Finding mental health healing through entrepreneurship

A Canadian charity helps individuals with mental health struggles – not with medication or therapy – but by helping applicants start their own businesses.

Rise is a national program based in Toronto that offers small start-up loans, business coaching, and training to people with addictions and mental disorders, an effective formula that boasts success stories like 34-year-old Darcy Alemany.

Like many Canadians, Alemany suffered during the pandemic as his mental health declined. “I felt like I had nowhere to go when I had nobody to turn to. And at the time, it felt like no end,” he told CTV News.

He said he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Part of her therapy is finding something she enjoys doing.

Although he had a full-time job, Alemany began using his free time to make lapel pins to help him find his identity.

“I had a hard time expressing myself as a gay man, and intersex at the same time,” Alemany said.

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

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“Expressing yourself and talking about yourself is a huge factor especially in the lives of queer and trans folk,” Alemany said. “Maybe they didn’t have the tools before…”

Getting up, he said, helped him create a business plan, teach and train. There’s a loan if he needs it, but sales are rising so quickly, he probably won’t. Alemany estimates that Pin-Ace sales could top $500,000 by 2023.

“Each of our clients self-identifies as having a mental health issue or addiction,” said Rise CEO Lori Smith. “And each of our clients cannot receive a traditional loan from a bank. Period full stop,” he added.

Future applications are growing. Last year, Smith says Rise received 900 requests for funding or training, double the number of previous years. Among the success stories are people who started pet stores, bakeries, and leather stores, along with motivational speakers, musicians, and artists. In its ten years of operation, Rise has reportedly loaned nearly $3 million, helping launch more than 700 businesses.

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

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For some, it’s a side hustle for more litigation. For others it is financial freedom. According to Rise surveys, 78 percent reported a decrease in the amount of provincial income support they received as a result of their business.

“We did a recent survey of our clients this past fall, and we found that four, five out of five of our clients are still operating a business, with an 88 percent repayment rate of debt,” said Smith, who is helping fund the next batch of entrepreneurs.

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

My life seemed to explode,” said Tasa. I can’t move,” he told CTV News.

Her husband, who had been suffering from a neurological disease for a long time, had recently died, and Tasa took a teaching job in China with her two children. When COVID-19 hit, he struggled to get back to Alberta.

“We spent all our savings to get home. It was a state of emergency then,” he said. Years of stress, and grief, sent him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with complex PTSD, along with depression.

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Unable to return to a regular teaching position to support his family, Tasa applied for a start-up loan from Rise, for $10,000. That helped her launch Art Pourings, a business that offers art classes and homeschooling, named after how Tasa says she copes with the stress in her life “with art pouring out of me and healing,” he said.

“I discovered an entrepreneurial spirit in myself. And Rise really helped me,” said Tasa.

Rise helped him design a business plan. He said he always talks to his teacher. Tasa has a few other jobs on the side to make ends meet but knows her business is giving her purpose.

“I made a life where I contributed. So I have won,” said Tasa

And he is grateful for the support.

“A mental health diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, intelligent, and an entrepreneur,” Tasa added.

“Can I say that business has healed me? No, not at all. I still have hard days,” Alemany said. “But despite these challenges, business allows me to feel hopeful. I feel less dark now,” he said.


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