When it comes to business start-ups in Canada, one of the acknowledge experts is Arlene Dickinson. The entrepreneur and Venture Communications CEO is a self-made multi-millionaire.
South Africa born, Calgary raised, Dickinson is best known for her savvy dealings on Dragon’s Den. She’s the one with the grey streak, as opposed to former Den-mate Denis O’Leary’s mean streak.
Starting Friday, she starts hosting her third CBC series, Under New Management. I spoke with her late last year at CBC’s annual winter launch in Toronto.
Arlene, what’s the premise of this series?
People out there are feeling a lot of pressure – they’re not loving their jobs, they’re not sure what they want to do with their lives, they’re not sure what the future looks like for them.
What the show is about is helping people take their dreams of owning their own business but they don’t know what kind of business to buy. They’re kind of stuck as to the next step. My job is to help them find a business that lines up with who they are and what I think they’ll be most successful at.
Goodness, where do I sign up? I’m in journalism! Help!!
I think… I have an opinion on that. I think journalists need to stick together more than they do. They’re too isolated, too territorial. There’s not enough collaboration. There are too many people chasing ratings as opposed to doing what’s right.
Can you answers be more clickable? Never mind. Do you see yourself as a career counselor on this series?
I think I’m more of a facilitator Bill. I want people to think about what their trying to do with their lives. I want them to think about the decisions they are making in the context of themselves as opposed to telling them what to do. I want to give them something to think about. We all get kind of stuck in our own ruts around the way we think or the way we should think.
On the first episode, Dickinson goes business shopping with NBA basketball player Cory Joseph. The Toronto native has played with both the Toronto Raptors and, now, with the Indiana Pacers. At 27, he’s looking ahead to the day, as he says, “the ball’s going to stop bouncing for me.” He wants to invent around $300,000 and hopes to set his sister Danielle up as manager of a restaurant. Dickinson shows him two eaterie opportunities but also one very different venture opportunity, a gym in the Toronto suburb of Vaughn, Ont.
Are you mainly working with people who are trying to re-invent themselves?
No, more people looking to get out of the rut of what they’re doing. Something’s happened—their jobs have changed, they’ve made a life choice decision to do something together. Cory wants to support his sister’s dreams. Everyone has a different reason. I show them three different business options and they make a choice.
Like ‘Escape to the Country’ but with careers.
Yeah – but this is real life stuff!
What is the biggest mistake people make when they are trying to forge a new business plan?
Sometimes we can see ourselves doing something and we’re missing the obvious thing somebody else might be able to see.
People come to me and say, “I really want to own a restaurant… I have to own a restaurant!“ I talk to people and find out they have all these other interests and have they considered owning something in one of those other things instead? I hopefully open up vistas for them to think differently.
When did this moment happen for you?
I’m constantly trying to reinvent myself. I think that’s just part of who I am. I love trying new challenges and trying new things. Failure isn’t fail—it’s not fun, nobody likes it but … I don’t know where I learned it. I just learned never to quit. I’m more just don’t quit.
The good news is that starting a business isn’t as difficult as it used to be because the Internet has made markets much more accessible. Canadian brands have much more value now around the world. There are a lot of things people can do if they just put their minds to it.
What would you say to folks at General Motors in Oshawa now? They’re very invested in being the skilled worker that they already are.
It’s such a raw, early time for that still. I feel desperately badly for people in the energy sector that have lost their job; people in the automobile sector who have lost their job.
I can tell you out of these difficult circumstances, what I do believe, what I do know happens is that entrepreneurial spirits rise and Canadians in particular have the courage and the persistence and the pioneering spirit that will get them through that.
Maybe somebody will look at that plant and say, “Hey, why don’t we turn it into a clean tech plant?” New types of engines could be produced or something else could happen.
Maybe a plant that makes all-Canadian cars?
Hopefully some entrepreneur will do that. It will take somebody with a ton of courage, somebody who will get backing from a lot of people.