Danielle Veneruzzo graduated from university wanting to find a job that matched her skills, that made her feel that her degree was worth something, and that she could excel at. Jelena Psenicnik wanted to expand and diversify her business. She had a lot on her plate already, she worried she wouldn’t have the time to devote to a new project while running her existing businesses, and she knew there were dozens of moving parts that could sink the whole project.
The Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre has a solution. Their Youth Effect program places eligible youths with small to medium local businesses to execute specific projects. The program helps the business grow, while teaching the youth valuable skills through training and mentorship. Led by Bridget Postuma and Kendall Williams, the program brings valuable expertise and resources to all involved.
Jelena Psenicnik, Sara Boyer, and Amy Kelterborn co-own two gems of Thunder Bay’s - the sister restaurants of Rebel Salad and The Growing Season. They are places to enjoy foods that are healthy, quick, casual, and delicious. You are aware of this if you’ve eaten at either of these restaurants, and you know how lucky Thunder Bay is to have two oases of amazing dishes that are actually good for you.
Like many businesses, “we were trying to grow in different directions,” says Psenicnik. “When the pandemic came, we realized we needed things to sustain us. We had been thinking about selling salad dressings for a long time.” With so many details involved (nutritional labels, packaging, testing) and with everyone already working flat out, bottling salad dressings didn’t seem viable. “And then this program came up, and it was a blessing. Having someone to focus specifically on this project alone was such a relief.”
Danielle was a perfect fit. Her experience and qualifications exactly matched the needs of the business, and the job was exactly what she was looking for. She was eager and motivated to take what she learned at school and put it into practice. It was serendipity.
Together, they chose seven recipes for bottling, and then ran countless tests to find a consistent and cost-effective method to mass-produce the products. Testing helped them streamline their processes and reduce costs. What followed were ‘customer sensory evaluations’ where customers tried variations of the dressings and provided feedback, which led to more tweaks. After all this, it was time to develop nutritional labels that align with Health Canada’s guidelines.
These delicious dressings are raw, with only minimal additives. Specific equipment is required for the bottling process, and the Innovation Centre aided in applying for grants to assist with financing. Throughout this whole process and the many steps that followed, the team at the NWO Innovation Centre was constantly checking in and providing support. It was this structure of support, embedded in the Youth Effect program, that made it all possible.
“We tried a youth employment thing a few years ago,” says Psenicnik. “But it was expensive and didn’t yield the intended results. The Youth Effect program asked us to get really specific with milestones and what we wanted. Then I knew what I needed. And when we check in, we check in on the milestones.” Milestones make it easier to give feedback and chart progress because the goal is clear and agreed on. The structure gave Danielle autonomy, and freedom to make her own schedule. “You worry there is too much checking in, but the NWO Innovation Centre places a lot of value on that and makes it worthwhile. Structure is huge,” says Psenicnik. “I really enjoyed my time working with Youth Effect,” says Veneruzzo. “It was a structure I really needed. Especially the check-ins. I highly recommend this program.”
Entrepreneurs aren’t people managers. They look to the big picture, to the future and to what is possible. They need people with drive around them to get things done. This is what the Youth Effect program creates.
For the time being, Veneruzzo is happily staying on at Rebel Salad, and they are delighted to have her. When the time comes to move on, she will take away with her drive to get the job done, and an entrepreneurial spirit. For the team at Rebel Salad, their delicious salad dressings should be on shelves in fall 2021.
“It’s exciting and rewarding to be able to foster that mindset in youth.” Psenicnik will definitely use the NOW Innovation Centre as a resource to help them grow the business in the future.