Student side hustles that give back

Investigating student-run businesses—their inspirations and their impacts

Students are looking to side hustles to deal with rising living costs.
Credit: 
Supplied by Maddie Wright

In May 2021, Maddie Wright, ArtSci ’23, was looking for a way to make some extra money in her first year of university.

Wright told The Journal in an interview she wasn’t satisfied with “living off of OSAP” at the time, but a typical student gig working in fast food or retail didn’t seem like the right fit. She wanted to start her own business making lawn signs for celebratory occasions—a service in high demand in eastern Ontario.

The project required a significant amount of initial investment, so Wright put her plan on the backburner for eight months while she saved up $5,000 to buy all the supplies.

She did all the research she could, scoured Facebook groups for information, and received advice from other people who’d started a similar business. By March 2022, she decided to go all in, hoping she’d at least make her initial expenses back.

What Wright didn’t expect was to be met with extraordinary demand. Today, Wright is projected to make $60,000 in sales by the end of the year. Her colourful signs, which have adorned lawns, venues, and restaurants from Brockville to Kingston to Ottawa, take her a couple hours to put together and sell for $125 to $150 each.

A sign celebrating a 2020 graduate.                                                       Supplied by Maddie Wright

In the summer, she might install as many as 10 to 15 signs a week. Thanks to the profits from her lawn sign business, Wright was able to visit Niagara Falls and the maritime provinces for the first time in her life, give back to her community, and even help put her nephew in private school.

Wright’s rationale for pursuing a side hustle resembles that of many other university students. Amidst inflation and a rising cost of living, more and more young people are turning to self-started ventures to make some extra cash on the side.

“I held off so long [on starting a business] because I didn't think it would work and now it worked,” Wright said. “Every single day I wake up and I'm like, ‘How did I do that?’ I just really enjoy my job.”

According to a survey conducted by Pollara and the Bank of Montreal in 2013, 46 per cent of Canadian students planned to start a business after graduation. Starting a business before graduation, however, is becoming a popular choice for students looking to offset the cost of living and their degree while still in school.

When students have a cause they’re passionate about, many of them see turning it into something more profitable as the next step up.

Ainsley Johnstone, HealthSci ’23, started her travel advice business after she realized she could make money doing something she’d always loved: planning trips around the world.

“I'm a huge geography fan, and that kind of got me into planning itineraries and budgets just for fun, even for places that I wasn't going to,” she told The Journal in an interview.

“I have a whole Google Drive of itineraries for places across the world that I probably won't be able to go to in my lifetime, but I just enjoy making them.”

After a couple of her friends reached out to her to help them plan custom schedules for their vacations, Johnstone decided to launch her own business designing travel itineraries and offering consultations for trips on a budget. She prioritizes finding hidden gems and economical travel options to arrange the most cost-efficient trip possible—a process she says is “like a puzzle.”

“What I find really rewarding is just the amount of trips that you end up helping people plan. And when they come back to you, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, that was the best trip, I had so much fun, this restaurant that you recommended was so good and it was like half the price that I was expecting,’ hearing that kind of thing is what makes me like love doing this,” Johnstone said.

While Johnstone says her travel advice business isn’t her main source of income, it can be a helpful supplement, especially since she already spent a lot of her free time travel-planning as a hobby.

“Travel [can be] a really big scary thing, especially if you don’t grow up traveling a lot. I can help people break down those big goals into smaller steps and help them see if they can get there.”

Personal experiences served as a motivation for Jazmin Eadie, ArtSci ’23, to start her business. Eadie, who offers fertility, pre-natal, birth, and post-natal support as a doula, was inspired to provide her services for other pregnant and birthing people after she had a child in second year.

After experiencing post-partum depression and OCD, she realized there was an unmet need for pregnancy support in her region.

“I was super unprepared when it came to the labor process, and I catastrophized my birth really quite bad to the point where the pain was just so, so much,” Eadie said to The Journal in an interview. “I really just want to be there for people who are birthing and their partners.”

Eadie considered her doula business a side hustle during her undergraduate years, but now sees it as her future career. She plans to attend psychotherapist school in the future so she can incorporate those skills into her doula work. She’s already involved with professional doula organizations and taking online courses to build her skills.

Being a doula, Eadie said, has built her confidence and communication skills while also opening doors to a future career. Helping somebody through the highs and lows of childbirth is a rare and meaningful experience, she explained.

“Creating a birth space that prevents the triggers that [birthing people] might have in a hospital setting is really, really important for me,” Eadie said.

Some students, however, have more ambitious goals for the businesses they found. Such was the case for Waive the Wait, a start-up founded by Shrey Anand, ArtSci ’21, and Tabassum Pasha, ArtSci and Comm ’21.

Anand, the CEO of the company, was inspired to create a solution for long wait times for medical services when his father had to wait eight hours for emergency treatment following a kitchen accident that happened when Anand was a teenager.

After winning $2,000 in a pitch competition and receiving mentorship from the Queen’s Innovation Centre (QIC), Waive the Wait launched their smart waiting room technology that calculates the precise delay and commute times to clinics to prevent waiting room congestion.

Six months later, Anand and Pasha decided to incorporate the company and make it their future. Anand and Pasha now work full-time on Waive the Wait, which operates in multiple clinics in Ontario and has formed relationships with national and international healthcare organizations.

Despite being fresh graduates from Queen’s, the two said they’ve become thoroughly experienced in all aspects of running a business, from managing their expenses to hiring staff to developing and implementing the technology on which Waive the Wait relies.

Making Waive the Wait a success is tough, Anand and Pasha admitted—it involves a lot of learning on the job. Every week at the start-up presents new challenges, from being turned down by potential clients, to having to figure out how to work with people much older and more experienced than them, to being asked to take on new and unfamiliar tasks like writing a privacy and security policy from scratch.

Both, however, said the problem Waive the Wait is dedicated to solving is one they care deeply about. In a province where emergency room wait times are skyrocketing, Anand and Pasha want to decrease the paperwork clinics have to fill out to save time and money.

“I consider it a blessing that I get to be involved in such an early stage and I get to be a part of something that is so, so close to the problems of doctors,” Anand told The Journal in an interview.

Indeed, one common theme amongst student-run businesses like Waive the Wait is the desire to give back to the community.

Gregory Bavington, Sci ’85 and the executive director of the QIC, told The Journal he encourages all the student entrepreneurs who come to the entrepreneurship hub for advice to incorporate the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their business model.

“One way of doing good is to from the very beginning, attach [your business] to the SDGs in some way, and never lose sight of the tremendous value that properly managed, successful companies bring to society,” Bavington said.

Wright couldn’t agree more. Although she’s been able to uplift herself and her loved ones with the money she’s earned, she’s also used her lawn sign business to raise money charities in her hometown like the Brockville Food Bank, donated gifts to children for Christmas and signs for their birthdays, and, above all, helped people celebrate the most special moments in their lives.

One day in the summer, Wright recalled, she set up a sign for a client’s mother’s birthday without knowing she had been recently diagnosed with cancer.

“The [client] messaged me with a video of her mom looking at the sign at four in the morning, and she literally broke down and cried and was like, ‘This is so meaningful, it’s my last birthday,’” Wright said. “I realized that it's not just me putting up birthday signs.”

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