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Business Mentorship Needed for Entrepreneurs Who Live in the Downtown Eastside

Written by: Martha Grant

Date: Sept 28, 2022

Imagine changing the life of someone living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. That’s what Karen Flynn has done as a Business Mentor at Employ to Empower.

Karen offers her time supporting entrepreneurs as they navigate the landscape to build their business ideas and bring it successfully to market.

Employ to Empower offers 10 weeks of business workshops to Downtown Eastside residents. Once armed with marketing tools and business knowledge, these residents get support from a business mentor, like Flynn, who offers guidance as they get their businesses off the ground.

Looking back on her 23-year career as a communications consultant, Flynn reflects on the roadblocks she encountered along the way. In her 20s and 30s, Flynn learned to overcome challenges the hard way - alone. She was fearful of judgement and refused to ask for advice, thinking it would make her appear weak. As a result, she experienced many failures and struggles. Eventually she recognized the power of collaboration, and eventually, teamwork. Flynn learned to rely on her team’s ‘shared brilliance’ to innovate and create a new standard for client work. She knows first-hand that being part of a trusted team can boost confidence and business savvy.

“I want to do this for them - to achieve success on multiple levels sooner than I did.”

As she neared 50, Karen had begun considering her career options beyond a business communications consultant. She recognized that her long working hours and workaholic tendencies were limiting and she no longer felt the same contentment. She was looking for something new to challenge her and to grow as a human - it was to be a new chapter for her as she entered her second half century.

Hiring an executive coach helped Karen identify that she was so much more than how she identified herself - purely through the lens of her career and her work for clients. Together, they peeled and unpacked all that she had buried over the years which allowed Karen to appreciate her values and strengths in a different light.

This gift that her coach presented, peeling away layers of the onion, enticed Flynn to train as a coach herself, and to help others in the same way.

“I trained in the UK and I love it. I love what it gives to people - to see their eyes light up as they see all of themselves, not just the parts that make up a good employee or potential business owner. I choose to work with young leaders, first time managers, new entrepreneurs and startups. Their energy and passion is relentless and they put in the work to expand their perspectives.”

In the early spring of 2021, Karen became aware of the work that Employ to Empower does. The charity’s mandate to empower people and to change the public’s misconception of DTES residents resonated with her and prompted her to reach out to its founder.

“I recognize that people have a lot of drive and many want to do something with their lives, to regain control of their future. Sometimes, all it takes is a little nudge, a little support, and a little bit of help from the community at large, to get someone on their way. I love what the charity is doing and I am immensely proud of the entrepreneurs I’ve served so far”

After meeting with founder and executive director Christina Wong, Karen jumped in wholeheartedly as a volunteer mentor. She was matched with three entrepreneurs who had completed the 10 week training modules. As a mindset and business mentor, Karen has supported these business start-ups:

Paul-Christian Hansen - Live Model

Paul was looking for a way to be involved in the artistic world. He books sittings with studios for three hour sessions where artists come in to draw him. His unique look and his willingness to take direction have allowed his modelling business to thrive.

“I'm there as a mirror. I might prompt him and say, ‘ You're so proud of that job, why don't you ask them for a testimonial?’ Paul replies, `Oh, that's a good idea.’ We have those kinds of conversations - we explore together what his next steps should be. Every week, we think of new ways to widen his net in order to get more bookings from studios. Paul has had more bookings the past 7 months than he’s ever had in a full year - he’s proud of this achievement, and I am supremely happy that I have been able to unlock his potential.”

After almost 15 months of working together and mentorship, their relationship has grown and it’s an easy friendship - one where a sense of humour, empathy and support threads through every meeting.

“Mentorship for Paul has been very rewarding; it's been a privilege for me to to see him blossom as an entrepreneur and take the steps to have his best year yet ”

Julie Melanie Ruiz-Tagle - founder of Enviro Bag Evolution

As a trained seamstress, Julie has created a business around customized bags for use with mobility scooters. Her own mobility issues made her aware of this business opportunity and her handmade bags can be used by users of wheelchairs and strollers too.

Karen acknowledges that Julie is a natural entrepreneur and business person. She simply needed someone to listen, to bounce ideas off of, and to help her prioritize the steps to getting her business off the ground. What Karen loves most is hearing Julie talk about what she has achieved - a dream that she had for over 6 years, now a reality and developing every week with sales

“She is a very strong woman - a dynamo. Inherently, she is an ambitious entrepreneur with the work ethic to match. She thinks like an entrepreneur and we celebrate every small step.”

Julie is now sewing a steady stock of bags, marketing them on social media, and selling them through her own network at church and at various markets around Vancouver.

There continues to be stigma around the Downtown Eastside and its residents; however, Employ to Empower knows that the residents are worthy of investment. Many have endured hardships which have resulted in tough choices and lost years, but there is ambition and drive amongst many of them.

They are deserving of a boost to get their business ideas started, and that includes a kind and friendly face in the shape of a mentor. Someone who can provide time, patience, and some business suggestions to give them the motivation to take small, steady steps in the right direction.

“They are humans and they deserve a break. As a mentor, I can enrich someone's life by lifting them up. I give my time and energy to empower them, so they can gain self esteem, self confidence and that boost to go ‘hell yeah, I can do this’. It is magnificently rewarding.”

Karen Flynn’s story is an example of the positive impact one volunteer can have. Employ to Empower invites others in the business community to step forward as volunteers. A commitment of a few hours each week is all that is needed to support a new business and change a life.

Visit Employ to Empower where you can enroll as a mentor for a worthy and hardworking entrepreneur.

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