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Can technology be leveraged for social good?

Socially conscious zone startups Ulula and Eatonomy win at InnovateTO150 showcase
Category:Canada 150
By: Will Sloan
November 21, 2017
Arisa Goldstone and Vera Belazelkoska

Photo: Arisa Goldstone and Vera Belazelkoska from Ulula present at the InnovateTO150 showcase on November 3.

Ryerson businesses showed that technology can be leveraged for social good at the InnovateTO150, external link showcase on November 3.

A collaboration between Ryerson, York University, OCAD, University of Toronto, and the City of Toronto, InnovateTO150 brought together Toronto’s next generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs to demonstrate their ideas.

Named “Best Social Enterprise” and receiving $30,000, the Social Ventures Zone and DMZ startup Ulula aims to move us closer to truly ethical production. Ulula provides a platform for companies and governments to make ethical business decisions through greater supply-chain transparency. The company has developed a technology to measure a supplier’s labour and social accountability standards to help clients make informed, ethical decisions.

The business uses mobile technology to connect workers and community members to an anonymous reporting and feedback channel. It allows for direct, real-time dialogue to report safety violations and human rights abuses in industries like energy, mining, and manufacturing, and allows communication between workers and high-level stakeholders. “Mobile tech is ubiquitous—people may not even have access to clean water, but they have access to mobile phones,” said Vera Belazelkoska,who directs programs and partnerships, and works with Arisa Goldstone, Antoine Heuty, and Manu Kabahizi. “How can we leverage these connections? We have these technologies, and even without smartphones or the Internet, users can report with a simple text message or voice survey.”

The startup is part of the Social Ventures Zone and are alumni of the DMZ, and now based at the IBM Innovation Space. Belazelkoska says that the incubators have been crucial to building momentum. “Though we were very passionate, we had limited capital to run on, and we didn’t have a community. It was beneficial to have access to a community that could help us to refine our pitch, connect to investors, leverage grants, and move beyond the kitchen table and build networks.” The prize money will help Ulula fund an ambitious study of working conditions in India’s textile and garment industry, monitoring for forced labour, child labour, and human trafficking.

Winning “Best Startup Enterprise” and $15,000, Eatonomy, external link is a unique startup that finds use for the food that stores and restaurants might otherwise throw away. The mobile app connects retailers with customers who can purchase much-needed food at a reduced rate while also providing suppliers with a new revenue stream. The business, incubated at iBoost and the SocialVentures Zone, has a personal connection for Ryerson engineering ’17 graduate Maleeha Alvi, who cofounded the business with husband Shaheryar Ahmad (Ryerson engineering '16).

“In second year, I worked at a grocery store while I lived off campus,” said Alvi. “I noticed that we take a lot of food and just throw it out—food that is perfectly fine and safe to eat. I was surviving on the part-time income I made from the grocery store to pay my rent, and I would go home and not have enough to go down to the store to buy food. I’d go home and eat crackers and peanut butter after I had just thrown out food I could have eaten. So, there’s a personal motivation from my end to do something about the unnecessary food waste.”

The $15,000 prize will help Eatonomy expand its staff, said Alvi. “Finances for startups are tight, especially with the added dynamic of being a couple—we have to pay the bills and sustain the household. Having $15,000 allows us to get the extra help that we need. Now we need more feet on the ground and more help with marketing—basically, increasing the size of our team.”

Now a graduate, Alvi cites the zone learning network as her most important experience at Ryerson. “There are huge learning opportunities at the zones,” said Alvi. “The services and the mentorships and the coaching you get are unparalleled for students. People normally pay to have spaces and mentorships like this. If there’s one thing at Ryerson I would tell students to take advantage of, it’s the zones.”

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