Lessons from a Dragon: a profile of Arlene Dickinson


Dickinson is hopeful that more women will get executive-level jobs in the future

Author. Entrepreneur. Mother. Dragon. These are just a handful of the many hats worn by Arlene Dickinson, the self-made multi-millionaire who went from living hand-to-mouth while raising four children to becoming one of Canada’s most influential women in business.

Most of us first got to know the savvy, silver-streaked redhead during the second season of the CBC’s hit reality show Dragons’ Den, where she joined an otherwise all-male panel of highly opinionated financial heavyweights, such as fire-breather Kevin O’Leary. Audiences and panellists alike quickly learned that Dickinson — sharp, confident and with a keen eye for “the next big thing” — would hold her own just fine.

Six seasons later, she remains the sole woman on the panel, something she says is indicative of the number of female senior executives in Canada — a depressing 17 per cent.

“I hope that the show is a reminder of this stark reality,” she tells me over the phone from the Toronto office of her marketing firm, Venture Communications. “I imagine at some point we will change [the makeup of the panel] on the show, and that it will be a reflection of a change that’s happening in the marketplace.”

Dickinson is optimistic about the future of women in business — but adamant that action is needed in order to see them rise to the top.

“As our workplace becomes more than half female, it’s very important that we give women opportunities to thrive and shine in business. We have to diversify our boards. [Women] think differently, we approach problems differently. It’s not right or wrong; it’s different. And it’s crucial to have that other perspective at the table,” she says.

As for what fans of Dragons’ Den can expect in the near future, Dickinson sounds excited as she tells me that the deals being made this year are bigger and better than ever.

“I’m seeing a lot of ideas that are incredibly smart and bang on trend.” Her ability to identify these trends is uncanny, perhaps even among the other Dragons.

Many of the companies Dickinson invested in during recent seasons are already thriving. OMG’s Candy, the company that entrepreneurs Chris Emery and Larry Finnson pitched the Dragons in season six, is flying off the shelves of almost all major grocers and drug stores in Canada. Another of Dickinson’s season-six investments, Ontario’s beloved Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, is similarly spreading like wildfire, with two new locations in downtown Toronto alone.

“You have to stop judging yourself by other people’s standards.”

The secret to their success? According to Dickinson, it’s a combination of factors: “Great entrepreneurs with a proven track record, a great product and a space in the market that previously had a void.”

Season eight will begin airing in the fall, but the Dragons are in the middle of filming now — just one of the many tasks Dickinson juggles on a daily basis. In addition to her role on the Den and her position as CEO of Venture, she is also in the midst of writing her second book. Unlike her first, the 2011 best-seller Persuasion, which focused on her own life lessons, the as-yet unnamed book will be based on interviews with other successful entrepreneurs from across the country.

“It’s really about the entrepreneur’s life, how the personal and professional become so intertwined. There’s no balance!” She laughs, but her words are genuine, rooted in her own experience. When she started Venture, Dickinson was raising four children as a single mother, trying to make ends meet without even drawing a salary from the nascent business for two years.

“I think that we learn so much from other people’s stories,” she says. “[Writing the book,] I’ve been able to hear from others first-hand what their journey was like and what they learned.”

This idea of gleaning valuable tips from others’ experiences is also the basis of yet another project Dickinson has in development: YouInc.com, an online community for entrepreneurs to connect, share their stories and find resources and support. The website already boasts thousands of members, and an affiliated e-zine will be launched next month.

With all this on the go, it’s hard to imagine that Dickinson ever finds time to relax. “I’m really good at compartmentalizing!” she tells me. But even Mother’s Day will be a busy time for her — she’ll spend that week jetting across the country to visit her children and three grandkids, some of whom live in Toronto, others in Calgary.

Canada’s Western economic hub is where Dickinson grew up and still spends about half the year. She credits Calgary’s “entrepreneurial spirit” for helping her get her start in the business world during the late ’80s.

“There weren’t the same kinds of obstacles and barriers to starting a business,” she says. “It was a young city that needed a lot of services and organizations to grow.”

In the beginning, starting Venture was simply another attempt at putting food on the table, but within 10 years, Dickinson had taken sole ownership of the company, growing it from a local marketing firm to one of the biggest in Canada.

Today, putting food on the table remains one of her primary concerns — no longer for her own family, but for thousands of less-advantaged kids across the country.

Dickinson is the national spokesperson for Breakfast Clubs of Canada. True to her nature, she considers it a wise investment for our country’s economic future: “I think it’s very important to feed the future generation and make sure they’re able to pay attention in class rather than worrying if they’re going to get to eat that day.” One of her most recent fundraisers drew in more than $3 million for the foundation.

Still baffled by how she can successfully balance all these different commitments, I ask Dickinson what advice she has to offer to other working mothers. What it comes down to, it seems, is forging your own path — something Dickinson has done all her life.

“Bring your family along with you on the journey,” she says. “Don’t feel like you’re somehow shortchanging them. They’re going to have a different experience than other kids do, but it’s not necessarily a lesser experience. You have to stop judging yourself by other people’s standards. Let go of the guilt and embrace the messiness of what you’re doing.”

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