A Canadian charity is helping people with mental health problems, not with medication or therapy, but by helping applicants start their own businesses.
Rise is a Toronto-based national program that offers small start-up loans, business advice and training to people with addictions and mental disorders, a successful formula that boasts success stories like that of 34-year-old Darcy Alemany.
Like many Canadians, Alemany suffered from deteriorating mental health during the pandemic. “I felt like I had nowhere to go when I had nowhere to turn. And at the time, it seemed like it was never going to end,” he told CTV News.
He says he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Part of his therapy was to find something he liked to do.
Although she had a full-time job, Alemany began using her free time to make lapel pins to help her define her gender identity.
“I have a hard time expressing myself as a gay man and being 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 personalized to express unique personalities.
“Being able to express yourself and being able to communicate about yourself is a very important factor, especially in the lives of queer and trans people,” Alemany said. “They may not have had the tools before…”
Rise, he says, helped him design a business plan, coaching, and training. A loan is available if you need it, but sales have increased so rapidly that you probably don’t need it. Alemany estimates that Pin-Ace sales may exceed $500,000 by 2023.
“Every one of our clients self-identifies as having a mental health or addiction problem,” said Lori Smith, CEO of Rise. “And each of our clients would not receive a traditional loan from a bank. Period end point,” she added.
Incoming requests have been on the rise. Last year, Smith says, Rise received 900 requests for funding or training, twice as many as in previous years. Success stories include people who have opened pet grooming shops, bakeries, and leather goods stores, along with motivational speakers, musicians, and artists. During its ten years in operation, Rise reports lending nearly $3 million, helping launch more than 700 businesses.
“Most of our clients report increased self-confidence, an increased ability to navigate difficult situations in their lives,” Smith said.
For some, it’s a side hustle for an extra case. For others it is financial independence. According to Rise surveys, 78 percent report a decrease in the amount of provincial revenue support they receive as a result of their business.
“We did a recent survey of our customers last fall, and we know that four, five out of five of our customers are still operating a business, with an 88 percent loan repayment rate,” said Smith, who helps finance the next batch of would be entrepreneurs.
Michelle Tasa, a Calgary mother and teacher, applied for a loan after a series of traumatic events disrupted her mental health.
My life exploded,” Tasa said. It couldn’t work,” she told CTV News.
Her husband, who had long suffered from a neurological disease, had recently died, and Tasa had taken a teaching job in China with her two children in tow. When she got COVID-19, she had problems upon her return to Alberta.
“We just spent all our savings to get home. By then it was kind of an emergency situation,” she said. Years of stress and pain sent her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with complex PTSD, along with depression.
Unable to return to a regular teaching position to support his family, Tasa took out an initial loan from Rise, for $10,000. That helped her launch Art Pourings, a business that offers art classes and homeschooling, named after how Tasa said she dealt with the stresses of her life “with art coming out of me and healing “, she said.
“I discovered an entrepreneurial spirit within me. And Rise has definitely helped me with that,” Tasa said.
Rise helped her design a business plan. She says that she talks to her mentor regularly. Tasa has other side jobs to make ends meet, but she knows her business is giving her purpose.
“I made a life in which I am really contributing. So I’m already winning,” said Tasa.
And she is grateful for the support.
“A mental health diagnosis doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, smart and entrepreneurial,” added Tasa.
“Can I say that the business cured me? Not at all. I still have difficult days,” Alemany said. “But even despite these challenges, the business allows me to feel hope. I feel a lot less sad now,” he said.