How David Alston and Rivers Corbett Are Helping the Province Be More Entrepreneurial

It’s no secret, most governments can get bogged down with bureaucracy and process. They’re often accustomed to the “old way of doing things” and are averse to risk, even though it could bring positive change.

But over the last year, two New Brunswick entrepreneurs have been trying to help the provincial government buck this trend.

Both David Alston and Rivers Corbett work with the province as “Entrepreneurs in Residence.” Though they both work in different areas, they say the provincial government is on a path of change, but it has a long way to go.

Alston is the former chief marketing officer of Radian6, which was acquired by Salesforce in 2011. After a stint with Salesforce, Alston became part of several startups, including Fredericton-based Introhive, as well as becoming a huge advocate for innovation and teaching coding in New Brunswick’s education system. So when he got the opportunity to become the province’s Chief Entrepreneur-in-Residence in November 2016, he jumped at the chance.

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In this volunteer position, Alston is charged with connecting entrepreneurs and innovators with the provincial government to better address public policy issues. Alston says the role was a natural fit since it was an extension of the work he was doing already.

“It’s the kind of thing where I’ve been working on projects where I feel I can have the greatest impact in terms of volunteering my time,” says Alston. “What was good about the title is it just allowed more of the deputy ministers to understand how I could potentially help them in terms of being a resource.”

For example, one of the departments he’s worked with a lot is the Department of Tourism and Heritage. It’s work that led him to create a new business of his own, TimberTop.

“In most my engagements I’m a volunteer problem solver, connector, cheerleader, et cetera. In the case of tourism, I have played on that and one step more. In order to reach the big growth in tourism revenue in NB over the next seven years we need to create hundreds of new tourism entrepreneurs,” says Alston. “In this case, I decided to go one step further on in the problem-solving part and be one of those tourism entrepreneurs by starting TimberTop.”

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Being able to work across different departments has given Alston a less siloed view of government that many others working within it don’t have. This gives him a fresh perspective on how problems can be solved.

“I’m helping various departments with various things that they want to tackle or become more entrepreneurial or innovative on,” says Alston. “If I see connections or linkages between departments, I can bring different departments together on things.”

When it comes to his mandate of linking the government with entrepreneurs, Alston says many of the connections he’s made are not with tech startups, put people whose work can help influence policy change.

“With me, there’s been more innovators, like through Living SJ,” he says. “A lot of the innovators and social entrepreneurs within the movement solving some of our society’s problems and being able to share those results and the momentum that they have with departments.”

Though Alston isn’t working directly with business in his role as Cheif Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Rivers Corbett does at his gig as Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Opportunities New Brunswick (ONB), which is a government crown corporation. Corbett is the founder of Relish Gourmet Burgers and The Chef Group.

He’s also an outspoken advocate for growing the region’s startup culture. He is the Founding Entrepreneur of StartUp Fredericton and a founding member of Startup Canada and hosts a regular podcast for them.

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Unlike Alston’s volunteer gig, Corbett’s position is a full-time paid position. He’s been in the role since September 2016.

“I always wanted to make a bigger impact on the province,” says Corbett. “I really looked at this role as an opportunity to continue my charity work and really dive in and focus on a provincial narrative versus one that was just the city.”

When he first started, Corbett was assigned by ONB CEO Stephen Lund to create a strategy that he thought would be best for entrepreneurship in the province. Corbett came back with what he called “a singular focus.”

“That is to significantly move the needle on the spirit and actions of entrepreneurship throughout New Brunswick,” he says.

That means, according to Corbett, looking at “best practices.” One of those best practices was Startup Canada’s Startup Communities.

“Startup Communities is a localized volunteer-driven entrepreneur-led organization that is focused on moving the spirit and actions of entrepreneurship in the local community. It’s led by entrepreneurs but it’s also enabled by the ecosystem,” says Corbett.

Corbett had already founded New Brunswick’s first Startup Community, Startup Fredericton. Now there are eight startup communities across New Brunswick. The goal is to get three more going this year, and then the 11 combined would cover around 90 per cent of the province.

Corbett says these startup communities help ONB develop strategy on a local level.

“It’s not just ONB developing a strategy, it’s ONB in collaboration with local communities and the ecosystems in those communities driving the spirit and actions of entrepreneurship,” he says. “For the past year what I’ve been doing is educating people around Startup Communities [and] pulling together the entrepreneur-led organizations to ultimately launch and develop a strategy that’s good for entrepreneurs on a localized basis.”

He says the Startup Communities have helped people take initiative and gain a passion for taking action in their area.

“It’s really magical what’s happening now in those communities which have embraced this strategy with us and how excited they are to nurture and develop the spirit and actions of entrepreneurship,” he says.

He uses the Town of Sussex as an example. When the Potash Mine closed in 2016, many worried the town was doomed economically.

“They now have embraced this, ‘You know, we’re going to be OK. We’re going to look after ourselves and it will be a bonus if the Potash mine came in again. But we’re going to be become reliant on ourselves and our own community by developing localized entrepreneurship strategies that are important for our community rather than relying on a big organization coming in and being the foundation for community.’ ”

With New Brunswick being the first province in Canada to have entrepreneurs-in-residence, both Corbett and Alston say the provincial government is making the right moves. But Corbett says the government can improve on thinking more entrepreneurially itself.

“If there’s one area that needs investment, nurturing, guidance and coaching is how to ultimately become entrepreneurial thinkers,” he says. “Because only through entrepreneurial thinkers will innovation start to happen. Through innovation, new and exciting things start to happen including becoming less dependent on the federal government when we can rely on ourselves.”

Alston says this means learning to take risks, something most governments steer clear of.

“This is a transformation,” he says. “This doesn’t happen overnight but if you think of startups and entrepreneurs, they’re risk takers and they’re calculated risk takers. The culture right now is transforming but it’s going to take time to become less risk-averse. In terms of the speed in which decisions are made or try new things, obviously, it’s not the same case in the private sector.”

He cites Estonia as an example of a country that has transformed the way its government approaches things. They are considered a leader now, but it took them a long time to become one.

RELATED: Learning Digital Lessons From Estonia

“They’ve been at it for 25 years. It’s a very entrepreneurial culture within government now, but that takes time,” says Alston. “But I think the bright light is that [the provincial government] is embracing it now. I think by embracing it they will transform over the next 10 or 20 years. We will get there.”