Canadian Spark: In Conversation with Studio.89 Co-founder, Sheryl Sharma
Written by: Radyah Khan
We’re back with our second blog post, and as promised we got to talking with Sheryl Sharma, Co-founder of Studio.89. We were excited to get in touch with Sheryl, as she is a strong advocate of non-profiteering and a fellow business owner that works hard to make a difference in her local community. We wanted to connect to learn more about how Studio.89, a cafe and community-hub, came about and what we can expect from its future.
Here’s how it went:
What propelled you to start Studio.89?
SS: I will answer this in multiple parts! Firstly, Studio.89 is the project of Youth Troopers for Global Awareness (YTGA). A youth-led, non-profit organization that has been actively involved in the Mississauga and surrounding area for a decade. YTGA began as a group of high school students (I was not involved in this part!). They felt the world’s injustices were difficult to do much about, given their small size and just how large the world actually is.
They were compelled to launch a website, ytga.com, which featured written pieces and expressive articles about their passions. From there, they encouraged and empowered youth through various art forms to make a difference in their community and to be social justice warriors.
Through our experiences with YTGA, we found three things.
1. There was a lack of free venues for non-profits and community organizations to work out of. When we held fundraisers, 75% of the fundraised profits would end up as venue charges, versus going to the actual cause.
2. There was a lack of fair-trade options and understanding of what “fair-trade” means.
3. There were very limited free resources for young people to take advantage of to help them fuel their passions.
YTGA then decided to focus its efforts on improving these three areas, and their desire to achieve sustainability in a world where funding is consistently being cut is essentially what brought Studio.89 to life. As a business, we are a two-part concept: 1. An all non-profit and community-based hub that functions as a social enterprise and non-profit revenue generator. 2. A fair-trade café that backs our Artademic Resource Centre, where we work toward filling all of the gaps we have recognized within the city and its surrounding area.
Our goal was really to be there for our community and all of our neighbors, which is why we launched Studio.89. After four years of conceptual phasing, we opened our doors in March 2014.
What do you look for in team members in order to keep Studio.89 running and successful in accomplishing its purpose?
SS: Team members must be passionate. This is not a million dollar business – but we can help hone in on creating million dollar minds and projects. We do so by simply providing a safe workspace and an inspirational, community-centric hub of activity. Team members need to know and recognize the value of our space and be willing to commit to its advancement within the community. They also must have a great sense of humour ☺
What is your ultimate wish for Studio.89 as a non-profit in terms of its future - are you looking to open up more locations or is this the type of business that's one-of-a-kind?
SS: We would love to see a Studio.89 in every city or region. We feel passionately that everyone needs to make use of this space, but our capacity is of course limited by our location. It would be really great to see the expansion of this social enterprise model, and it has always been in our plans to help as many people and communities as possible.
We can only do that once we achieve sustainability ourselves, so of course that is every non-profit’s main goal – to achieve something that can stand on its own two feet and then eventually and hopefully branch out even further, to as many locations as possible that are in need of and would appreciate this type of space.
"I think Canadians tend to be a lot more loving in many ways – and we emulate this quality by doing our very best at being valuable members of our community, as any good Canadian would do."
How does running a business work when you're a non-profit and how did you plan for this type of venture financially, given its nature?
SS: We don’t ever expect to be completely funding free (although that would be nice!). We are on route to achieving at least 75% of our revenues through café sales, relying on grant funding from either the province of Ontario (Trillium), or the city of Mississauga for the remaining 25%. We currently receive funding generously from both of these organizations, who helped us shape our plan of reaching semi-sustainability within five years of our operations – and we are currently in year three.
The planning of this initiative was four years in the making. We went to workshops at MaRS Discovery District, spoke with various financial planners who approved our business plan, got advice from entrepreneurs, and made friends everywhere. It was and remains to be a true community effort, especially considering about 95% of the stuff in our space has been donated by community members and/or corporate organizations that are also interested in supporting their communities.
Our start-up included a lot of boot-strapping as well. We are self-funded in addition to the support we receive from our community, the province, city and now our revenues. We spent two years collecting the various items that you now see in our space, and we stored them in our own personal homes, garages and backyards as we waited for our opening day (our parents were very angry with us!). But when we were ready to move into our location, they understood we were all a little crazy and very passionate about what we were doing.
How do you feel people are responding to Studio.89 since its conception and what separates it from other cafés? Could you tell us a little bit about being a free events space and how important that is for fellow non-profits?
SS: At first, and even now really, it’s been hard to communicate exactly what we are. So we’ve moved to saying we are a “community hub”. When people hear that, they just seem to get it more, and if they’re still confused it isn’t really hindering us because everyone enjoys the café aspect of it, along with all of the home-baked goods and various dietary options we offer - there’s something for everyone! The best part is actually that every purchase supports this space and what it intends to achieve.
In terms of being a free events space, it has been incredibly important to us as a non-profit ourselves, to offer a free space for other non-profits and community organizations to function out of. In our experience, venue rentals are difficult to pay for and when you are doing non-profit work, 100% of your fundraised costs should go toward your cause. For example, a prominent artist in our community wanted to hold an art auction for Syria. By using our space free of cost, she fundraised nearly $3,000 – all of which went directly to helping Syrian refugees instead of having to pay venue costs. We just encourage everyone walking through our doors to make a purchase within our café space – because in the end that’s what will keep us going.
Do you feel Studio.89 is distinctly Canadian?
SS: I would say that we are very Canadian in a way, yes. We are giving. We love to help. We are for peace and we support ethical business. We’re all about preservation, and we are for humans, animals, and the planet - equally. I think Canadians tend to be a lot more loving in many ways – and we emulate this quality by doing our very best at being valuable members of our community, as any good Canadian would do.
What’s the best thing about being a part of Studio.89?
SS: We love coming together to support our communities. Plus, we love partnering with fellow non-profits and opening our doors to NGOs and individuals (and even corporate partners!) for events. Check out our calendar at studio89.org for upcoming events and consider booking your next event in our space.
As the Co-founder of a non-profit, Sheryl shared some great insights with us on what it takes to be a part of an organization that is geared toward helping its community members. Plus, she shared some great info on the types of people Studio.89 relies on to keep fueling their passion toward bettering and encouraging youth and adults alike when it comes to development.
Don’t forget to hit-up Studio.89 if you’re looking for a positive atmosphere and a great workspace with some delicious treats! Check out studio89.org to learn more and get involved, and join us next month to learn more about the fresh and creative ways Canadians are giving back.