Inspiring innovative alumni to dream big and keep trying

Donor generosity supports entrepreneurs through ups and downs

Sheila Graham - 17 July 2019

Donors Dr. Ray Muzyka and Leona De Boer speak with entrepreneurs at a ThresholdImpact University of Alberta Venture Mentoring Service event. The couple's gift to the university will make it possible for more alumni to benefit from the program.

After graduating from the University of Alberta, Kieran Ryan, '08 BSc, was living in central Calgary, walking to his job in the oil industry. A new car service in the city meant he didn't need to own a car, a novel experience. Ryan and another grad decided to take the car-sharing idea back to Edmonton.

"We bought two cars and tested it out," recalls Ryan. Their company, Pogo CarShare, launched with 10 cars and quickly grew to a fleet of 80. The company owns and pays for the costs related to owning a car (registration, insurance, repairs and gas) and the customer pays a fee to use the car for short-term or long-term trips.

But starting and running a business is stressful, and growing a company means dealing constantly with new challenges, such as building a team. Three months after launching Pogo, Ryan and his team heard about the Venture Mentoring Service (VMS).

VMS is run by the University of Alberta Alumni Association and provides support to alumni, faculty and staff through group mentorship. Through the program, startup teams are matched with a group of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. Working with these highly experienced mentors cultivates strong business leaders, who can grow their ventures - and their impact on the world.

The impact is about to get much bigger, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Ray Muzyka, '90 BMedSc, '92 MD, and Leona De Boer, '91 BSc(AgBus), who have donated $1 million to the university to support mentorship, training and the VMS program.

De Boer and Muzyka firmly believe in the power of mentorship and believe they would have benefited from a program like VMS during their career transitions - De Boer as she moved through a career in commercial banking as a senior banker at TD and Muzyka as he co-founded, grew and led the gaming giant BioWare after a career in family and rural emergency medicine.

Muzyka was the founding chair of VMS and remains the chair of its advisory board, as well as serving on multiple mentor teams. To date VMS has connected more than 61 venture teams with 108 mentors. The demand is high - the program has a waitlist both for entrepreneurs wanting to enter the program and mentors wanting to provide mentorship support.

"Entrepreneurship is lonely and challenging, and it can be difficult to see the best path forward," says Muzyka. "Combining diverse, experienced perspectives shines a light for entrepreneurs, illuminating more options. Group mentorship through VMS provides new viewpoints through coaching, by asking the right questions."

De Boer finds reward in helping to build a stronger business community through VMS. "When focused on the day-to-day, it's easy to get into a certain groove. Programs like VMS allow entrepreneurs to think creatively and find other solutions."

Talking with mentors made a big difference to Ryan and the Pogo CarShare team. "VMS really helped us to mature as entrepreneurs," says Ryan. "We had the support of smart people with great experience willing to sit down and chat about the business. It was amazing to have access to that kind of sounding board."

To honour the donation from De Boer and Muzyka, the U of A program is now called the ThresholdImpact University of Alberta Venture Mentoring Service. The couple founded ThresholdImpact, an angel investment company focusing on impact investments in disruptive information technology, new media and medical innovations with social entrepreneurs who are passionate and capable.

"The mission of the VMS program is to develop, empower and inspire U of A alumni to become successful entrepreneurs and leaders," says Sean Price, associate vice-president of Alumni Relations. "This generous gift will enable us to expand the breadth of the program and support more entrepreneurs."

Visit the ThresholdImpact University of Alberta Venture Mentoring Service website to learn more about applying for mentorship or becoming a mentor.