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Conversation with a Visionary

Arlene Dickinson

When Arlene Dickinson walks into the room, she owns it. Not in that loud, I’m-someone-important way employed by narcissistic celebrities and fervent CEOs, but in a calm, cultivated and confident way that immediately inspires.

She is one of Canada’s most recognized and successful entrepreneurs— and one of entrepreneurialism’s leading advocates—as well as a best-selling author and noted philanthropist. She is on campus to speak at the Asper School of Business about something she knows very well: achievement.

Her smile is warm—and familiar to most Canadians who have tuned in to CBC’s Dragons’ Den or The Big Decision—and her first words are kind: She’s happy to be here at the University of Manitoba, to be speaking with President David T. Barnard. And she’s thrilled that today—January 28, 2016—is the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in Manitoba, the first women in the country to obtain that right.


DAVID BARNARD: How do you see the significance of today from a personal perspective?

ARLENE DICKINSON: I’m 59 years old so, to me, 100 years is not that long for women to have had the right to vote, which seems so fundamental now. Of course we should have the right to vote. Of course we should have equality.

I always get concerned when feminism is mischaracterized as being against something, as opposed to for something. I think we get caught up in the male versus female fight and really what we should be talking about is human equality. That’s the banner we should all be marching under.

So, I like the notion that this is a representative moment to talk about equality, not just for women, but for everyone. You’re well known as an entrepreneur. What key ideas and values drive you in the work you do?

Success is living the best life you can, and not letting circumstances or environment preclude your future. I think you have to own your future. Entrepreneurialism gives me the opportunity to do that. I love it because I get to be me no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m working or whether I’m playing, I’m just who I am. I think everybody should do that—to be the same person at work and at home. But it’s easier when you’re an entrepreneur.


What role does education play in the success of entrepreneurs, and how do you see business schools contributing?

I graduated high school at 16, got married at 19 and had children right away, so I never had an opportunity to go to a post-secondary institution for training or education. But I think it’s very important. I think a university education helps significantly in terms of getting students business-ready. The lessons I learned the hard way, which can be very costly, can be learned in a much more disciplined way.

I like that the Asper School is really strong in making sure students are involved in the community as well, so they get to actually experience what the work force is like.

Certainly in recent years the Asper School of Business, and the university as a whole, is increasing emphasis on engagement.

I think for entrepreneurial schools it’s critical. There are some things you can’t anticipate in business, and there’s no way to instruct it. Sometimes you just have to witness it. So if you can get outside the classroom and bring those experiences back, everyone is richer as a result.


What unexpected things have happened to you?

Two years ago there was a flood in Calgary. I’ve been in business 30 years and nothing prepared me for what that did to our business, to the city, to everything. Our business was flooded, we lost everything and we had to move. Nothing could have prepared me for that. But I feel much richer as a result of having gone through it. There are lessons there that could be taught, but you’d never have someone fully understand it until they’ve lived it.


If you came to the Asper School to teach, what kind of course would you enjoy teaching?

I think it would be somewhere between self-help and business.

Between the notion of understanding who you are and how important it is to centre yourself on your own values, and not be taken away from those things as you go about your business life. Because the lines get very grey in business. So it would be an ethics/personal/business course that I would teach. How do you hold on to who you are? How do you not get drawn into the maelstrom that is business? How do you contribute to society? I feel I have a good view on this. It might only be a 20-minute lecture.


On the occasions when I’ve seen you on Dragons’ Den, one thing that made you an attractive participant—someone we wanted to watch—is your sense of integrity not showmanship.

It’s about fairness to me. As a female—not to use that as an excuse— but I think I experienced a level of unfairness and a degree of having to work harder to prove myself. And that taught me something. It taught me courage, it taught me confidence, and it also taught me that you can sell your soul if you want to. It’s very easy in business to sell your soul, and you have to make sure you don’t. The showmanship on that show is not what it was about for me. It was never about getting more airtime; it was about understanding what that [entrepreneur] was going through.


What is the role of philanthropy in the business sector?

Philanthropy can sometimes be misinterpreted as financial; philanthropy means you’re giving a lot of money to something. But philanthropy is something everybody can do and I think the millennial generation is thinking more and more about social enterprise and how philanthropy should be baked right into the core of what business does. Whereas in our generation you made your money then decided if you were going to give it to somebody. To me, philanthropy is all about that continuum of giving. Not everyone has money to give, but everyone has time to give. Everyone has kindness to give. Every business should exhibit philanthropy, but it starts with the individuals inside the business.


In the fall, we launched Front and Centre, a comprehensive philanthropic campaign intended to transform our university, and by extension our province and the world. Our goal is to raise $500 million. And one thing that is really gratifying is working with leaders in the community and seeing how people want to give to support the university. It’s really been impressive.

The more that universities can act entrepreneurially as it relates to fundraising—to get engaged in business endeavours, to create a sustainable business—the better, because you can’t always be fundraising. $500 million is a lot of money. What are you guys going to do with it all?


We’re raising money for student support, to help students succeed by providing an exceptional student experience; we intend to increase the number of graduate students, who help drive the research and innovation agenda; to support research enterprises directly, to promote discovery that improves and enhances our lives; we also have a number of capital projects that will reshape the university over the next several decades; and in particular at this university we’re focused on Indigenous achievement, on raising funds to create an environment that facilitates Indigenous success. Nationally, and more so here in Manitoba, we have a high and growing percentage of the population that is Indigenous. For a long time the university has been engaged in working with Indigenous people, but we’re not representative yet. So there’s a real challenge there. And we’re committed to it.

We can’t undo all the horrific treatments of Indigenous people who suffered at the hands of the Canadian government and Canadians in general, but what we can do is think about ways to make it better. And in Manitoba in particular where you have such a large population of Indigenous people it’s really important. It’s fantastic that you’re doing that.


Can we talk politics? When are you going to run for political office?

I am such a proud Canadian, I can’t even say how deeply committed to the country I am, but I don’t think I’d be a good politician. I say what I believe and it’s not always the political thing to do. Maybe one day. I’ve learned never to say never.


What’s next for you?

I want to focus on a very important asset that this country has— the entrepreneurial spirit—and create more of an entrepreneurial nation. We are not celebrating entrepreneurialism. We are not elevating successful entrepreneurs who take bold chances and have dreams and create opportunities through innovation.

So, I want to help entrepreneurs succeed. And I want people to recognize the value of entrepreneurs in our community, in our country and in our nation’s economy. That is my goal.

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