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Finding the mental health cure through entrepreneurship


A Canadian charity is helping people struggling with mental health issues – not with drugs or therapy – but by helping candidates start their own businesses.

Rise is a Toronto-based national program that offers small start-up loans, business coaching and training to people with addictions and mental health issues, a successful formula that touts success stories like that of 34-year-old Darcy Alemany.

Like many Canadians, Alemany has suffered during the pandemic and her mental health has declined. “I felt like I had nowhere to go when I had no one to turn to. And at the time, I felt like there would never be an end” , he told CTV News.

He says he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Part of his therapy was finding something he liked to do.

Although he has a full-time job, Alemany began using his free time to make pins to help him define his gender identity.

“I find it difficult to express myself as a gay man and to be intersex at the same time,” said Alemany.

To his surprise, others wanted them too. So, in early 2021, he started a company called Pin-Ace. Customers can choose from 36 gender identity pins, which can also be combined and personalized to express unique personalities.

“Being able to express yourself and be able to communicate about yourself is a huge factor, especially in the lives of queer and trans people,” Alemany said. “Maybe they didn’t have the tools before…”

Rise, he says, helped him design a business plan, coaching and training. A loan is there if he needs it, but sales have increased so quickly that he probably won’t need it. Alemany estimates Pin-Ace sales could top $500,000 in 2023.

“Every one of our customers identifies as having a mental health or addictions issue,” said Rise CEO Lori Smith. “And each of our clients would not receive a traditional loan from a bank. Period,” she added.

Incoming requests have increased. Last year, Smith says Rise received 900 requests for funding or training, double that of previous years. Success stories include people who have started pet grooming stores, bakeries, and leather stores, as well as motivational speakers, musicians, and entertainers. Over its ten-year history, Rise reports loaning nearly $3 million, helping launch more than 700 businesses.

“The majority of our clients report increased self-confidence, an increased ability to navigate difficult and challenging situations in their lives,” Smith said.

For some, it’s a side hustle for an additional case. For others, it’s financial independence. According to Rise polls, 78 per cent report a decrease in the amount of provincial income support they receive because of their business.

“We recently surveyed our clients last fall, and we know that four, five out of five of our clients are still running a business, with an 88% loan repayment rate,” said Smith, who helps fund the next batch of would be entrepreneurs.

Michelle Tasa, a Calgary mother and teacher, applied for a loan after a series of traumatic events rocked her mental health.

My life kind of exploded,” Tasa said. I couldn’t function,” she told CTV News.

Her husband, who had long suffered from a neurological disease, had recently died and Tasa had accepted a teaching position in China with her two children. When COVID-19 hit, she struggled to return to Alberta.

“We just spent all our savings to go home. It was kind of an emergency then,” she said. Years of stress and grief sent her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with complex PTSD, as well as depression.

Unable to return to a regular teaching job to support her family, Tasa applied for a start-up loan from Rise, for $10,000. It helped her start Art Pourings, a business that offers art classes and homeschooling, named after how Tasa said she coped with the stresses of her life “with art. pouring out of me and healing,” she said.

“I discovered in me an entrepreneurial spirit. And Rise definitely helped me with that,” Tasa said.

Rise helped her design a business plan. She says she speaks regularly with her mentor. Tasa has a few other side jobs to make ends meet, but knows her business gives her purpose.

“I’ve made a life where I really contribute. So I’m already winning,” Tasa said.

And she is grateful for the support.

“A mental health diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, smart and entrepreneurial,” Tasa added.

“Can I say that business has cured me? Not at all. I still have difficult days,” Alemany said. “But despite these challenges, the company gives me hope. I feel a lot less sad now,” he said.

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