Studying the whys, wherefores and how-tos of business is not what first leaps to mind when one imagines post-secondary education in art and design. OCAD University’s Alia Weston, however, believes understanding business history and practices can be a powerful asset for emerging artists and designers: “Equipping our students with business skills that will enable them to be more sustainable and resilient as they forge careers in the creative economy is the foundation of my work as an educator.”
An assistant professor of creative business enterprise in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Weston is motivated, in part, by a desire to share those “things I wish I had been taught when I was pursuing my own undergraduate studies.” Weston explains: “After I completed my BA in silversmithing, jewellery and allied crafts at the Sir John Cass School of Art and Design, I realized that, while I had gained design skills and qualifications and sold my work as a practising jeweller, I didn’t know anything about how to start a business, especially in such a highly competitive place as London.” In order to acquire that knowledge, Weston undertook a master’s in business studies at Kingston University, where she found herself drawn to alternative businesses and micro-economies. Weston stayed on at Kingston to cap off her formal studies with a cross-disciplinary PhD, focusing on creativity in the “informal economy” during the 2000s crisis in her home country of Zimbabwe.
At OCAD U since 2014, Weston combines her ongoing work as a professional jeweller and her scholarly research on business, creativity and social impact, to design and deliver courses that empower students “to engage with business in a more informed manner.” Weston regards knowledge of business practices and strategies as “essential” for creative people. Art and design graduates, she says, “need to be able to make a living and flourish in society – that’s where entrepreneurship skills are invaluable. On the other side of the coin is learning about social responsibility and mission-driven business.”
Weston’s convictions have taken flight in OCAD U’s Minor in Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation. Co-designed and co-directed with Sarah Tranum, an assistant professor of social innovation design, the program began in September 2015. Open to students pursuing any major, it has proven highly appealing, with both core courses – SOSC 2004: Business, Leadership and Social Innovation and SOSC 3010 Creative Economies – fully enrolled.
In the classroom, Weston emphasizes hands-on experiences. “My courses all have a collaborative and experiential dimension,” she says. “I try to get my students to carry out work that is as practically relevant as possible. I therefore incorporate a range of formats and activities, including experiential projects, seminars, industry engagement, visiting speakers, student presentations and real-world business research and analysis.”
Elastic effect: Here, students took the most inspiring amount to initiative, and sold refreshments in the lobby of 100 McCaul St. to fund an art exhibition/ networking event that was the main event for their assignment. Their social mission was to give other students the opportunity to exhibit their work and network with local businesses.
O-POP Art Fair: here, students' social mission was to give a platform for other students to sell their work, they got loads of people to attend the event in 49 McCaul St.
Heartlines: A selfcare colouring book made with artwork from students at OCAD U, and sold to raise money for the health and wellness centre at OCAD U.
Beyond her teaching, Weston expands opportunities for students to learn about and engage in business and social innovation through her leadership of the university’s Impact Economy Research Hub — an arm of the Impact Collective, which she co-directs with Zev Farber of the Centre for Emerging Artists and Designers. A notable Impact Collective project is the extended success of the Art Works! Video, which has been newly commissioned by CBC Arts as an online series and showcases how OCAD U community members use art and design to create dialogue about social change.
For Weston, business education at an art and design university pivots on helping students develop “transferable” skills. These include collaboration, research and analysis, and critical reflection — “acknowledging both the successes and limitations of knowledge and practice.”
“I also want to challenge the view that business and economic practices are fundamentally exploitative, harmful and unethical.” While that is sometimes the case, Weston accepts, what matters most is how one does business. Shedding light on this concept, Weston cites Caitlynn Fairbarns (Photography 2015) who drew on what she learned in Weston’s Entrepreneurship course to turn her final-year thesis project into a mission-driven enterprise that generates income by publishing zines, selling artwork and running community events while demystifying gender stereotypes in fan culture. “As Fairbarns’ Fake Geek Girls Like Us publishing platform shows, business can be extremely beneficial and socially innovative. It can, for instance, promote community values and development while also being economically sustainable. That’s the message I hope I’m able to communicate to my students.”
Morgan Holmes is a writer and editor based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His main areas of expertise are post-secondary education, the arts, and health care. When he's not wrangling words, Morgan enjoys making a racket on the Great Highland bagpipes.
*all images are from Weston's entrepreneurship class