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As Canadians, we pride ourselves on the multicultural nature of our country – a unique reality also reflected in the diversity of Canadian entrepreneurship.
Ivan Touko, founder of La Connexional, embodies the so-called “Canadian dream” through his inspiring journey. The entrepreneur, community developer, and artist was named among Alberta’s 30 under 30. Merging entrepreneurship and art in his projects, Touko explains: “I am passionate about social innovation and technology and how the intersection of social innovation, technology and culture can benefit communities that are usually underserved.”
At the age of 16, Touko moved to Edmonton from Cameroon. On his way to success, Touko had to overcome many barriers. “When I emigrated, I experienced a great sense of isolation from my culture and communities. It was difficult to find Cameroonians my age or people who looked like me to develop a support system,” he remembers.
Building Community Through Culture
In school, Touko met classmates who introduced him to dance and percussion. “Through dance and drumming, I had also found a group to belong to. That’s really what helped me, at that time, to navigate the whole thing,” he recalls. Following this decisive encounter, Touko became increasingly involved in the cultural scene, eventually becoming a professional dancer. He says that it was this passion that allowed him to get to where he is today: “Through dance, I learned discipline and consistency. The person who managed the group was an entrepreneur.” From observing his teacher, Touko was exposed to the concept of art as a professional path and learnt how to manage operations, from logistics to performances.
While establishing himself as an artpreneur, Touko studied environmental science and conservation in university. “On the one hand, it has nothing to do with what I am doing today. On the other hand, my major being in sustainable development, I decided to focus on the social aspect and the importance of creating vibrant communities that contribute to social well-being” .
It was also at university that the artist met the person with whom he would later co-found La Connexional, a socially-driven enterprise that promotes the talents of Afrodescendent and Latino people in Edmonton, where he still resides. Relying on community-oriented workshops and events, the co-founders “create physical and virtual spaces for these communities to grow, learn collectively and create new resources. (…) It impacts adjacent communities because when you create a resource for a particular community, it’s not just that community that benefits from it.”
The idea grew out of his student days, when Yvan Touko had the opportunity to get involved in the African Students Association, which led him to plan events and build a network. Like many of his peers, Touko and his friends wanted to party. However, they noticed a lack of Afrobeat, Latin and Caribbean music. “We needed something different, something reminiscent of my nights in Cameroon before I immigrated to Canada”. To remedy this, he launched a first music event to which as many as 500 people showed up. “There were about 10-15% of these people from the Latin, African or Caribbean communities,” he says.
Aside from event planning, the entrepreneur finds a passion in community development. “I was lucky enough to find a group,” Touko notes. “Many others may not have been so fortunate, so it was important for me to create spaces that offered that”—a need even more acute outside of Toronto or Montreal.
Leveraging the Tools
The Connexional remains an organization small in numbers but not in impact. The company leverages the tech tools made available to carry out its mission and projects. “Today, we are seeing a big boom in SAAS (software as a service), which develops tools to allow small organizations, like La Connexional, to get started without teak or coding expertise,” he points out. The initiative’s website reflects this approach, as does their use of free or low-cost tools: Canva for visuals; Hootsuite, Linktree, or Taplik for social network management; as well as Deskera for accounting, billing, and marketing. “Shopify, which is one of the most effective platforms for companies with products for sale, offers a free 3 to 6 months for Black entrepreneurs,” he also notes.
For those interested in starting an initiative of their own, Touko recommends not only getting mentoring and access to resources as early as possible, but also developing a business plan. “With La Connexional, we organized so many different events that helped us see which areas were the best fit for us. But having a strategic plan would have surely helped me to come up with more sustainable initiatives impacting the business and its growth,” he points out.
To hear the full story of Ivan Touko, listen to the podcast episode on The Canadian Dream—A Story of Immigration and Entrepreneurship, available on Spotify and Youtube.