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Mark Brand Inspires Lethbridge to Pursue Social Entrepreneurship

May 29, 2018
Mark Brand opened his first restaurant, Boneta, in 2007 in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. In the decade-plus since, he has parlayed his success as a chef and restauranteur into a series of social impact ventures with a shared commitment to food security, education, training and employment for marginalized people.

Brand’s projects demonstrate the power of entrepreneurship to support local community and he shared some of the lesson’s he’s learned along the way at the May 16 Food For Thought – Entrepreneurship, Leadership & the Economy breakfast hosted by Economic Development Lethbridge with support from the Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta (RINSA).

“We have to know what we don't know.”

In 2010, Brand took over the butcher shop Save On Meats, a Vancouver institution since 1957, with the aim of transforming it into a diner and community hub. Given its proximity to the notorious Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, Brand wanted to ensure the local community wasn’t marginalized further.

“Some folks won’t interact with people on the street and give them money because they think they'll use it for drugs or alcohol,” says Brand. “So I created this plastic coin you buy for three bucks in my diner and you can go up to someone on the street, pull the token out of your pocket, say, here you go and they can grab one of five sandwiches, vegan and gluten free options available.”

Brand says he had no idea how the token program would go over at first.

“I thought we do two or three a day. We did 120 the first day and we just cracked 113,000 redemptions,” he said. “The downtown core of Vancouver is 300,000 people, so that's two-thirds of it. That's data, but what does it mean? It means people care, it means that they want to be involved and they want to help. We knew it, but nobody else believed us. Now they have to believe us.”

Find the value in inclusivity

Brand says the growing push in the business world for more diverse and inclusive hiring practices is a positive, but says employers need to do so for the right reasons. 

“Are you just uncomfortably ticking boxes because you feel like you have to, or because you want to because you see the value? If you're going to give a person the job because HR just said you should and then it will look better on the corporate report, that's not helpful to anybody.”

Brand’s enterprises all utilize inclusive hiring practices, giving opportunities to people facing barriers to employment from criminal records to addictions to physical or developmental disabilities, a practice which turns out to have a significant impact on the bottom line.

“Across Canada in the service industry, over 75 per cent of people turn over per annum. People with a significant barrier turnover across the country at less than 25 per cent and in my business it’s less than seven per cent,” he explains. “It about $2,000 to train a new employee so if you're a small business you want to do as little training as possible year after year. we're able to operate because of this, that’s how we’re able to stay open.”

Do what you're amazing at and share your gifts.

“I get email and phone calls every week from people saying ‘Man, I just want to come cook with you. I just I think I can really help,’” said Brand. “And I ask them ‘Are you a chef?’ and nine times out of 10 they say ‘no, I don't cook.’ Well what do you do? You’re a lawyer, you’re an accountant? Go be a lawyer or be an accountant and help a non-profit do the work they need to do. Donate an hour to an organization that you care about that you would like to work with.”

While much of Brand’s message focused on the importance of building community by sharing abundance, he also encouraged attendees to “leave the world a better place than you found it.” By embracing the idea that similarities bring us together and differences different helps us grow, how can you challenge yourself to leave the staus quo behind and move foreward with a commitment to social good?

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