Nov. 13, 2023
UCalgary Graduate Powers Innovation
From small-business owner to leading a group of major players in the Calgary innovation ecosystem, Jennifer Jensen, BA'06, MBA'22, has never lost her entrepreneurial spirit.
That mindset and passion to create something of your own and then grow it and see it to fruition is something she naturally fostered over time. Jensen describes her own journey as “unconventional,” but in many ways, it mirrors the innovators she welcomes and supports in the Calgary tech and innovation ecosystem as executive director at Calgary Innovation Coalition (CIC). It’s a journey focused on exploring the possibilities, taking on challenges in a variety of fields, and a willingness to fully commit and dive into new opportunities.
Jensen was a 2006 University of Calgary graduate in political science and went on to write her LSAT in an effort to pursue entry into law school.
“I wanted to go to law school to change the world,” Jensen remembers, fondly. “I was going to save the rainforest and do so many things — as soon as I wrote the LSAT — that was going to be my life.”
Not everyone has it in them to try something for the sake of starting something, but Jensen took that leap into the unknown. At 23, she pursued her first endeavour, taking a turn off the path of a law degree and career to start Cha-Chas, a restaurant and bar, with her then-partner.
“I had no idea, no clue [what I was getting into]. [I thought,] I'll help him for a while and then I'll go to law school,” says Jensen, who had many suggest to her that the highly competitive restaurant industry may not be the best thing to invest and start a career in. But, even now looking back, Jensen says the experience was worth defying the naysayers. “I know myself now. I don’t do well with taking advice like that.”
This slight detour on her path to law, becoming a small business-owner for the first time, resulted in an experience that allowed her to use creativity, problem-solving and her dedication to always learning. “At that age, I was learning everything,” says Jensen. “I was cooking, managing and serving, and we did a lot of really fun projects. For me, I just fell in love with business and all the possibilities; you know, you can do so much and anything is possible.”
Pivot on a Dime
Jensen describes the later sale of the bar as an eye-opening experience; the first time in which, she says, she had built something and knew she could successfully, “sell [that] something to make money.” After selling the restaurant, her first profitable business venture, Jensen made her first pivot into the retail space, moving another step into entrepreneurship and farther away from law. Always interested in the world of “fashion and thrifting, treasure-hunting and that recycled economy,” Jensen dove into the opportunity to open her own store. A vacant space on Edmonton Trail N.E. in Calgary became the birthplace of Thrifty Princess Boutique.
“I just decided that I'm going to open a store in this space and no one's going to tell me no,” says Jensen, who at the time was without any formal business training and had never drafted a business plan. For some, the leap into a retail investment could take years of research and planning, but Thrifty Princess thrived under Jensen’s passion and commitment to try something new.
The store remained active and viable for more than seven years, during which time Jensen’s model began to shift after working with Momentum, a changemaking organization combining “social and economic strategies to reduce poverty.” Working with Momentum helped Jensen to find her passion for social enterprise.
While there is a school of thought that words like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” are strict corporate marketing terms used to convey the next big thing in technology or business analytics, the reality is that social innovation and entrepreneurship are concepts that, while used to achieve sustainable economic goals, also focus on creating positive social change or good.
“[Momentum is] an amazing organization. I did my first business pitch and we changed the concept where I developed Consignment for a Cause, which was working with non-profits,” Jensen says of her highly successful funding program which led to raising more than $12,000 in its first year for the Meow Foundation.
“I was just like trying all of these really cool things,” she says. “We did pop-ups and Fashion Recycles fashion shows. I felt like I spent most of my 20s and early 30s experimenting with different business ideas and having fun. And then, in 2019, I just, I was like, OK, I think it's time to start thinking about a real career.”
Having started to make a name for herself as a successful social entrepreneur, Jensen found herself selling her store, now called Thrifty Princess Consignment Boutique, in January 2020, seeking both stability and realizing it was time to try new things. What she didn’t know was the world was to change just two months later.
COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to Creative Destruction
With two successful businesses under her belt and many more social-enterprise pursuits across a decade of entrepreneurial experience, Jensen made the decision to turn back to the path of education. As the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown set in, she took the opportunity to return to UCalgary, this time as an MBA candidate with the Haskayne School of Business.
A self-described lifelong learner, now with more time and fewer employment options, Jensen looked to several institutions before finally deciding on Haskayne. An experiential learner, Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies (CDL-Rockies) was a major draw of the Haskayne MBA program.
“[CDL-Rockies] was a huge draw for me and I was accepted to Haskayne in the fall of 2020 and it literally changed the course of my life — it was the best decision I made and I loved it so much,” says Jensen.
CDL-Rockies is a program that brings together experienced entrepreneurs, investors and scientists from diverse fields to work with selected startup businesses. The startups work with their mentors to sharpen objectives, prioritize time and resources, raise capital, and engage with experts from around the world. After undertaking several internships while completing her MBA, Jensen worked with the career advisors at Haskayne who made it a point to tell her, “You're an entrepreneur; you need to focus on that first,” which brought her to working with startups through CDL-Rockies and other classes in the MBA program.
As Jensen continued to connect, network and work with a variety of people in the innovation ecosystem in Calgary, her self-stated “curiosity and magnetism towards the unconventional” brought her to an interview for a position with an innovation-focused organization. It was through this interview that Jensen would come to meet NDP MLA Court Ellingson, BComm’93, who instantly recognized her talent and ambition would be better served elsewhere with a larger role with CIC, where Ellingson was project director but would be soon departing the role and so was in search of a replacement.
“I was, like, I think I'm your person,” says Jensen who would go on to work with Ellingson successfully for a year with CIC. “Now he is the MLA for Calgary Foothills and I am the executive director of the Calgary Innovation Coalition, which is incredible.”
Paying it Forward
For Jensen, who has held her position at the CIC for more than a year, the role continues to evolve, much like technology and innovation. Her role initially focused on working with startups and helping them to navigate the resources available in Calgary, but her position allows her to strategize and see where she can point CIC to best affect the entire industry.
“I love talking to startups,” says Jensen. “I know how they feel in that sometimes you don't know what you need; there’s a need to talk it out with someone and feel like you're not alone, because it's a crazy life.
“Now, [my role] is about working through this massive revitalization of what the Calgary Innovation Coalition is. I get to talk to the entrepreneurs, but I also get to shape the face of this organization.”
One of the things which Jensen points to at being key to everyone involved with CIC has been “as a community, changing the dialogue to be more inclusive,” and she encourages everyone to come and be curious about tech. It remains one of the major drivers for Innovation Week YYC, powered by CIC member Platform Calgary and events like the Newcomer Founders in Tech Pitch Competition.
“Anything is tech-enabled if you think about it, and we really encourage others to see themselves as being involved in tech and innovation,” says Jensen. “I'm really proud of that. Sometimes, it just takes those initial steps for any small group to believe in something, and I think that's the role that I play and that I love … that of an ecosystem-connector.”
Platform Calgary and its partners established Innovation Week YYC as a collision space for events and members of the innovation community. Innovation Week YYC celebrates and showcases the people and the ideas that are having an impact! From Nov. 15 -23, explore tech and innovation in Calgary while being immersed in a community made up of everyone from the tech-curious to seasoned entrepreneurs and investors.
To register or for more information, check out the 2023 Innovation Week YYC Calendar.