Samantha Gardner recently graduated from the University of Alberta with a business degree in commerce. In May 2022 she was named the 2022 HSBC Women’s Entrepreneurial Leader by Enactus Canada and HSBC Bank Canada. Among many other activities and projects, Samantha is also one of the co-founders for the non-profit company Sunshine Connected and also co-founded and co-chairs the University of Alberta student club Women in Leadership. On January 18, 2023 Samantha answered some questions from me about Sunshine Connected, Women in Leadership and words of advice she has for other aspiring women entrepreneurs.
*Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
You co-founded Sunshine Connected with Jenna Mulji and Aminah Beg. Did you want to talk about why you all decided to start Sunshine Connected?
So for Sunshine Connected myself and my co-founders, during COVID we realized that there’s a lot of support that students and older adults can provide each other. And also that we have an aging population in Canada and we really just wanted to do something within the community to support that.
So working with the Center for Aging + Brain Health Innovation in Ontario, we won a grant from them and they were able to support us with the development of the program. So the program is about three weeks long and students meet with their buddy that they get paired with. That’s an older adult. And they each teach each other a new skill. So after the program is over, they’ve each learned a new skill and they’ve also got to interact with someone from a completely different generation. So that’s the gist of sunshine connected.
So the best way for students to get involved with Sunshine Connected would be through the website?
I’m a student as well, and I think it’s really impressive that you guys were able to start your own nonprofit as students. I wouldn’t even know how to begin or how to find these opportunities. I was wondering, how did you find out about these opportunities?
During the COVID lockdown, I was reading a newsletter from a group called FLIK. I used to be on their newsletter and they would send out all these for opportunities for students. And our school does the same thing, right? We get all those emails.
So I would always read through [the newsletters] like every single time. And I found this one program at Queen’s University that was online and it was called the DDQIC program. So I just signed up. I didn’t know anybody at the time doing it. I asked my friend Jenna Mulji if she wanted to do it with me, and then we formed a group within the program and got into the program. And so we spent four months going through an accelerator with Queen’s University.
In that program we got exposed to starting an organization, starting a company, all the different contacts in Ontario specifically. And then they connected us to CABHI, that organization I mentioned before. We went through a mini accelerator with them and they granted us funding as well to run the nonprofit, since we don’t charge money at the moment for our services.
I mean, I was in the same boat. If you asked me three years ago if I would start a nonprofit I would be like: No way. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how to do that. I know what [non-profits are], but I wouldn’t know where to even start. And I think just really being in an accelerator and being around a community of people doing things like that was really pivotal. Because it makes you believe that you can. And it also helps you see the ideas that you can actually make an impact with.
So the focus of the accelerator was for ideas that would help COVID. Like they just wanted all the students to put all their energy into anything that would help the impacts of COVID.
So that’s how we got started. And then we kept doing more accelerators like that, including the League of Innovators program, and we just kept finding anything that we could apply for.
You also co-founded the University of Alberta student group Women in Leadership. Did you want to talk about why you decided to start Women in Leadership with your co-founders?
Women in Leadership started just after Sunshine Connected. So I didn’t want a plan to start something new, but I was in the Peter Lougheed Leadership College with my friends Kendrea and Haley. And, our professor sent us an email talking about women in leadership on campus and the opportunities we could create for other students.
We decided to meet and just talk about it and see if maybe we could start a club or a group. So at first it was just a group that would meet here and there. We’d invite our friends and we’d get speakers to come in and talk to us about their experience in leadership. And eventually we said: Okay, let’s start a club out of this. We had never started a club before and didn’t know how it worked.
Now with Women in Leadership, we have events, opportunities and eventually we’ll have mentorship for students. We’re still getting off the ground. It’s our first year running it, but in the past year we’ve hosted over six events with over a total of 200 people and raised $5,000 for women on campus. So it’s a scholarship that will launch next year and run for five years, giving out $1,000 each year to women on campus.
How can any other women on campus get involved with Women in Leadership?
I think our Instagram would probably be the best way. Our Instagram is pretty active and we try to post a lot. You can always see when our events are, when we’re recruiting. We’re going to be recruiting really soon for our next team within the next two months.
Do you have any advice for any other women who are considering entrepreneurship?
Yeah, I guess even though I started things I’m still learning. And I think that it’s so important to just know that entrepreneurship isn’t quite a structured process. So, for example if you want to go to law school you have a more structured process where you do your best in your undergrad, get a good GPA, write the LSAT, go to law school. Which is awesome and also very difficult. But, there’s kind of a path laid out for you.
I think with entrepreneurship you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and knowing that you’re creating your own path. So you might work on it on the side. You might quit your job and work on it full time. You might do a nonprofit, you might do a for-profit or both. So I think really getting involved in these communities like League of Innovators, the DDQIC program, programs like Next 36 [can be really helpful]. There’s so many accelerators all around the country that are oftentimes free as well. And you get money sometimes. Like they’ll maybe give you a pitch competition where you can pitch your idea and get some money for the idea.
And just being open to being coachable and learning. I think you will make mistakes, even if you think you’re good at business. I took a business degree, but I still have so much to learn. I think it’s just being comfortable with not knowing [everything], but really putting your everything in. Every accelerator you can do, every person you can talk to — the more you put in the more that your organization will grow and hopefully impact more people.
And I’m really passionate about social impact. So clubs like Enactus UAB. I was a part of Enactus. They focus on projects at the university that will or do have social impact on the environment or people. So really considering “how will it help people?” and “how will it be measurable impact?” is really important too if you want to start something.
Those were all my questions, but I’m a bit curious now. I know you have a business degree, but was it a Bachelor of Commerce? Can you talk about your degree a bit more?
My degree is in a Bachelor of Commerce with a major in Strategic Management and a minor in Business Technology. And I think I tried to just take as many classes as I could to understand what I was interested in. And then towards the end, I started to realize that business technology specifically was what I was interested in. So I would say my degree was an explorative opportunity.
Another great resource for students that are in business or not but interested in entrepreneurship is eHUB. It’s a space on campus where they can go and work, kind of like a coworking space. But, you do have to apply.
And there’s also the Innovation and Entrepreneurship certificate. I didn’t take it, but early on I supported the certificate when it was launching. I didn’t have enough time to take it since I was graduating. But, getting involved in things like that, whether you’re in business or not, can be really helpful.
If anyone would like to learn more about Sunshine Connected you can find out more at their official website linked here. And more can be found out about the women in leadership club at their official instagram account @wil_ualberta. If anyone has any more questions for Samantha about entrepreneurship or just anything in general, you can reach out to her on LinkedIn.
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.