Q-and-A with Ryerson’s new distinguished visiting professor, Helen Burstyn

A photo of Helen Burstyn. She was appointed as a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson in social innovation and enterprise.

Helen Burstyn has been appointed as a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson in social innovation and enterprise. (Courtesy / Helen Burstyn)



Ryerson University has recently welcomed Helen Burstyn as a distinguished visiting professor in social innovation and enterprise. Burstyn has been involved in government, community service and business for 35 years and has a wealth of knowledge to share with students.

The Toronto resident is chair of The Partnership Forum, the Ontario government’s advisory body on the not-for-profit sector. She is also the former chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation, one of the largest grant makers in Canada.

Burstyn says it’s her high regard for the university that led to her immediately accepting when Sheldon Levy offered a one-year term with the Office of Zone Learning.  The zone provides students with the resources to take ideas and concepts and give them commercial viability.

She spoke with The Ryersonian about what kind of work she’ll be doing at the university and what students can learn from her.

Why did you agree to become a visiting professor at Ryerson?

I really missed the interaction with students but I thought it could happen in a whole new way. The way Ryerson does it isn’t the old academic model of a professor standing in front of the classroom. They really change it up. I didn’t want to have my own class but be a guest in other classes so that I can roam around the university and go where I’m needed or where I can contribute.

What do you hope to accomplish at the university?

There were three things involved with what I wanted to do and one is to get back in the classroom, but not to be a lecturer so much as to engage others who are experts in social enterprise and innovation in a conversation.

The second part of what I’m doing is in the zone-learning space, where I’m doing one-on-one mentoring. Students can come see me, let me look at their business plan and we can talk about it. Or a group of students that want to plan a small project or enterprise can come in.

Thirdly, I want to work with Ryerson students to create a Ryerson social enterprise film festival. We know there’s a real appetite for creating something like that and hoping to put on the first student-led social enterprise film festival by the Spring of 2015.

What will you provide for students?

There’s already a lot of energy and buzz when it comes to social innovation and enterprise at Ryerson, but as I meet with more people and realize that there’s an appetite to do more and create, I hope to be a catalyst for some of those new ideas. Maybe they will even turn into new businesses and social enterprises and actually have an important impact on our communities.

How are you helping set students up for success in today’s job market?

I think our students don’t expect to have jobs just handed to them. I think what they’re doing is creating their own jobs and businesses and building their own futures. It’s a very different mindset and I hope to help students prepare for the different kind of employment market that’s out there.

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