in 2014 by Dhillon, Chris Lascelle, and Charlie Bowins. The latter developed the concept of dispensable and affordable sunglasses that were still stylish. Bowins was a staple of Ottawa’s skateboard community who was only 27 when he died in his sleep on March 3, 2015. His memory is preserved at the Centretown skate park christened Charlie Bowins Skate Park and in his brand’s best-selling style known as “C Bones.”
“Chris and I met after Charlie’s funeral and did our best to launch the company how he would have wanted it,” says Dhillon. “We didn’t care if they sold, we just knew we had to stay true to his vision and our own.”
But the brand did sell, with support from the community where Dhillon, Lascelle and Bowins grew up.
The same principle of taking risks for the sake of passion projects runs strong throughout VFC fellows, all of whom are prepared to move for work and face unpredictable outcomes.
Once the training camp ends on June 17, Dhillon will try to join a startup that clicks with his personal values and hopes.
“My long-term goal is to get back to developing communities, because that’s what sparked this for me,” says Dhillon. “Right now I’m not skilled or well-known enough, but I’m hoping that in five or 10 years I can start my own business and focus on developing communities around the world.
“I want to help the people around the world who don’t have the resources to help themselves.”