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For the win: The power of collaboration



“We have to work together to make the world a better place,” says CRH Urban Innovator Award winner Tonya Surman

When your clients are ‘people’ and ‘the planet,’ one must be forgiven if they mistake you for a superhero. With her passion for collaboration that turns into the power of social capital, Tonya Surman has been working for more than 20 years to change the world. Tonya Surman is one of Canada’s leading social entrepreneurs and an innovator of the highest caliber. She is a visionary of ideas that inspire, models that harness collaboration, and spaces that accelerate systemic change.

Tonya’s experience includes developing the Constellation Model, a multi-stakeholder partnership framework that was used to ban toxic chemicals in baby bottles and organise 40,000+ Ontario nonprofits into a network with policymaking clout; creating the Community Bond, a groundbreaking social finance tool that raised $6.3 million to purchase $25 million in real estate to house 70+ social entrepreneurs; and launching Catapult, a micro-loan fund that galvanizes government, corporate and nonprofit partners to support deserving social mission startups.

Through co-founding and leading the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI)—a pioneer in the coworking and social enterprise movements that has catalysed more than 100 world-changing initiatives—Tonya’s work supports and enables the success of CSI’s members who work in various sectors for social good, including: housing, transportation, public space, technology, innovation and much more.

“It’s the work that needs to happen so that we as a community, as a people, as a country, will actually be able to build a sustainable future, a prosperous future for the next generation,” says the CRH Urban Innovator Award winner. This Evergreen City Builders Award recognizes an individual who is working at a city-sized scale to change systems and influence urban infrastructure. “We have to work together to make the world a better place,” Tonya says.

Evergreen asked Tonya more about who inspires her, what she’s working on now, and what she would go back and tell her 16-year-old self.

Evergreen: What project/initiative/idea are you most excited about right now?

Tonya: The development of our newest space at 192 Spadina Avenue in Toronto. With leasing prices going through the roof, CSI took the leap to buy 192 Spadina—a 64,000-square-foot heritage, beam-and-brick building that will house over 500 social innovators. On the top floor of the new building, CSI will begin convening across sectors to generate solutions for a better world with the development of the Social Innovation Institute.

Evergreen: What is the best decision you have ever made?

Tonya: Asking the community to help us buy buildings with the creation of the Community Bond.  Now over 300 citizens have purchased $6.3M in bonds enabling us to own nearly $40M in real estate assets in service to social innovation.

Evergreen: Is there a person who has had a big impact on you as a leader or mentor? How have they had impact on the work you are most passionate about today?

Tonya: Margie Zeidler. The incredible vision, leadership and commitment of Margie, former owner of our founding space at Toronto’s 215 Spadina Avenue and owner of 401 Richmond Street, made it possible for CSI to be born and for this entire community to emerge. She forged a doorway for me to to be able to get my head around the potential of physical space to build cultures and communities for impact.

Evergreen: What are the biggest challenges that you are facing right now?

Tonya: Raising the capital that we need to do the leaseholds to be able to move 200 organizations across the street. It’s not very sexy, but it’s the difference between financial viability or not.

Evergreen: What was your dream job as a kid and why?

Tonya: When I was a girl, I wanted to be an architect. Now, having worked with so very many wonderful architects who plan and build amazing projects, I can honestly say that I have the best of what I love about design in what I get to do every day. So, in a way, I got my dream job—to design a better world.

Evergreen: What is the one thing you know now that you wish you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self?

Tonya: Have more fun. Work with people you love and don’t grow up so bloody fast!

Evergreen: Anything new we should know about?

Tonya: CSI is finally ready to help others to create their own shared spaces for social innovation. We are quietly building out a platform to support other communities to build the spaces, cultures, communities and accelerators that the world needs to drive an inclusive innovation movement that puts people and planet first.  It’s super fun to start thinking about how everyone can be a part of the solution.

Evergreen congratulates Tonya Surman on her incredible work and looks forward to celebrating her achievements on September 17th at the Wild in the City gala.

This post was republished from

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