Making a pitch into a learning opportunity

Cansbridge Fellowship Conference teaches McGill Engineering students entrepreneurial skills in unconventional ways

On a Wednesday evening in a seminar room at the Faculty of Engineering, a group of students gathered together over pizza and coke. One by one, they stood up in front of their peers and delivered a pitch. The range of topics was broad: an idea for virtual hot-pots, the possibilities of space travel using lasers, the benefits of weightlifting, to name only a few. For entrepreneurs, making a successful business pitch is a core skill. But for these students, skill development is only part of the equation.

The occasion for this pitch session was a presentation on the Cansbridge Fellowship program. Launched by William Yu in 2012, it is a program that aims to give students an opportunity for ‘maximum learning through maximum discomfort,’ according to Yu.

“We are not necessarily aiming to help students develop skillsets, but character-sets,” explained Yu, who was present at the session (and also judged the quality of pitches). “Skills like coding can be taught in the classroom, but resilience and adaptability can only be learned by putting yourself into unfamiliar situations.”

It is the idea of immersing oneself in the unfamiliar that is the cornerstone of the Cansbridge offering. Selected fellows must find a summer internships in any Asian country of their choice, provided they have no familial or linguistic ties to the place.

The other pillars of the program are participating in a one-week conference in Silicon Valley (which includes a start-up boot-camp experience), and becoming one of the growing network of program alumni who themselves remain highly involved in the fellowship, as peers, mentors and organizers. The McGill EngInE was happy to partner with the Cansbridge Fellowship since 2016 and sponsor up to two Cansbridge-McGill EngInE fellows along with bringing along six undergrads to the annual conference in San Francisco.

Thus far over 100 fellows have taken part, and each one remains a strong advocate of the experience. Recent Cansbridge-McGill EngInE inductee Pentcho Tchomakov is one such booster. After completing an internship In Kuala Lumpur, he was also taking part in the pitch session, and providing his insights to other potential fellows.

“The challenge starts as soon as you are accepted all the way to the end,” explained Tchomakov. “Finding an internship in Asia by yourself, living with 15 other smarter and more successful Fellows for a week in San Francisco, a summer in Asia working and exploring a different culture, and finally coming back to your daily life and working on your goals. When you think the experience has ended you realized it just started as you’ve opened yourself to a large network of past and future Fellows.”

Indeed, for founder Yu, the network itself is the core asset of the Cansbridge Fellowship. “When the fellows gather for the conference, seeing them interact and hearing that buzz, that is the magic,” he said, referring to the annual Cansbridge Fellowship Conference.

The conference has often taken a unique approach to offering students entrepreneurial learning opportunities, and their recent edition in San Francisco was no exception. Among the various company visits, pitch competitions and team-building events, there were daily meditation sessions and lectures on happiness by Zen Buddhist Monk, Shifu Zhihan.

Going forward, Yu sees adding other dimensions to the Fellowship. “Entrepreneurship is just one aspect of the experience. I see adding social venture or sustainability as future themes we could explore. The important thing is to get people out of their comfort zone into a place where real learning happens.”