From her father’s den to the Dragons’ Den
By Jon Tattrie
Broke, divorced and excommunicated, Arlene Dickinson contemplated her future from the discomfort of her father’s couch. A judge had just taken away custody of her four children and told her if she wanted them back, she’d have to prove she could earn enough money to take care of them. She was 31, had a high school diploma and a string of entry level jobs.
“You can’t let this define you,” her father told her as she tried to imagine a path out of his house.
It wasn’t obvious that she was about to become one of the wealthiest, most powerful and influential business figures in Canada.
Dickinson says in the early stages, entrepreneurs must have massive self-belief, mixed with a dose of self-doubt. “You can start to believe in yourself so much – and in what you’re doing so much – that you stop being able to hear what other people are telling you,” she says.
That can be a fatal mistake. It’s better to hear early marketplace mutterings about your product. Listen. Adjust.
Dickinson’s self-doubt drives her to examine every idea for weaknesses and improve them. But when it’s time to pitch, she’s all confidence.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are similar. We portray these extroverted, highly confident people, but that can sit atop a modest, introverted person,” she explains.
Dickinson made the most of her thin resume and a family connection to land a sales position on a Calgary television station in the late 1980s. She got her kids back. She found she had a talent for selling ads, but the station let her go.
Dickinson was one step closer to fortune and fame.
Some business sages argue success is best achieved when you find your passion and make it your business. Others say you should find your talent and make a business around that.
Dickinson sits between the two positions. Your passion may leave the market cold and your business will falter. But exploiting holes in the market might fail, too. “Passion is a really key indicator of whether you’re on the right track,” she says. “If you don’t love it, you might not have the drive you’re going to require to cross the finish line. You have to have a passion for what the opportunity is, otherwise you’re just building something to make money and you’re not really going to live a dream.”
Dickinson has seen thousands of business dreams. She says the successful ones start with the table stakes of a good idea. “There are very few new ideas,” she says. “It comes down to a strong idea, and the person’s ability to execute it.”
Dickinson’s ad-selling mentor had left the television station shortly before she was let go. He and a few colleagues started a marketing company called Venture Communications. He invited her to join them. She wouldn’t get a lot of money, but she would be a partner. She accepted. It was 1988. A decade later, she bought out the last remaining partner and took over the company. Her business success rocketed. Her net worth is estimated at $80 million.
Her life changed again in 2007 when she was invited to audition for Dragons’ Den, the CBC reality show which was then attracting 200,000 viewers per episode. She was skeptical. “Me, a fifty-something woman with wrinkles, on Dragons’ Den? No way. This isn’t British television after all,” she writes in her best-selling book, Persuasion.
She landed the job. Today, the show draws two million viewers and Dickinson has become an icon.
Dickinson says it’s odd to be treated like a normal person all your life, and then suddenly turn heads because you’re on TV. There’s a theory that people remain the age they were when they first became famous. Dickinson is delighted by the idea. Fortune and fame have changed her life and her worldview, but not her values. “I’m really glad that it happened to me later in life, because it’s a heady thing. It’s really easy to get caught up in the trappings that somehow you are special. I really am not,” she says.
Her celebrity status opens doors for her, but her work ethic, and ethical working, earn her a place inside the room. She doesn’t always succeed, but Dickinson is not put off by failure. Persuasion is full of horror stories of her turning up drenched and unshowered to pitch to a convention of hairdressers, or getting lost in an industrial park and arriving to a pitch late and disheveled. “Failure is part of the journey to success. If I meet an entrepreneur who has failed, I’m actually usually more interested in that person. The lessons they’ve learned in business are irreplaceable. These aren’t things you can learn at school – these are things you learn in the front line,” she explains.
But if a pitcher on the Dragons’ Den pins their failure on a rough market patch, a recession, or bad luck, her purse snaps shut. All of those factors may be true, but it’s an entrepreneur’s job to handle that. As the Buddha advised, drive all blame into one: yourself. Learn what went wrong and better position yourself to succeed next time.
It takes guts, because Canada has a problem with business failure. Consider the note of glee in reports that BlackBerry is falling on tough times. “BlackBerry has not failed. They’ve hit a market condition that needs to be addressed, but this is an incredibly successful company that has created an ecosystem in Waterloo and across the country that has thrown off billions of dollars in economic benefit to our country,” Dickinson says. “How silly are we to think that because they are looking at change, somehow that means they’ve failed?”
Dickinson was born in South Africa and immigrated to Canada as a child. She grew up in poverty, but saw opportunities all around her. She also knew she could and would fail. “My parents instilled in me this gratitude for the environment I was blessed to be now living in. As a result of that, I’ve always felt like nothing was going to get in my way. There were no human-rights issues that were going to get in my way; I never thought of the fact that I was a woman instead of a man,” she says.
But that good fortune can make Canadians soft and unable to appreciate the guts it takes to start a business. It can make us dismissive of someone who’s suffered a setback and has to start again. “We’ve never really had to, as a culture, suffer. As a result we tend to think, how could you fail?”
Dickinson mentions Clearwater and Sobeys as examples of Atlantic Canadian companies that have created entire ecosystems that employ thousands of people. “It far exceeds what they did when they created their business on its own,” she says. “As Canadians we need to embrace and elevate the Mike Lazarisises of the world, the Jim Balsillies, the John Risleys, the Sobeys, the McCains, the Shaws.”
Unlike some of her fellow dragons, she doesn’t believe success is measured solely by wealth. In Persuasion, she writes that building your core ethics and beliefs is a more satisfying measure of self-worth than how much money you have, or how high you climb the corporate ladder. It’s also the most stable source of energy to drive you forward. Dickinson, as any fan of Dragons’ Den or her new show The Big Decision will know, believes capitalism can have a heart. “Simply because you’re a capitalist doesn’t mean you’re selfish or that you have no regard for the well-being of those around you.”
We should encourage kids to think about how to use their talents to develop something bigger than them, she urges. Instead of preparing your child to land a great job as a doctor or lawyer, why not support them in their dream to create their own job, and many more?
Dickinson points to Jessie Jollymore, a dietician in Halifax’s North End Community Health Centre. Jollymore saw a need to improve the food locals ate. She also saw a vacant lot. Together, they were bursting with opportunity. She rallied neighbourhood kids to start urban farming in 2007. The kids grew the food and brought it home to cook delicious family meals. “There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes, the children raise the village,” Jollymore says.
The kids, aged eight to 15, created a salad dressing. It sold 2,200 bottles last year. The kids attended a week of business school this summer, courtesy of the Black Business Initiative, to learn how to develop the business. They aim to sell 6,000 bottles this year
Today, Hope Blooms has grown to 50 kids and 27 family plots that collectively harvest 2,000 pounds of produce a year. Seven of the kids, plus Jollymore, pitched their business to the Dragons’ Den earlier in the spring.
“She epitomizes capitalism with a heart. She’s encouraging youth to think differently,” Dickinson says.
Dickinson, who came out of poverty herself, says at-risk youth can be great entrepreneurs. “It is already risky and bad. You know where you are. When somebody says you can take yourself out of this, you suddenly start to see yourself for what you are, which is an instrument of your own success or failure. It helps them think about business and being in charge of their own destiny. And that’s what entrepreneurs do well.”
The Hope Blooms episode won’t air until October, so Jollymore can’t say if they landed any investors. But she can say that dragon Jim Treliving, owner of the Boston Pizza chain, recently flew in to take the kids to lunch. He told them he’s going to try to get their salad included in his restaurants.
It’s the kind of dream that drives Dickinson. What scares her most these days is not failure. “It’s running out of time. There are so many wonderful things we can do to make a difference not just for ourselves, but for those around us.”
Arlene Dickinson is returning to Halifax as Scotiabank’s Business Champion this fall. “It’s rare in life that you have the chance to apply all of the lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career and put them to work in a way that’s genuinely meaningful and helpful to others,” she says. “My personal experience and lessons learned will complement Scotiabank’s strength in the delivery of advice and products, a powerful combination ultimately benefitting Canadian entrepreneurs.”
Dickinson will be the guest speaker at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s annual Fall Dinner Nov. 7.