An abundance of talent

Posted 2020-07-20
It was a straight flush at this year’s BC Business 30 Under 30 Awards with four UBC Sauder alumni and one staff member making the list of B.C.’s most enterprising young business leaders. In this summer series, we interview one winner each week and find out what entrepreneurship means to them.

Frankie Cena describes his success as a series of baby steps. The 28-year-old UBC Sauder Bachelor of Commerce grad is the founder and CEO of a debate and public speaking academy for youth.

Launched only four years ago, Fostering Debate Talent (FDT) Academy has already hit $1 million in revenue and helped hundreds of students compete in debate and speech tournaments. Some of FDT’s star students have represented Canada at world events in Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and beyond.

“As a performer, I think I make debate fun for kids,” says Cena. “That’s what gives me my edge.”

The world of competitive debate is full of academics who gravitate to the team sport because of their love of love research and reading. “I enjoy those things too but I would rather be performing, so I was able to combine both and that’s why my students are so successful,” explains Cena.

Although Cena emphasizes his love for the stage over his academic credentials, he was one of a select few in his class to attend UBC Sauder on a full scholarship. While carrying a full course load, he was also building his business and moonlighting as a TV host. In 2016, Global TV hired Cena to provide commentary on the U.S. Presidential debates.

“I’m good at juggling,” laughs Cena. “It’s one of my strengths.”

It was during his high school years in Burnaby that Cena, already a talented singer and performer, joined the student debate team and started winning competitions. The natural next step was to start coaching fellow students. Before long, parents began offering to pay Cena for his lessons.

“That’s when my aunt, who’s a business owner, said to me: why don’t you try to grow this thing you’ve got going? Why don’t you try working with more students?”

By this point, Cena was commuting every day from Burnaby to the UBC campus. As his client list grew, he hired his grandmother, mother and sister to help run things.

“Initially, I went to my clients’ houses to coach students, then as my business grew, we rented a basement suite and then a whole house,” recalls Cena. “Then we outgrew the house.”

Cena’s baby steps led him to open the FDT academy on West Broadway in Kitsilano where he and his team of instructors coach students ranging from Kindergarten through Grade 12.

Looking back on his education, Cena says there’s one course that continues to resonate with him. COMM 486R was an upper-level capstone course taught by adjunct professor, Robert Elton. At the end of the course, the students were asked to write a letter to themselves predicting their futures. In a paragraph titled 20 Years After Graduation, Cena reveals something surprising.

“I’m on stage crying my eyes out, in a year when you win the Emmy for “Best Television Host” and the “Grammy” for “Best Song”, while also being nominated for an Oscar… you cry if you want to. I cannot believe that everything I have worked for over my forty years of life, has all come to this. Every practice, lesson, Youtube video, and performance have led me to this tremendous moment.”

Eight years after writing these words, Cena is about to take a giant step in his career. The entrepreneur is relocating to pursue a career in show business. He’ll keep his company but leave the day-to-day operations to others. The performer in him is beckoning and he’s confident of his chances of success. It all comes down to practice.

“Before I made a dollar on debate, I spent hours and hours training myself,” says Cena. “My advice to students who want to pursue their true passion is go for it! But remember, it requires relentless hard work.”