Inspiration knows no gender.
Arlene Dickinson is the CEO of Venture Communications and YouInc.com and is renowned for her work in independent marketing communications. Her creative and strategic approach has turned Venture Communications into a huge success with a blue chip client list.
Arlene founded YouInc.com, a company she founded in 2012 that is dedicated to serving and investing in entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial lifestyle.
Many Canadians recognize Arlene from her role as one of the venture capitalists on the award-winning CBC series Dragon’s Den, and The Big Decision, as well as a marketing expert on Recipe to Riches.
A self-made woman, Arlene immigrated from South Africa to Canada at a young age, and is now a mother of four and grandmother of five all while managing her businesses and other various interests. Dickinson is also the author of two books: the number one bestselling book Persuasion and her most recent best-selling release All In.
Her leadership and success has been recognized with several awards and honours including: Canada’s Most Powerful Women Top 100, the Pinnacle Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence, as well as PROFIT and Chatelaine’s Top 100 Women Business Owners.
IGNITE invited Arlene to celebrate International Women’s Day with us and she spoke to Humber & Guelph-Humber students about everything from her life experiences, to Dragon’s Den, to women in business.
Talking to student around campus, a lot of women have found inspiration in your work, which women were some of your greatest inspirations?
You know it was funny, on International Women’s Day I was thinking about that a lot and I was mentally going through a list of who has influenced me this year, it’s generally not the same group two years in a row, where you are in your life affects who your influences and role models are.
Jann Arden inspires me because she is unafraid to voice her opinions. What she does with her family and her mom is so inspiring because her mom has Alzheimer’s and she takes such great care of her.
Also Roberta Bondar who is the first female Canadian astronaut who’s been to space and what she’s done in breaking through. I was wondering why would I choose this list of people and Clara Hughes who speaks out on mental health issues and her willingness to talk about those things. It’s all about the moment in time and you look out there into the zeitgeist and wonder what is it that I need right now, and sometimes it is the same people every year, because they believe in a multitude of things that you believe in and sometimes its the people you don’t expect.
“Never compare how you feel on the inside, to how someone looks on the outside. Because everyone deals with things, I want you to wake up and look in the mirror and not think, oh I’m not as pretty as her, or as handsome as him or as good as anyone else, because you are good.”
What do you think is distinct or unique about the experience of being a Canadian business woman?
We live in the best country in the world so we’re pretty fortunate. As a female in Canada, there are always barriers, whether you’re a female and you deal with racial bias or sexual bias or gender bias, these are all things that we all deal with. On the scale of where we are in the world we have a lot of opportunity here, so really what ultimately stops us is ourselves.
Earlier this week you were involved with the Women in Work Conference at the University of Calgary and today you’re participating in our events for International Women’s Day. How do you think organizations and events that aim to empower women help with the issues that modern women face today?
What we have to do is create systematic change and in order to create systematic change where people behave differently because they think differently, we have to make people aware of what the different issues are. But just talking about it is never enough, so action is really what counts.
I tweeted today, “Today is the day after International Women’s Day, now what really matters is our actions, not our words.” So I would say that conferences like this that raise awareness and give people practical ideas of what they can do as individuals to make a difference are incredibly important.
One of the students at the University of Calgary stood up and said that his sister, who was a lawyer, said that the things that he was doing to support women really are not. She was helping him understand that sometimes when you think you are helping someone, you actually are not and being a big brother or being in defense of somebody can diminish that person, and he was surprised by that. So he asked what should I do about that, and I said that you should ask the person you are trying to defend what they need you to do. So it’s an awkward or hard thing to do to make systematic changes.
“There are two types of people in this world, people who will do whatever it takes to keep their word in a deal, and people who will do whatever it takes to not hold true to their word. You need to realize this so you can pick and choose who you do business with.”
How important is it to recognize intersectionality (multiple identities: ie. sexuality, religion, family-life) when it comes to women in business?
I’ve always said that, what we really need to do is instead of seeing a women or a man or a gender or sexual orientation in each other, what we need to do is to see the person behind all of it and we need to think of people as humans as opposed to trying to categorize each other.
So I actually try to go broader as opposed to narrower. We all have a right to be treated equally and fairly, then why do we need to separate each other with identities? We just need identify as a person with specific needs, and those needs are specific to anyone and everyone in this world.
So sometimes we do a disservice by identifying somebody and trying to tailor to them, we should understand everyone has human rights and treat them equally. That is what I think is missing right now in these conversations.
With students being actively encouraged in school to become entrepreneurs and to own businesses of their own, how has youthful entrepreneurialism affected the climate of business in Canada?
You’re talking to somebody who just put thirty-thousand feet of space to work on to help people in the next generation to become entrepreneurs. The effect of youthful entrepreneurialism is everything, it’s everything in terms of how we think of ourselves politically as a nation, in a business sense as a nation and how we think of ourselves. In terms of what we want to stand for as a nation, comes down to the next generation, so what you need is to be able to carry the history of Canadians, from indigenous people through to now we need to carry that history with us so we don’t lose the context of those values that got us here.
We need to look at what’s happening currently to say what is good and bad and somebody has to move that forward and continue to evolve it. The people who are going to move this country forward, are not from my generation, they’re from your generation, the younger generation. So what my generation has the obligation to do is to make sure that we are leaving this world as a place where the youth can pick up the pieces and turn it into something else.
“Of course I believe in luck, but luck only comes to people who are prepared to use it.”
In a business perspective, business is changing. I would never have dreamt that when I started my business that I could just get on a website and sell a product globally, it wasn’t possible. Offshore manufacturing didn’t exist, e-commerce didn’t exist like the way it is, it was very expensive to do a lot of things. So now the only thing standing in your way is you, but more importantly whats becoming increasingly important for the younger generation is to represent Canada on the world stage.
So starting your own business and growing it from here is one of the biggest challenges in the economy, how do we keep you from coming up with a new business idea and doing something major and saying well now I need to go to Silicon Valley or overseas to start a business because I can’t build it here in Canada, because there is no capital, no support.
“Money can be a good thing if you want to buy nice clothes or cars. But the true value of money is that it gives you the ability to live a free life. No one can tell you, you can’t speak to someone on the phone, no one can turn your heat off, money gives you freedom to live.”
What we need is to think about right now, and I think this is happening more and more in Canada, but still not enough which is how do we develop and environment where you can sell around the globe but you don’t need to leave Canada, you can build your business from here. That means changing the financial markets, changing structuring and thinking about what you require to build a business. It’s hard because technology is changing everyday so it’s hard to know what you need and predict the future.
Make sure to check out our exclusive interview with IGNITE Real Talks Speaker Kaitlin Bristowe.
*This Interview has been edited for length and clarity*