Agents of Change 7.0

Agents of Change 7.0

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Contributors:

Jon Tattrie

Halifax has been lit the past two years,” Demetrius Ferguson says, leaning into the packed table as the espresso machine hisses at Pavia cafe inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.

“Halifax has been booming, so people are staying here, taking risks on themselves. That’s one thing I love about this city. When you ask someone why they want to stay in Halifax, the word they always come back to is love.”

Ferguson made plenty of astonishing life changes to find himself in the city he loves and those efforts made him one of Business Voice’s Change Agents for 2018. All five gathered in November to talk about risk-taking, rewards and ways to change this city for the better.

Ferguson’s journey started in the Bahamas. His mother died when he was 12. Ferguson found a job on a construction site, despite being pigeon-toed and worked his way through school. “I felt when my mom died, a lot of people forgot about me. I had to do a lot of stuff by myself and grew up really fast.”

He also started to run really fast, developing an athletic talent that scored him a basketball scholarship to a United States high school. Back in the Bahamas, he learned a Holland College rep was recruiting on the island, so Ferguson knocked on his hotel door — at 2 a.m. “That’s how determined I was to have a chance to leave the Bahamas again.”

Taking risks has always seemed the safest path for him. “Where I’m from in the Bahamas, if it’s not the worst neighbourhood, it’s the second-worst,” he says. “Kids from where I’m from don’t get those opportunities. We don’t get second chances. I had to accept that challenge.”

He earned a football scholarship to Prince Edward Island and then secured a place studying business and playing football at St. Francis Xavier University. He started My Father’s Bowtie Collection and today, manages the Quinpool Road branch of Courtside Sneakers. He helped start Feet for Phoenix, collecting good footwear for young people struggling with homelessness and employment issues.

But making connections can be hard. Sean McMullen faced the same problem as he tried to bring more meaning into his life. He has a full-time job that he enjoys and that pays his family’s bills, but it doesn’t fire his passion. A few years ago, he returned to his love of photography and videography and posted images on Instagram. “I thought, ‘this is nice, but I don’t know any of these people.’ So I started hosting photo-meets,” McMullen says.

Ferguson joined one of the first meetings on McNabs Island and the two became fast friends. They evolved the photo-meets into the Halifax Social Network, which takes online connections into the real world. The first gathering at the Gahan House drew 30 people and 10 months later, their October 2018 gathering brought about 100 people to the Halifax Distilling Company.

McMullen says all share the bond of choosing (and loving) Halifax. They tend to be under 40 and working hard to build a dream life in Nova Scotia. “You don’t know how many cool and incredible things people are doing in this city until you put everybody in the same room,” Ferguson says.

Rodney Small listens intently, nodding at the story. “My work’s about aligning with my personal values and beliefs. I grew up here — African Nova Scotian to the bone,” Small says. “I grew up in a community [Uniacke Square] where we don’t get even a first chance.”

Small struggled to find his path in life. One incident led him into trouble with the law and a stint in the Waterville youth facility, while another saw him win a landmark ruling at the Supreme Court of Canada. That RDS vs Crown case, fought by the late, great Rocky Jones, changed the justice system.

When Small began studying entrepreneurship at Dalhousie University, he found his life’s calling. “I was an entrepreneur from the day I came out of my mom’s womb. I remember being 12 years old running around the bars, dancing for money. I’d get a group of the cutest kids in the neighbourhood and ask [people], ‘Would you like us to dance and rap for you?’ Whatever it took to get that dollar.”

His Christian faith led him to the social enterprise world. He owns and operates Ascension Grooming on the Dal campus. “In my barber shop, it’s not simply about making profit. It’s about providing a new venue for those young men in my community who are in some way trapped inside of a box,” he says.

The young men come to get a haircut. They stay to explore campus life. Small is also the social enterprise development manager for Common Good Solutions, a group that helps social enterprises start and grow.

Small’s work brought him into contact with Ross Simmonds. “This young man is definitely a gem in the community and he has a lot to offer young men like myself. He can show them what that reality is,” Small says.

Simmonds wrote Stand Out: The Content Guide for Entrepreneurs and The Hustle Manifesto. “It’s a blessing to wake up every morning. We’re not guaranteed another minute, another hour, on this Earth,” Simmonds says.

He started his career blogging about video games from his parents’ basement in Preston, N.S. The blog evolved to cover fantasy sports and later marketing. Under the Hustle And Grind banner, he found a huge global audience interested in what he had to say.

Today, when businesses want to connect with new customers, they call Simmonds. He helps them understand what potential clients want and how that connects to the company’s identity. “And then crafting those stories in a narrative that is easy for them to receive,” he says. “Use that to build a strong and meaningful relationship.”

He points to Made with Local’s online presence. The Halifax-based company, started by Change Agent Sheena Russell and her business partner Kathy MacDonald, began making healthy snack bars in 2011. “They bring together the human element of marketing, which is speaking to the heart, but they also bring a sophistication to marketing where they connect with you at a head level,” Simmonds says.

Intellectually, people want to eat healthy food. Made with Local tells that story. Emotionally, people want to help others. Made with Local tells that story, too.

Russell says it was a story she longed to tell. Before launching Made with Local, she worked for the city. “I got a job with solid-waste resources — a very sexy department,” she laughs. “I was doing education for recycling programs. It was a cool job.”

But it wasn’t her passion. She grew up on a Prince Edward Island farm and watched her baker father at work. She started a food blog and then, with MacDonald, began selling healthy snacks at the farmers market.

“Entrepreneurship was never on my radar at all, but I was totally bitten by the bug.”

As the business grew, they considered switching to mass production at a factory. But that didn’t sit well with heart or mind. Instead, they hired four women at the Flower Cart Group in Kings County. It employs adults with intellectual disabilities in meaningful, paid work. “Flower Cart is our OG partner,” she says. Today, about 25 people work full time producing Made with Local.

Small distills the collective wisdom of the 2018 Change Agents by calling to mind the Serenity Prayer he starts each day with. “God, give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference,”
he says. It’s solid business advice, too.

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