Entrepreneur-in-Residence Shares Business Sense

She started her own business as a university student

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Petra Kassün-Mutch

Petra Kassün-Mutch left the glamorous world of publishing to start a successful cheese making company. Now she’s helping U of G students become their own “big cheese” as the new entrepreneur-in-residence at the College of Management and Economics.

“You can harness the power of business to do good,” says Kassün-Mutch, adding that she will not only advise students on how to start their own business, but how to build enterprises that help address social and environmental problems.

Entrepreneurship is an important source of employment in Canada and the U.S., she says. And entrepreneurism has grown in response to rising unemployment rates following the 2008 global market crash. According to the Business Development Bank of Canada, 10 per cent of the Canadian population owned a business in 2010.

During the recession of the 1980s, Kassün-Mutch was an undergrad in journalism and mass communications at Carleton University. She couldn’t find a job to help pay for school, so she started “an upscale maid service” called Super Maid. She received a $2,000 government loan for entrepreneurs and purchased a Chevy Chevette and a vacuum cleaner. When she told her mother that she was going to clean houses to earn some extra cash, her mother replied, “You’ve never cleaned anything in your life.”

Kassün-Mutch proved her mother wrong: Super Maid cleaned up – literally and figuratively – and became so successful, she took on a partner. She then sold the business when she graduated and worked in academic publishing for 18 years before making another career change – to dairy operations and cheese making. Having travelled the world, enjoying artisan cheeses along the way, she gave up the glitz and glamour of the publishing industry to start her own dairy so she could spend more time with her family. She brought her then three-and-a-half-year-old daughter along on farm visits and got her involved in cheese making.

“That’s one of the motivating factors for a lot of women who have children,” Kassün-Mutch says of starting a business. “They’re still able to earn money, do something intellectually satisfying and have much more flexibility for their family and perhaps show their kids what is involved in running a business. In most exec-level jobs, you’re going to be travelling a great deal. Your kids have no idea what you do all day. Your schedule is often not your own and often not family-friendly. I don’t know anybody who’s in a role like that who gets home at five o’clock.”

As president of the higher education division at McGraw-Hill Ryerson, she had taken a one-week cheese making course at U of G with Prof. Art Hill, Department of Food Science. She found herself getting her hands “curdy” with other successful business people who had jumped on the cheese-making bandwagon.

But the road to starting her own cheese-making business was paved with red tape. “There were nine ministries and 68 regulatory acts to comply with,” she says, referring to everything from food safety to rezoning applications. “You couldn’t put a shovel in the ground until you had all those approvals, so it was a long process.”

It took her four years to get the Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company off the ground, after attending seminars, consulting with cheese experts at the American Cheese Society, and doing an internship at a California creamery. She also attended the Vermont School for Artisan Cheese Makers at the University of Vermont.

As the new entrepreneur-in-residence at U of G, Kassün-Mutch will mentor students on how to make a profit without sacrificing their community’s well-being. She will also coach students participating in case study competitions, helping them strengthen their business plans and presentation skills.

She hopes the students she mentors will become business leaders who put people and the environment before profits. The recent banking and housing crisis brought attention to how unsound business practices can affect not just the economy but society as a whole.

“There are 1.4 million businesses in Canada,” says Kassün-Mutch. “Not all are bad apples or have been and I think that role of business and those who engage in it has recently taken a reputational hit by the greedy and unethical few. I think there have always been honest business people of strong character out there, and they need to be brought back into the forefront and recognized.”

Having spent the past seven years living in Prince Edward County, she says she was impressed by how communities and small businesses worked together.  She blames the shift away from community-centred businesses on globalization and multinational corporations led by CEOs who don’t live in the communities in which their companies operate.

That’s why Kassün-Mutch sees potential in social enterprise, which she describes as a cross between for-profit and not-for-profit, such as a restaurant that employs people with disabilities as a key part of its mission. Social enterprises are mission-driven first, she says, but still provide their investors with some return for use of their money to build the business.  Social impact investors typically provide long term debt capital – or patient capital – at low or sometimes no interest to support such businesses. Other fundraising vehicles used by social entrepreneurs include buying futures that can be later redeemed for products or services.

Her one-year appointment as entrepreneur-in-residence began July 1. She can be reached at pkassun@uoguelph.ca.