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New minor in Innovation and Zone Learning marks milestone in startup world

Program open to all students, increasing equity, diversity and inclusion
By: Lindsey Craig
November 12, 2021
 A Black male and white female student from the Design Fabrication Zone shown working together on a project

Above, students from the Design Fabrication Zone in action on a project.

When Kanan Shah arrived in Canada in 2015, she was a completely different person.

“I was so shy, I wouldn’t even go talk to people. I didn’t know that I was capable of making an impact or doing anything,” she said.

Fast forward to today - Shah has taught entrepreneurship to students at Oxford University through a paid internship, won a Global Innovation Challenge thanks to her team’s pitch about a water sanitation solution (which brought her to India to meet investors and community leaders), launched startups - Pura, through the Social Ventures Zone, and Late Night Labs, through the Science Discovery Zone - and today, is continuing various pursuits.

The 25-year-old, who also studied entrepreneurship in her undergraduate degree, and who’s now completing a master’s of science, entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Southern California, says all of it is thanks to her involvement with Zone Learning at Ryerson. 

“It changed my life,” said Shah.

New minor creates new opportunities 

It’s the type of experience that Farhan Zia, Zone Learning’s senior manager of strategic initiatives, hopes to see more of - thanks to a bold and historic step recently announced: the opportunity for students to incorporate Innovation and Zone Learning directly in their studies through coursework and a minor.

“It will be the first time that students can get an academic credential for zone activities,” Zia said. 

The minor is offered jointly by The Creative School’s RTA School of Media and by the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Science. ZON 100 is led by instructors from the RTA School of Media. Through the minor, students have the opportunity to take courses from each of these faculties, the Ted Rogers School of Management and the Faculty of Arts.

Noting that it’s the first program of its kind, Zia continued, “In many institutions, curriculum that teaches entrepreneurship and innovation asks students to develop an idea into a venture within the confines of a class. Our new program adds the opportunity for the student to bring their project into the real world by coordinating in-class work with their activities in a zone incubator for some of the credits.”

Kanan Shah is standing, looking at the camera with a big smile

Kanan Shah, above, says her involvement with Zone Learning taught her that she can make a difference.  (Photo courtesy of Kanan Shah)

Increasing equitable access

Zone Learning at Ryerson was launched in 2010 with the DMZ, and now includes 10 different zones for ventures specializing in everything from sustainable energy innovations to fashion startups and health-care companies to legal technologies. Students who join have the chance to work on real projects, causes, companies and startups with access to mentors, innovative workspaces and technologies, networking opportunities, funding and more.

The new opportunity to take an open elective, such as ZON 100, or the Innovation and Zone Learning minor, makes a student’s work in the incubators part of their degree, and therefore, significantly more accessible.

“Until now, if a student wanted to join a zone, they’d have to do it on top of their full course load. This means that the system favours students who don't need to have a job, who don’t have dependents, who don’t have a long commute, or who don’t come from cultural backgrounds that favour more traditional career paths,” says Richard Lachman, Director, Zone Learning and faculty member with The Creative School.

“Equitable access to programs and resources is a major hurdle in entrepreneurship and this is one step toward overcoming that.” -Richard Lachman, Director, Zone Learning and faculty member with The Creative School

Open to students of all programs and beyond

Lachman points out that since the program is housed centrally, Zone Learning has already been a leader in accessibility, recognizing that entrepreneurs and innovators come from any background and discipline. Most, if not all other universities, house their incubators one faculty, usually business or engineering - limiting the opportunities to students within those programs.

Uniquely, roughly half of zone members are neither Ryerson students nor alumni, but members of the wider community, whose diverse perspectives and lived experiences benefit the multidisciplinary, multistage zone network.

Since Zone Learning at Ryerson is open to anyone across all faculties and programs, a more diverse range of students - in disciplines from theatre to psychology - are able to join - and now, earn academic credit for their efforts.

Marie-Blanche Bertrand is one of those students. In her fourth year in creative industries, with a focus on acting and dance studies and storytelling in media, she says had it not been for the chance to take ZON 100 this fall, she wouldn’t have had time to begin her current project - a podcast for students about mental health.

“Being a student plus having a part-time job, to be able to pursue this as part of my degree was a really motivating factor,” she said, noting that she may pitch her podcast - The Student Wellness Project (external link) , to the Transmedia Zone.

“A student may have a really amazing idea, but lack the knowledge or skills to know how to get it off the ground,” said Lachman. “In Zone Learning, they’re going to gain not only the skills and the knowledge, but also the confidence to take their idea forward.”

It’s that confidence that resonates with Shah most.

Throughout her journey, she says, “I began to realize, ‘Oh, I can actually do things and make a difference.’”

“You just learn so much,” she added. “They have so many workshops and sessions on how to pitch. They’re there for whatever you need help with. You meet so many interesting people and have this amazing community doing the same type of thing - you feel supported and validated.”

A young man wearing high tech equipment demonstrates virtual reality technology in the Transmedia Zone.

A startup founder demonstrates virtual reality technology in the Transmedia Zone.

‘There is definitely inequality’

Opening more doors for people like Shah is one of the goals, says Zia.

“When we look around at the startup world, you don't need to look very hard to see that there is definitely inequality. We know that it’s vastly male, especially in leadership levels,” he said. 

He notes that pitch competitions, such as Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank, heavily favour native English speakers who are predominantly male and white, and who have had some exposure to executives and the business world.

“But if you are, say, a young woman of colour or from a different culture, there are power dynamics in those rooms that can be intimidating,” he said.

“Being a diverse institution, in a diverse city, we see this as an opportunity for us to be a leader in advancing access to innovation and entrepreneurship within Canada,” he said, pointing to other Zone Learning initiatives to increase diversity, such as the Indigenous Fashion Support program, the Black Innovation program and the Women Founders program at the DMZ.

Valuable skills gained

Even if a student doesn’t pursue a career as an entrepreneur, Zia says, the experience, mindset and competencies that come with building a real venture, interacting with customers, stakeholders and team members, working in unfamiliar environments and learning by doing help sharpen the difficult to quantify skills companies are looking for in new hires.

Shah agrees, and says that a 2015 party at the Launch Zone (now the DMZ Sandbox), which she attended simply because she was “new in town and didn’t have any family or friends yet,” was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“Zone Learning helps you identify and learn what skills you’re good at, and shows you that you don’t have to find a traditional job. Because there’s just so much out there, ” she says.

She also offers a final tip: “Take chances. Explore opportunities. Embrace the unknown. None of this would have happened if I didn’t go to the event that night.”


Those interested in taking a minor in Innovation and Zone Learning can begin without an idea for a project or startup. Early courses can help students find their interest and focus, helping them identify a venture to pursue in courses like ZON 100, which launched this past fall.


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