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November 21, 2019 10:33 AM

Conestoga entrepreneur uses co-op to launch startup

A co-op work term helped Christina Vanderkooy embrace her entrepreneurial spirit. The 2019 IT Innovation and Design graduate launched a startup with support from the Conestoga Entrepreneurship Collective (CEC) and the college’s enterprise co-op program. 

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2019 IT Innovation and Design graduate Christina Vanderkooy launched Consolidated Learning with support from the college’s CEC and enterprise co-op program.

Conestoga’s IT Innovation and Design advanced diploma includes an optional co-op stream with four consecutive work terms. Integrating academic studies with program-related experiences in the workplace, co-op provides relevant hands-on learning in support of students’ education and future careers. Before starting the program, Vanderkooy had a desire to find a placement to support her interest in growing a startup that developed mobile applications. 

“Waterloo Region has one of the fastest growing tech sectors in North America,” said Vanderkooy. “I wanted to find a program that gave me the skills I needed to contribute to the tech community and explore my interest in developing a startup.”

Vanderkooy and her business partners Steve Sutherland and David Lenton founded Consolidated Learning to provide businesses with a web-based learning application platform they developed called RASA. 

“RASA allows businesses to deliver timely content to defined audiences through their own branded app,” said Vanderkooy. “It can be used, for example, to build an online community, educate customers about new products or create standardized training through rich content such as images, videos and podcasts.” 

Through the enterprise co-op program, Vanderkooy used her first work term to develop a business plan, laying the foundation for Consolidated Learning and to bring Sutherland and Lenton onboard. 

“Enterprise co-ops offer ambitious students enrolled in co-op programs the opportunity to earn credit while building their business,” said Rose Mastnak, director, Conestoga Entrepreneurship Collective. “Students receive one-on-one guidance, feedback and direction from a coach, and engage with industry experts and business leaders to gain informative insights.”

Largely self-directed, the enterprise co-op program consists of a 12-week work term where students have the flexibility to work towards a goal that consists of completing a comprehensive business plan, building a prototype or even launching their startup. Students are required to put in the same number of hours as those participating in traditional co-ops and meet weekly with a coach.

“Students do have a defined road map with weekly deliverables to get them to where they need to be at the end of the term,” said Mastnak, “but because the program relies on self-motivation, it helps build on skills like work ethic, time management and decision making.”

According to Mastnak, CEC sees on average 20 students a year through the enterprise co-op program who are there to grow their business and entrepreneurial knowledge through mentors, industry-led workshops and market research. Students are also supported through a series of discovery assignments that focus on major business components, such as marketing, operations and finance. Students with multiple co-op work terms may have the opportunity to continue through the program for other 12-week placements. 

Vaderkooy decided to dedicate the entirety of her four co-op terms to developing her startup after seeing progress in the first term. Through the enterprise co-op program, she was able to recruit Sutherland and Lenton as professional partners, develop products and liaise with clients to create business opportunities. Vanderkooy and her partners were even successful in taking Consolidated Learning to the Accelerator Centre and the AC JumpStart program.

An innovative seed funding and mentorship program funded by FedDev Ontario, AC JumpStart is aimed at helping technology startups establish and grow their business in southern Ontario. The program is delivered in partnership with Conestoga, the University of Guelph, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Vanderkooy said funding received through the program enabled the company to hire consultants as they prepared to take on their first major client. 

“We’re currently working with a local non-profit with plans to use RASA to onboard their internal staff,” said Vanderkooy. “They want to use the platform initially for internal training and communications, and then expand to engage their volunteer base, community partners and donors.” 

As Vaderkooy and her team continue to work with clients and explore options, she credits Conestoga and the connections she made through the college as a key to her success. 

“So much of what Conestoga offers is not just in education, but in the connection to people in the community who can help get you where you want to go,” said Vanderkooy. “Faculty with industry experience and partnerships with local businesses for real-world learning opportunities are just two examples of how the college is invested in the community and your success. I would encourage students to take advantage of those real-world connections.”

The IT Innovation and Design advanced diploma program at Conestoga prepares graduates to help companies effectively compete on a global scale through the development of skills in graphic design, content creation, user experience, software development and marketing in order to design new and competitive software applications. The program’s optional co-op stream includes four consecutive four-month work terms. 

The Conestoga Entrepreneurship Collective, formerly the Centre for Entrepreneurship (C4E), is a network of faculty, coaches, mentors, entrepreneurs, community leaders and organizations committed to supporting the entrepreneurial potential within the college community. CEC provides a variety of services that include business incubation in the Venture Lab, experiential education co-ops and interactive workshops.

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