Michelle Dittmer

Founder & Gap Year Expert, Canadian Gap Year Association

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Lianna Harrington

Who is Michelle Dittmer, could you please introduce yourself?

I am a believer in the power of youth.  I believe that they have ideas, perspectives and skills that, with a little guidance, can be transformative in our world and in how they see themselves.

At home, I am a mom of brilliant and powerful young girls and the sweetest pup around.  I am a wife, a daughter, a sister and a friend.

When I am working on gap year initiatives, I am alive and living out my passion of helping to modernize the way we see learning and getting more young people connected with meaningful experiences and equipping them with the skills they need to be reflective and self-aware.

The boring stuff: My background is in education, educational travel, service learning and youth policy.

The fun stuff: I love to swim, crochet/knit, hike, kayak and read.  My favorite ice cream is mint chocolate chip!

What is your business and when did you start?

I run the Canadian Gap Year Association.  Although I started with a for-profit model in 2008, CanGap as a non-profit has been around since 2017.

What inspired you to start your business?

I was a teacher and I left the classroom because the walls were too small for me and for many of my students.  It was too much about checking boxes rather than discovering how to be curious, how to get along and how to identify your gifts and talents and figure out how to use them for good.

Understanding how slow the education system moves, I realized I needed to influence the system from the outside.  Combine that with my passion for emerging adulthood and supporting agency in young people, bringing the gap year movement to Canada became my mission.

What were the challenges in the initial stages of your business and how did you overcome them?

The major challenge was my financial responsibilities.  I had a car, a mortgage and bills that needed to be paid and gap years are still not commonly accepted in Canada so being paid for my work was going to be an uphill battle.  I was working it as a side-passion project until I hit a tipping point when I could make it financially reasonable to shift to full-time.  I had to be pragmatic and patient and put in loads of unpaid time. BUT, I also had to have the confidence to make the leap – I could not grow the business without putting in more hours and dedicated time.  Once I obtained a grant that could literally keep my lights on, it was time to leave the cushy world of being an employee and move to making my dreams come true.

What motivates you about your business?

Youth need this.  Not all of them, but those who do, need it badly.  Some of them struggle with mental health, others need time to earn money, while others still don’t know what they want to study or pursue as a career.  No matter the reason for choosing a gap year – the outcome is always inspirational – growth in confidence, independence, a stronger sense of self and clarity on life’s next steps.

On a personal note, the flexibility of being an entrepreneur allows me to be more present for my kids when they need me.  And that is priority number one!

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

Figure out early on how to separate entrepreneurship and homelife.  The feeling of working harder and working more being the only way to make more money can be all-consuming.  Make sure that you can make space for both parts of who you are.  Have patience.

Interesting fact most of the people do not know about you?

I am Indigenous.

The best business advice I ever received was…

 Ask for money, you’ll get advice.  Ask for advice and you will get money.

My definition of success is…

Feeling fulfilled and using my gifts and talents to benefit others.

If I could go back in time when I started my business, I would tell myself to…

Be patient.  Every small seed you plant will eventually grow.  Every relationship you invest in will serve you at some point. “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither will your business.

Three books I recommend for entrepreneurs are…

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson 

Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull & Amy Wallace

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My personal tagline is…

Experience Life. Life Experience.

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