Talking business with Arlene Dickinson

June 21, 2013
FAJO’s Power Series

Arlene Dickinson is on the phone. It’s 9 a.m. on a warm spring morning and she is calmly walking around barefoot at her high-ceiling loft in downtown Toronto. She smiles and waves at us, while simultaneously remaining very focused on the person at the other end of the line. As we arrive, Dickinson wraps up the call and, following a hair and make-up session, the interview begins.

Imagine inviting a whole editorial crew to your house without having ever met them. How would you feel? What would you say? Dickinson is a natural. She is friendly, polite and interested to ask questions herself. By the way, have we mentioned that she is excellent at doing that while having her lipgloss applied?

Dickinson has defied the male-dominated business world by creating a real success story. Whoever said that juggling family and work life was impossible would never say that again if they met her. Dickinson is currently one of Canada’s most renowned entrepreneurs. In 1988, she became a partner in Venture Communications and took over the company as the sole owner in 1998. Her creative and strategic approach has turned the company into a powerhouse with a blue chip client list. Dickinson’s most recent venture is Arlene Dickinson Enterprises (ADE) – a company she founded in 2011 that is dedicated to serving and investing in the entrepreneurial lifestyle, with its online community and resource site for entrepreneurs

A mother of four and a grandmother of three, she is well-known to many Canadians as a venture capitalist on CBC series’ Dragons’ Den and The Big Decision; author of the best-selling book Persuasion and the creator of the Persuasion product line that includes coffee, wine, skin care and chocolate; national spokesperson for The Breakfast Club of Canada; and the Honorary Captain of the Royal Canadian Navy. She also has three honourary degrees.

Before heading to our photoshoot location at 119 Corbò, Dickinson sat down with FAJO Magazine for an interview. Here is what we chatted about.

Arlene Dickinson graces the cover of our June issue. Photo: Tara West. Graphic design: Kalynn Friesen.

You’ve started a lot of small businesses and grew them. Since you’ve been doing it for so many years, do you still get a sense of excitement when you’re starting something new?

ARLENE DICKINSON: It’s really funny, the other day I was walking home and I was thinking about the stress of doing a start-up because really that’s what I’m doing with [my] new company [Dickinson is launching a magazine for]. You know, the stress and the energy it takes, the effort. And I thought: ‘Why am I doing this at this stage in my life?’ I really had one of those moments, but [then I] thought: ‘Oh my God, I can’t imagine not doing it because it’s so exciting!’ While it’s a lot of work, the excitement and the whole opportunity is exhilarating, and it makes you get up and want to go to work everyday.

What is the most exciting part for you at Dragons’ Den?

Getting people’s products commercialized, really helping their businesses grow in a meaningful way. We can do things with our partners that really do change the shape of their business, and I just can’t imagine doing anything more rewarding than that. I’ve been working for two years on one of my deals and it’s finally going to hit store shelves. It’s been a long hard road but he’s so excited – it’s an 80-year-old man who had this great idea.


80. That’s what’s exciting about Dragon’s Den – you can take people’s dreams no matter what age or stage [they are at], and make them real.

Arlene Dickinson on set of Dragons’ Den 2012-2013 season. Image courtesy of CBC.

Since you’ve been so involved in the start-up industry, do you feel like wherever you go people are always trying to pitch you?

They are (laughs). I don’t feel like it, they actually are (laughs). I don’t think all of the Dragons get pitched everywhere, but I get pitched in the most bizarre places from washrooms to restaurants to airplanes to walking down the street. But people are very respectful and they always have the best intentions, so it’s part of what goes along with being on the show. I’m not going to complain about it because people will always mean well when they do it.

Your primary business is Venture Communications and marketing. When you travel, are you ever looking for what other countries are doing in the same industry and searching for things that you can bring back to Canada?

Totally. I spend a lot of time either online or in my travels looking at what the social fabric is. I think a keen observer makes a great marketer. Just like a great journalist, the more you can observe the more you can kind of really start to understand the context in which people are living, and what’s changing their world because of their environment. The more you understand what’s actually going to motivate them to be all they can be. So I really pay a lot of attention when I travel to how people interact with each other.

You’ve built your business from the ground up. Did you ever have a defining moment in your career when you felt you have accomplished it all? Or was it very progressive?

I still don’t think I’m there. I think that’s part of the bane and joy of being an entrepreneur – you always want to push harder and you always want to be able to build it to all it can be. I think your work is never really done, even when you sell your business or when you transition out of a business.

What motivates you?

My family. I always say I’m motivated by success, and I define success by my happiness quotient. If I’m happy, then I feel successful; and when I’m doing things I love, I’m happy. So to me success is an emotional factor, not a financial one.

Are you happy right now?

Very, very happy right now.

Let’s talk a bit about fashion. Can you tell us about some of the designers you like?

I’m pretty eclectic in my taste, I wear a lot of different designers. In fact, I had a stylist come over to look at my wardrobe recently and she says, ‘You know that jacket in the closet.’ And I went, ‘No, I don’t remember.’ After she brought it down: ‘Oh yeah, that one.’ (laughs) I’m the worst at keeping my closet organized by designer or by type.

But, in Canada, there are so many great designers. I love Greta Constantine and I love Wayne Clark. I love DSquared2. I mean, we have a country with some fantastic designers, I’m only naming three of hundreds. Because I’m older and I’m not, you know, a size two, I like fashion that actually acknowledges and appreciates an older woman’s figure but lets you still be fashionable.

I love Chanel, it fits me well and is one of those brands that I feel really great in when I wear it. I love Stella McCartney because she’s got a wonderful flair. Donna Karan and Alexander McQueen I’m a fan of; there’s just a lot of designers I really have a great appreciation of, because I love art and I find that designers who have an artistic flair are the ones that I gravitate more towards.

Dickinson poses for FAJO at 119 Corbo in Yorkville – one of her favourite Toronto boutiques.

Many people in the fashion industry are creative but do not necessarily always have a business mind. What kind of advice would you give to somebody who needs to set up the business side of their company?

I think in the design community, what makes you special is that you think differently. You can express yourself and who you are through a form that many people can’t: whether that’s painting, or photography, or design. And, as a result of the way you think, you probably don’t think about it in a commerce perspective. So I would challenge the people who want to make a living out of their artistic interpretation to partner up with a business mind. To not let somebody represent them but to partner with them, because I think it’s too easy to be the subject of somebody else’s efforts and not really, you know, have them in the game with you. The most successful design houses in the world all have a business relationship attached to them. They are all business-minded at their root, not because the designer was business-minded but because they brought along a partner that was.

It was often the romantic partner.

Exactly, that’s very true. Yves Saint Laurent is a great example, I love Yves Saint Laurent, by the way. I was in their store in Dallas recently: I just loved everything and wanted to buy the whole store. I bought a great cuff there, it was beautiful!

So speaking of fashion and creativity, what do you do on the creative side of your life?

I always like to say I’m a keen observer of creativity. My business has been founded on the belief that creativity is art for commerce sake, not art for art sake, because marketing really is about taking art and applying it to the business of business. And so I have surrounded myself with really talented designers and writers and programmers, who are doing art for applied reasons of business. I recognize that they can do something I can’t do and I think you can see in my home that I love beauty, I love beautiful things and I think it’s because I understand that I can’t do it myself. I express my creativity by surrounding myself with artistic expressions.

You have a lot of art and photography works in your loft and you also have some that were created by your daughter. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

A lot of the pieces that you see here were picked up along the way on my travels. I was in Africa and I met the person who made that headdress (points to it), or I was in France and I met the person who sculpted that globe (points to it). Everywhere I’ve gone, I tried to pick up pieces. For the majority of it, I can remember where I was when I bought it and I remember who I bought it from.

And what about your shopping habits how would you describe them?

Well, again it’s funny, I was in Dallas and I walked into a store, and there was a jewelry designer who was having a trunk show. I ignored the entire store, and went and spent half an hour talking to her. I ended up buying a piece of her jewelry, which I was not going in to look for. But because she had a story and, you know, I appreciated her aesthetic, I bought something. So my shopping style is a little bit random, I’m not drawn to just one designer I’m drawn to many and I love eclectic pieces.

Do you ever go to any fashion shows?

Yes, I do. I’ll go to as many as I can during fashion week. I wanted to go to Pavoni this year, but I missed it. I went to Izzy Camilleri, I went to Mackage, Joe Fresh and Pink Tartan. I think that was probably it.

You’ve walked in a lot of shows throughout your career too.

Yeah, I have. (laughs) That’s a whole other experience!

Can you tell us about the first one you’ve ever done and how did that feel?

I think the first one I ever did was the Dare to Wear Love Gala and it was really freaky. It was odd. It’s funny how we see ourselves, right? You see all these really beautiful women who are tall and have fantastic figures and just think, ‘Oh gosh, what am I doing here.’ But I had a lot of fun with it!

Were you nervous?

No, it was more one of those moments. I wasn’t so much nervous as I was kind of thinking, ‘Ah well I just have to go out there and do whatever I’ve got to do.’ Or maybe I was nervous…

How important is it to you to participate in charity-related events?

Extremely. Giving back in whatever way you can is a really big part of my life. I think that as a celebrity, or any form of attention you get through being on television in Canada, you owe it to society to try and make sure that you’re using that to help causes. It’s really important to me. It can’t just be about your own personal attention because, first of all, I don’t want that and, second of all, I think it’s all about helping other people’s causes get the attention they deserve. So I do a lot of celebrity type of events because I care about the causes that are attached to them.

Dickinson supports a lot of charity events. Here she is pictured at The Starlight Children’s Foundation Gala 1 on April 6, 2013. Photo: George Pimentel Photography.

And you also really care about your family because you always talk about them. Can you tell us a bit about what your children do, what are their names, how old are they?

My youngest is Marina, she’s almost 29; then Michael, who’s 32; Carly, who’s 34; and then Garret who’s 36.

Marina is a photographer; she’s a photojournalist. Carly is pregnant with her third child and she’s an entrepreneur, but she’s also working for me, she manages all of my brand work outside of Venture. So she helps me with my brand and with You Inc. Garret works in I.T. and Michael has just opened up a liquid nutrition franchise, so he’s going to be an entrepreneur too.

Do they ever turn to you for advice?

I guess they all do. We have a really close relationship: they all tell me what’s going on in their lives. I wouldn’t play a constant role, but if they were making a big decision they would definitely talk to me.

That’s nice. Is there anything else you would like to add?

I don’t think so, other than I think it’s really important that the design community and the designers and the fashion industry in Canada start thinking about ways to promote themselves differently.

I do think there’s a real opportunity right now, over the next 10 years, to really build the attention and acknowledgment of the talent we’ve got in this country in the fashion industry. And the way to do that is through spending more time on the marketing and the effort behind the brands.

Brands don’t just get made because you make beautiful designs – brands happen because you’re purposeful about building your business. The same attention that is put into their design should be put into their brands, so that their brands can become well-known. They deserve it. There’s some real talent in this country.

FAJO Magazine would like to thank 119 Corbò for providing the location for this photoshoot.

By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Tara West
Stylist: Corbo 119 team
Make-up Artist: Amy Pigeon
Hair: Carlos Pang (Spellbound Hair Design)

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One Comment »

  • closet organizing said:

    This has been a great, timely series; thanks so much! Delighted to know I have many of these items in my closet but never thought of skinny jeans as an option for my legs before! Will certainly venture out…


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