Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly stated that Monica Jako is the director of strategic planning and partnerships in the DMZ. She is, in fact, the director of strategic planning and partnerships in the faculty of arts. The mistake has been corrected.
If a fortune teller told Barbara Lukasz, a fourth-year English student, about the year-long transformation that would change her Ryerson student experience, she would’ve never believed them. What Lukasz describes as a “rollercoaster ride” is really the result of unlocking the secret to Ryerson’s campus – the zone learning initiative.
Zone learning, a concept implemented in the summer of 2013, is a form of experiential learning where students immerse themselves in their passions and creative ideas while receiving the aid, guidance and resources needed to become viable business platforms in spaces known as “zones.”
“Exactly a year has passed and I have developed more in this year than I have throughout my entire four years at this university,” said Lukasz, a member of the Social Ventures Zone (SVZ).
Despite the growing number of zones on campus, many students remain unaware of them and how many resources and opportunities they offer.
“In many ways, it’s Ryerson’s best kept secret as far as students are concerned,” said Randy Boyagoda, director of zone learning.
The creation of the DMZ (formerly the Digital Media Zone), the first zone at Ryerson, was what kick-started the need for more zones. The DMZ was a large success and bolstered Ryerson’s reputation as an innovative university.
Boyagoda said that there were a few reasons for the creation of zone learning after the establishment of the DMZ. Not as many students were getting into the DMZ as was expected, he said, and student interests went beyond apps for phones.
“There was a greater interest there in pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship across a series of disciplines,” Boyagoda said.
Sheldon Levy, former president of Ryerson University, played a critical role in the creation and formation of the DMZ and was the first person to respond to student interest by implementing the incubator.
The demand for more creative spaces for students to innovate and build their ideas has now produced 10 zones in total, which span several faculties, fields of study and industries. The Fashion Zone, Legal Innovation Zone and Transmedia Zone are only a few examples of spaces designed to help students take their ideas or businesses to the next level.
There are more than 600 participants across all 10 zones, with membership in the zones not just limited to Ryerson students or affiliates. In the beginning, the DMZ only accepted Ryerson students, but as the zone grew it opened its doors to members of the public.
Abdullah Snobar, director of the DMZ, says that when they measured the Ryerson affiliate vs. non-Ryerson affiliate breakdown of the incubator less than a year ago, they found that it was an equal 50/50 split between companies associated with Ryerson and those that were not.
“This is a merit-based system and we want to make sure to bring in the best so we get looked at as being the best,” said Snobar.
However, every zone is diverse and has a different breakdown of Ryerson/Non-Ryerson affiliated companies.
The SVZ is a zone designed for students with innovative ideas that can help to implement social change. It is an example of a zone mostly made up of Ryerson affiliated companies.
Monica Jako, operations lead at the SVZ and director of strategic planning and administration with the Faculty of Arts, says that they purposefully created a breakdown that was student focused.
“Unlike some of the other zones on campus, we are very student focused, so probably 80 per cent to 85 per cent (of companies) are students and then we do have some alumni and then we do have a couple startups from the community,” she said.
The SVZ is home to the company Lukasz co-founded, Be the Change Crowdfunding, which is an online platform that connects non-profit organizations with funding and volunteers. They are now in their pilot phase and have already experienced strong interest from a non-profit in the community that is looking to purchase their functionality.
Lukasz was first introduced to the SVZ a year ago through a class she took with Alex Gill, a social innovator in residence at SVZ. He encouraged her to attend Ryerson’s first ever Social Innovation Summit hack-a-thon. She and her team ended up winning first place for their idea.
Through her first place finish, she was immediately admitted into the SocialVentures Zone.
“I took Alex’s class in my second semester of third year and before that I had no place on campus. I have two really good friends at school and that’s it,” she explained. “I commute from Mississauga and I never had the motivation to stay on campus, get involved or anything like that and then once all of this happened, I’m at school from nine to nine everyday.”
Taija Ryan, a fourth-year public administration and governance student, is also looking to join the SVZ with her idea of creating a digital literacy platform for older generations. After she was told by three different people (on separate occasions) to take her idea to the SVZ, she finally gave in and took steps towards being admitted into the zone.
Now in her final year at Ryerson, Ryan wishes she had found out about the SVZ and all the other zones earlier in her Ryerson career.
“I wish I had known in first year that there were 10 different zones because I would have done [things] differently,” said Ryan.
She suggests that the lack of student awareness about all of the zones may not come from the marketing tools of the zones. Instead, a university-wide effort is needed to “weave this into the RU story, the whole Ryerson experience.”