Waterloo Region’s spirit of innovation is known across Canada and the world. You can’t turn a corner here without seeing an example of it, from the startups building the next great app or product in the University of Waterloo's Velocity program to Wilfrid Laurier University's Launchpad to the scaling companies coming out of the Accelerator Centre and here at Communitech. That spirit of entrepreneurship isn’t just for tech companies. Local business entrepreneurs in restaurants, retail, brewing and more are creating the businesses that fuel our local economy.

All of these businesses are also dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tech companies have moved to remote work to keep driving their businesses forward. Local companies have taken advantage of programs like Digital Main Street to digitize their operations.

While the current generation of entrepreneurs looks forward to some return to normalcy in 2021, the next generation are learning how to take an idea and turn it into a business from the team at Junior Achievement Waterloo Region.

In a typical school year, Junior Achievement Waterloo Region serves more than 5,000 local students at 60-plus schools. This year, fewer students took part due to the move to remote learning in the spring.

The team at Junior Achievement knew early on that they’d need to pivot their programming from in-classroom to online. As with many organizations, Junior Achievement's national organization was already working on their digital transformation plan before the pandemic made that change a necessity.

“Nationally, we've actually had a bit of a project on the go to digitize a lot of our work,” said Murray Flanagan, Chair of the Board at Junior Achievement Waterloo Region. “It's been kind of in the hopper for a few years and 2020 just emphasized and escalated the work we had to do on that.”

Junior Achievement programs include classroom-based activities that teach students the fundamentals of everything from the role of money to business plans to how to manage their personal finances.

Outside the classroom, Junior Achievement offers its signature Company Program. It’s an after-school program where high school students create real products that they market and sell to paying customers. “They produce and sell the product, they do the accounting, they do HR, they become a real business,” Flanagan said.

The move to remote learning for the end of the 2019-2020 school year threw a wrench in both the in-classroom and Company programming. The spring Company Program session had four weeks left when the lockdowns began. “They had to kind of come to an abrupt end. It was unfortunate, but we were able to host our annual awards banquet for them virtually. It was nice to be able to still put something together to recognize what they did.”

As the reality of the lockdowns hit, Junior Achievement began rolling out virtual programming. While there initially wasn't a large uptake due to school boards and teachers adapting to remote learning, Flanagan and Junior Achievement wanted to make sure they had something to offer for teachers who wanted to continue the financial programming for their students.

"Through the summer, [the national organization] were able to fine tune some of that programming and develop more programming," added Flanagan. "I think we've done a pretty decent job of finding a way to still be relevant and valuable to students and teachers."

With in-classroom learning returning this fall, Junior Achievement started offering both classroom-based and virtual programming for teachers to use. The organization also offers a self-directed program for students who don't have access to the courses in their classrooms. “A keen student who wants to get this education can log on to our learning management portal and enroll themselves and guide themselves through the program,” said Flanagan.

The rise of the side hustle and small business powered by Etsy, Shopify and other e-commerce platforms is also driving more interest in Junior Achievement. “I think what has done is created a greater interest in young people to explore these options,” said Flanagan. “We live in a great region for entrepreneurship. Many students have seen what some of their parents have done, so they’ve developed an interest. Anybody with an idea and a bit of financial acumen can create their own little business.”

Looking forward to 2021, Junior Achievement is hoping to regain the level of student reach they've had in the past. “We had a lot of young people that didn’t have the advantage that other students in previous years had,” Flanagan said.

Many educators see the Junior Achievement programming as an opportunity to help deliver better financial literacy education for their students. “This is almost a premade plan that they can deliver, whether they’re doing remote learning or in-class learning.”

For Flanagan, the new year offers the hope of a return to normal – not only for Junior Achievement but for all Canadian businesses. “I think the biggest thing that we need to regain, and not just in our community, but nationally, is confidence,” said Flanagan. “We need some confidence in the community that this isn’t going to be the end of the world. Whether we ever get back to the previous normal is yet to be seen. But we’re all hoping someday we get back closer to it.”