Interview with
Isabelle Genest - Mathieu Ouellet

Company
Petits entrepreneurs
Year
2016

Building the next generation, step by step .

Isabelle Genest and Mathieu Ouellet discovered the joy of entrepreneurship as children. It had such a positive impact on them that they made it their mission to encourage other young Quebecers to take the plunge. Today, they are the instigators of “La grande journée des petits entrepreneurs,” an initiative that allows 5- to 12-year-olds to develop a one-day microbusiness each spring. Meet the duo who wishes to inspire a new generation of business creators.

Her,

Isabelle is a true start-up enthusiast. A trained musician, she founded her own music school in her early twenties. In 2004, she landed a job with the Economic Development Agency in the Quebec City region, before she was even entirely sure which direction to go. Even so, she immediately felt a passion for technological entrepreneurship and deve-loped her career, over the years, as a specialist and an essential expert on the matter in the Capital.

Him,

Mathieu has a habit of launching one project after another. At 14, he opened a web agency. He then set up a website for evaluating computer hardware and another dedicated to travel. After studying computer science, he joined iXmédia, a Quebec-based company specializing in digital platforms and tools, where he collaborated in the creation of entrepreneurial projects, which he continues to develop on his own today

In 2005, Isabelle Genest and Mathieu Ouellet crossed paths at a pitch. Fast friends, they kept in touch on social media and discovered that they had even more in common than they first suspected. In particular, they both loved the rush they got from setting up new projects.

“In business, you can find people you connect with and those you really want to pitch an idea to because you just know it will work!” explains Mathieu. An exchange of Facebook messages was all it took for him and Isabelle to start looking for a concept to develop together. In 2014, with the help of Catherine Morissette, they inaugurated a project very “close to [their] heart”: “La grande journée des petits entrepreneurs.”

Igniting the spark of entrepreneurship in Quebec

At its inaugural event, this great day allowed 300 young people in the Quebec City region to have their first taste of an entrepreneurial experience and in the years that followed those numbers continued to rise dramatically. By 2017, there were more than 4,000 young participants from throughout the province, all easily located through a web map and a mobile app designed by the Mirego team.

The popularity of Isabelle and Mathieu’s initiative is undeniable, but she believes that this in part reflects the growing popularity of small scale entrepreneurship more generally. “For 10 years, something has been happening in Quebec,” Isabelle observes. “We are realizing that entrepreneurship is fundamental to the growth and sustainability of our economy. More and more this idea is spreading in the population.”

This makes the founders of “La grande journée” rejoice, certainly, but they warn it isn’t the whole story. They say that the increasing popularity of the notion of entrepreneurship brings with it a certain danger because, the more widely the word is used, the more it tends to be associated with only fast-paced excitement and fun, hiding the often harsh reality of the business world.

“Yes, it’s cool to become an entrepreneur. Yes, everything is possible,” Isabelle agrees, “but if you open your company today, don’t expect to ride in a Mercedes by next year! It doesn’t work that way. There are plenty of pitfalls and many start-ups crash very quickly—and this isn’t because there’s anything wrong with their founders or their ideas! It’s simply because being an entrepreneur isn’t easy!”

Cultivating the right values

In fact, a central goal of Mathieu and Isabelle’s project is not to convey to their young participants some idyllic vision of entrepreneurship, but rather to give them a chance to experience the very real pleasure that comes from meeting the challenges and complexities of the real world head-on. Above all, they wish to awaken “entrepreneurial values” in their protégés, such as creativity, a taste for hard work, perseverance, and self-confidence.

“These values and qualities serve all areas of life,” explains Mathieu, “whether you want to build your own house, launch a project within your company, or start your own business to live your passion. What we want to give children is an experience they can build on.”

And don’t forget there’s money to be made—an element of “La grande journée des petits entrepreneurs” that is not lost on the young participants. Behind their lemonade stands, their cupcake counters, and their handmade bracelet displays, the decisions about how to price their products rests with them.

One might wonder, is it controversial to introduce money into the world of childhood? Delicacy is necessary with the little ones, emphasizes Isabelle, but it is certainly not necessary to disregard the moneyed reality of business. “It’s perfectly acceptable to succeed after working hard and seeing a project through!” she exclaims with conviction.

Looking Back at the Entrepreneurs As Children

Isabelle and Mathieu themselves were junior entrepreneurs before founding “La grande journée.” Here is the story of their first steps in business.

Mathieu

A young lottery ticket salesman

At the age of 8, the night before a wedding, I made lottery tickets on Post-It notes with crayons. Throughout the evening, I walked from one table to another with my tickets. I sold them all! Unfortunately, I did not understand the principle of profit, so I ended the evening with $0 for myself! Still, it ignited a spark within me.

Isabelle

(Impromptu) Concert promoter

When I was a little girl, my mother taught piano and organized regular concerts with her pupils. One summer when I was bored, I decided to sell tickets in the neighbourhood. The catch was, there was no concert planned! When my mother found out, I told her “It doesn’t matter, we’ll put on a show!” What else could I do? I had already sold all my tickets! For me, it was a defining moment.