Adding Dimensions to the ‘Single Story’ of Mental Health Through Social Finance

By Narinder Dhami

Ouattara is on his second loan. With the first loan, he built a theatre in his community – a small covered space seating over 20 individuals with a large CRT television against the front wall. His subsequent loan was used to add a restaurant to this, his growing entertainment complex in Zorogho - a small village located in Burkina Faso (West Africa). Ouattara’s entrepreneurial drive, coupled with microfinance, enabled him to establish a stable income stream. His business filled a need in the community and became a gathering spot for many. He was able to send his children to school and access medical services for his family.

Ryan is on his second loan too. He runs a variety of web businesses and stays competitive by adapting to the latest trends. After receiving his initial line of credit, allowing him to purchase inventory, Ryan was disbursed an additional round of financing. He was able to leverage this funding, in turn, to establish a credit relationship with a large Canadian bank. Today, Ryan no longer depends on government support (ODSP) payments. He has experienced an increase in his self-esteem and greater integration in the local economy and community. Ryan has received both financing and mentorship through his microfinance program. He has also started to save for a down payment on a future home.

Two entrepreneurs. Two successful businesses. Both were unable to access financing from mainstream financial institutions. Both are driven entrepreneurs with solid business plans to support their growth. Both have experienced economic and social benefits, and were empowered through capital. The difference was the setting: Ouattara is a client of a microfinance organization based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Ryan is part of a new targeted domestic microfinance project in Toronto, Canada.

While there are many similarities between domestic and international microfinance, there are also significant differences - one of which is reaching scale. In 2010, upon returning to Canada after working in microfinance throughout West Africa, I joined an innovative pilot exploring domestic microfinancing for entrepreneurs with mental health and addictions challenges within Ontario. Through generous funding from Sandra Rotman, the Rotman School of Management and the Center for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) collaborated to launch Rise Asset Development (Rise) to provide microfinance and mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs with mental health and addiction challenges. This year, we will focus on scaling the program across Ontario.

At Rise, our entrepreneurs face the same challenges that all entrepreneurs face – with the added complexity of managing their mental health or addiction challenge. Rise entrepreneurs are at the intersection of the following groups: people who currently have (or have had) mental health and/or addiction challenges; people who are unable to access mainstream financing from banks due to a lack of credit history or hiccups in their financial history; and people who are interested in self-employment. A significant number of this group are on government support, such as the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW).

Rise believes that people facing challenges should be provided with the right tools and connections to networks to help them get ahead. We assist individuals living with mental illness or addictions who face many added barriers when seeking and maintaining employment. The Rotman School of Management and CAMH support the advisory functions of Rise program delivery, lending their respective expertise in business mentorship, consulting and mental health support and services to enterpreneurs.

As an organization, we strive to achieve a number of objectives. Rise stems from the fundamental truth that meaningful employment forms an essential part of a person’s well-being. We work to assist business growth and create sustainable businesses, reduce reliance on government assistance, create jobs and rebuild credit history. Rise is committed to helping reduce stigma at the personal, family and community levels through education and outreach. We foster social inclusion by connecting entrepreneurs with mental health and addiction issues with business professionals and the larger community.

Yesterday, the CAMH Social Entrepreneurism in Mental Health Equity (SEMH) awards ceremony was held at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. Developed by Dr. Sean Kidd and Dr. Kwame McKenzie, SEMH aims to highlight innovative and sustainable social enterprises. This year, Good Foot Delivery, Clean Works and Rise Asset Development were recognized among an impressive group of social enterprises that foster mental health equity and social inclusion. The audience - composed of health specialists, business professionals and government stakeholders - left the session with reinforced confidence in the ability of business principles to enable change in mental health equity.

Through highlighting and celebrating the successes of our entrepreneurs, Rise hopes to add dimensions to the ‘single story’ of people with mental health and addiction challenges.

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