Start from where you are: You already have enough experience

HOlden BeggsHolden Beggs (BASc ’20) and Jackson Mills (BCS ’21) want to make one thing clear: You can be an innovator and keep your day job.

Mills says the Zero programs, which he co-founded with Beggs, operate on the fundamental belief that everyone can be an innovator with the right support.

“It’s for people who want to do something awesome, but don’t know how to get started; people who want to be innovators but have no ideas. People want great jobs, but don’t know how to get them,” Mills says. “You know you’re supposed to be moving faster, but you’re stuck and can’t figure out why.”

The Zero Experience and Zero Work programs are for students, and increasingly alumni, who hear about global leaders and successful entrepreneurs, but don’t see how they can make a similar impact. Zero programs have exploded in popularity, with thousands of registrants every year. Both programs are funded by Velocity, Waterloo’s flagship incubator.

“Something that’s really important is people already have enough experience to get started,” Mills says. “It’s that idea of meeting people where they are, instead of assuming that they’re lost. Then, you can guide them on their path.”

Beggs adds, “We believe innovation should be reachable for everyone, so we codified the process. We made a recipe for how to solve problems, and we don’t accept the mentality that there’s only a few who can make a difference.”

Beginning from Zero

Beggs and Mills began working on the Zero Experience in March 2020, when the pandemic brought school, projects and jobs to a halt. They noticed that hundreds of their peers were struggling to get experience and find good jobs so they started tackling how students could become experienced problem solvers, fast.

The result was The Zero Experience: a weekly course where students find an urgent global problem and begin designing a solution. It’s a unique whirlwind of exploration and execution done individually and in teams.

“Months after the program ends, we like to ask people what they got out of The Zero Experience,” Beggs says. “We hear a lot of answers: they’re smarter problem solvers, understand the world more clearly, are better teammates and so on. But practically everyone says it gave them self-confidence. They say it feels like doors started opening to them, and they could make a real difference.”

Practically everyone says it gave them self-confidence. They say it feels like doors started opening to them, and they could make a real difference.

By June 2021, they decided to expand their offerings with another program – one that played on individual exploration to help students build their perfect career, then make it real. Zero Work launched that summer, a hackathon-style weekend where students could find career options ahead of them, start networking from scratch and start job hunting properly.

Rather than providing the motivational push of The Zero Experience, Beggs describes Zero Work as “standing in the eye of a hurricane. You can look clearly, pick out the right path forward, take a deep breath, then step back into the storm.” Participants agree, with a sense of clarity and, again, self-confidence permeating their takeaways.

Grad student, faculty and alumni interest

Zero became a beloved part-time project for them, even after they graduated and started their own full-time careers. But they don’t seem ready
to settle.

Jackson Mills“Every time someone comes to me talking about how bored they are at school, or stressed they are about their future, or worried that they can’t stand out – it lights a fresh fire under me,” Mills says.

Beggs and Mills haven’t just been helping undergraduate students. Slowly but surely, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, faculty and even alumni have registered for the Zero programs.

“These big questions Zero answers – ‘How can I make a difference? How can I be successful? How can I find opportunities?’ – aren’t just asked by students,” Mills says. “If anything, it’s the alumni out in the real world who want them answered most. We even want them answered. That’s why we teach them. People say teaching is the best way to learn, after all!”

In fact, Beggs and Mills are currently crafting new, alumni-exclusive Zero programs.

It’s for people who want to do something awesome, but don’t know how to get started; people who want to be innovators but have no ideas. 

“They’re coming very soon,” Beggs says. “We schedule everything down to the minute, with as much meaning packed into every word as possible. That takes time to design, though we’re almost done.

“Maybe that’s a bit obsessive, but it seems like people appreciate this fast, no-fluff approach to learning. So, we’re going to keep doing it, until everyone knows that they can make an impact, and knows exactly how it works. That’s our goal.

"It’s for people who want to do something awesome, but don’t know how to get started; people who want to be innovators but have no ideas. People want great jobs, but don’t know how to get them. You know you’re supposed to be moving faster, but you’re stuck and can’t figure out why."