Meet Danielle Graham, venture capitalist and ventureLAB Growth Advisor

Danielle Graham

Danielle Graham is a venture capitalist with a purpose, focusing much of her career so far on fostering and funding underrepresented founders. She created Fierce Founders Programs — the first women-focused accelerator and bootcamp series in Canada — and has been Principal at Sandpiper Ventures and Dream Maker Ventures. Currently as Venture Partner at ArchAngel Network of Funds, Danielle serves founders with a social and environmental purpose looking to scale their tech businesses. She is an advisor for incubators ventureLAB, Haltech, Volta, and the Holt Fintech Accelerator.


My first job ever was… As an Intern at USAID (United States Agency for International Development) in Ethiopia. I joined field trips to remote regional offices to improve data collection and support women’s microloan projects. 

I chose my career path because… That initial experience I had working in microloans for women in the southern Somali region on the Ethiopia-Kenya border was impressive. Their success stories inspired me to realize the power of entrepreneurship and the benefits of women working together collectively. It inspired me to build the first women’s tech accelerator in Canada.

What I love most about being a venture capitalist is… You get to learn through doing. I have been fortunate to have a deep level of exposure to various investment models and to people who have taught me the ropes. It takes longer than imagined to raise a purposeful fund. My long term relationships have supported me through my career and every stage of that growth. I’m excited to share the news when it all comes together!

The most challenging part about being a Venture Growth Advisor is… I am one of the youngest Venture Growth Advisors at ventureLAB and a woman. Working with a host of unconscious biases makes me wise and kind beyond my years! 

The best advice I received from a mentor was… That I’m thinking too small. I’m able to help founders think big, and as I do, I’m struck by how often we don’t apply our own advice to ourselves.

My biggest setback was… When I was writing and researching my Master’s thesis in South Africa, my backpack with my work and laptop was stolen the day I was leaving Johannesburg. I had to stay for a few extra weeks, get a temporary passport, and try to recollect as much of the research as possible. It took another 6 months before I was able to defend my thesis. A year later, one of my best friends lost all of her research when her computer crashed. She remembered my experience and kept telling herself, “If Danielle can do it, so can I.” 

I overcame it by… Moving back to Ethiopia and surrounding myself with friends and family as I took the tedious steps towards rewriting my work. It was hugely productive to write in a relaxed and supportive environment.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I learned how to speak French while I was in the Acadian region of southern Nova Scotia, working in acid rain prevention research and as a wildlife technologist during my undergrad. I’m a bilingual environmentalist!

My best advice for anyone trying to scale a tech business is… Manage your expectations –– the inflection point for scale will be unpredictable. It’s more about the evidence gathered by the process, iterating, pivoting, researching, and responding to the market than guessing or trying to predict exactly how success will take place. 

A great leader is… Willing to take a lot more informed risks, and have built up resilient skills and means to learn from failure, knowing that some risks pay off, and others won’t. Great leaders model the risks they advise others to take, and support others to build resilient competencies when faced with less than successful outcomes. 

I stay inspired by… Engaging with incredible women entrepreneurs that are executing their startup visions to change the world!

Meet Vienna Zhou, cleantech expert, entrepreneur, and founder of TROES Corp.

Vienna Zhou

Vienna Zhou is a renewable energy and cleantech expert, having worked in the industry for over seventeen years. In 2018, Vienna founded her company, TROES Corp. (The Revolution Of Energy Storage), to address the challenges associated with power grids and energy storage. In three years, TROES has quickly grown — servicing clients in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., and pushing the needle forward for innovative technology and services. TROES works with ventureLAB, a leading global founder community for hardware technology and enterprise software companies in Canada.

My first job ever was… I was recruited as a management trainee by Carrier, a very famous HVAC company.

I chose my career path because… I am enthusiastic about how renewable energy could change the world.

What I love most about what I do is… I created a promising business and team from scratch.

The most challenging part about working in renewable energy and cleantech is… I always think about what the next generation of technology will be.

The best advice I received from a mentor was… don’t be afraid of being bold with your idea.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know that… I am a mother of a boy and a girl.

My best advice for anyone trying to scale a tech business is… where you start from is not very important; continuous efforts on technology innovation is more important.

A great leader… finds the balance between business foresight and performance.

I stay inspired by… the thought that we could create many things that we don’t have right now.

The future excites me because… we could revolutionize the way people generate and use energy.

How Sahar Saidi built LUS Brands into an eight-figure business in under 5 years.

Sahar Saidi

By Karen van Kampen

 

In 2015, with 15 years of work experience and a Global Executive MBA, Sahar Saidi couldn’t find a job. Rather than working her way up in a company, Sahar had a diverse background in consulting and employers didn’t know where she fit into their organization. 

“I was applying for jobs that I knew I was qualified for,” she says. “I was really shocked and disappointed.” So Sahar continued to forge her own unique career path. 

In 2017, she launched LUS Brands, a direct-to-consumer premium hair care brand, earning $1.3 million in sales the first year. In year two, she grew her company 750 per cent. After four years of high growth, Sahar has built a profitable business with less than $100,000 in start-up capital, and she is being recognized for her achievements.  

As founder and CEO of LUS Brands, Sahar was the 2020 winner of the Start-Up Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an entrepreneur who has built a profitable business since its inception, and whose company has been in operation for three to five years. 

“I’ve always had a very unconventional career path,” Sahar says, reflecting on her road to entrepreneurship. The summer before starting her Bachelor of Business Administration, she took a commission-based sales job selling energy contracts. “At the age of 18, I started making a six-figure income,” she says. After her first year of business school, Sahar took a year off to pursue the sales opportunity, and never went back. “Not having that piece of paper never stopped me in my career,” she says. By the time she turned 25, Sahar had a VP sales position at a multimillion dollar company. 

Yet Sahar says she has always valued education, and in her early thirties, she set her sights on an MBA. Sahar met with the Associate Dean of York University and explained that while she had only one year of her BBA, she had 12 years of work experience — “and that should suffice for a bachelor’s.” 

In 2013, Sahar began her Global Executive MBA at Rotman School of Management. For the first week of her program, Sahar spent hours straightening her hair. “I wanted to fit in with my peer group,” she says. “I wanted to look professional.”

“People around the world with wavy, curly, textured hair have been told that their hair is not beautiful, it’s a problem to be solved.”

It wasn’t a new ritual. As a girl, Sahar spent Saturdays straightening her hair; it was an all-day ordeal in which her mother used curlers to remove small, frizzy curls before blow drying Sahar’s hair with a large, round brush. For pin straight hair, her mother would iron Sahar’s hair on an ironing board. 

“People around the world with wavy, curly, textured hair have been told that their hair is not beautiful,” she says, “it’s a problem to be solved.” Sahar kept up the weekly routine until she was in her teens and continued to straighten her hair for special events and important business meetings — until she launched LUS, short for “Luv Ur Self.” 

During her two-year MBA program, Sahar continued to work in consulting, but the excitement was wearing off. “I wanted stability,” she says. “I wanted certainty at this point in my life.” When she couldn’t find a job after graduation, Sahar started thinking about her own experiences with curly hair products. After 20 years of trying every product on the market, Sahar still couldn’t find one that worked. She was also turned off by the negative messaging in the curly hair space. Those with curly hair were told, “Tame your frizz. Control your mane. Get sleek, professional curls,” she says, which required multiple hair products. So Sahar set out to create an all-in-one styling product for three different types of curls. 

Sahar used Google to find the best hair care formulators in Canada. “I Googled how to start a hair care brand,” she says. “Google will teach you anything.”

She spent months testing out different formulas on her own hair before enlisting the help of family and friends, using their feedback to adjust her first line of products. In 2016, she began pitching to investors. “I had my MBA. I thought I’d put together a pretty rock solid business plan,” she says. But investors couldn’t see how a “shampoo company” could thrive in such a competitive, fragmented space. 

So Sahar used her personal line of credit and a small business loan to launch LUS, with about half of her $100,000 in start-up capital used for inventory. “If you’re serious about your company, you have to get rid of your safety net,” she says, explaining that it’s difficult to keep your full-time job and launch a successful business on the side. Sahar also advises entrepreneurs to ignore the naysayers. “If you have a really big idea, most people should tell you you’re crazy. If everyone gets it, your idea isn’t novel enough.”

Working around the clock, Sahar built her line of five products with only two part-time remote contractors. Today, LUS has 37 employees and sells 20 products online — and she has big plans for future growth and expansion. LUS partnered with a third-party fulfillment centre in the Netherlands to ship to customers across the EU faster and with lower shipping costs, and Australia and the UK will soon be added to the LUS global website. 

Sahar is also focused on a long-standing personal goal. “One day I will be able to leave a legacy behind for my family and take care of my parents,” she says. “That’s something that’s been really important to me and a driving force.”

Her HR career taught her employee feedback was underutilized — her startup is solving the problem.

Yvonne Lau Retainify

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Having spent 15 years in corporate Human Resources, Yvonne Lau had a strong understanding of the employee experience. She knew that employee feedback held great value for organizations but that, by and large, it was widely underutilized. 

“The fact was, I had sat in a lot of leadership meetings and performance reviews, and I recognized a gap between the feedback employees provided to their managers, and how managers conveyed that feedback to leadership,” Yvonne explains. “Most feedback is either misrepresented or not conveyed at all, primarily because there’s a fear of sharing negative feedback and employees are often worried about the repercussions of telling the truth.”   

While she was interested in solving for this gap, Yvonne felt there wasn’t much she could do in her current director role. “I felt stuck in the role I was in, and limited by the potential for growth within my career,” she says. With an impressive resume under her belt — having held HR roles with Starbucks, Barrick Gold, and the medical technology company, PointClickCare — Yvonne realized the next move she’d make would be into a role she couldn’t be hired for. 

With the intention of starting her own business, Yvonne enrolled in a global executive MBA program through the IE Business school in Madrid, Spain. “Knowing this would be my last degree, and needing the flexibility to fly back and forth to Vancouver, where my mom was undergoing cancer treatments, I chose this international program,” Yvonne explains. Over the next year, she studied in Madrid, Singapore, LA, and Brazil, supported her mom through treatment, and began the ideation, prototyping, and customer validation process for her own business venture. 

This was when her start-up, Retainify, was born — developed to gather honest, timely employee feedback and turn that feedback into data, which companies would use to uncover issues, identify relationships that are at risk, and maintain a happy, satisfied workforce. 

“Looking back, I honestly think every woman should try entrepreneurship at least once in their lifetime. For women and people of colour especially, we often find ourselves asking permission or waiting for opportunities to come up — but when you go out on your own you give those opportunities to yourself. Now I’m doing rather than waiting,” says Yvonne. “I feel like I’m doing something to break through that concrete ceiling,” she adds, referring to the more challenging barriers women of colour face compared to white women, whose ‘glass ceiling’ at least affords them the ability to see the opportunity of leadership roles. 

“We started with nothing but an idea, and we pitched that to customers who took a chance on us and signed early letters of intent.” 

Earlier in her career, Yvonne may not have been so quick to take her own advice. “I had said I’d never be an entrepreneur and risk everything, after watching my family almost go bankrupt a few times,” she recalls. Yvonne’s father had come to Canada from Hong Kong with a grade three education and very little English. He left his own business behind to make a better life for his family, who were relying on him to bring them to Canada once he’d established himself. After feeling dissatisfied with the work he found in Canada, he started his own auto body shop.

It was Yvonne’s dad who encouraged her entrepreneurial endeavors. “When I got bored in my career in my late 30s, it was my dad and uncle who told me I had nothing to lose, that I was young, and even if I didn’t make it on my own the experience would help me a lot,” she recalls.  

Three years later, Yvonne has never been happier — but she’s worked hard to get there. “The year we started out, we were focused solely on building the software that would make Retainify possible,” she explains. “We started with nothing but an idea, and we pitched that to customers who took a chance on us and signed early letters of intent.” 

Yvonne credits her success with these early adopters who supported her through the trial and error process. “These weren’t free users, they were paying us, and supporting us along the way as we made mistakes and worked through them,” she says.  

As Yvonne began to experience success, so did her customers. “Our dashboards help leaders pay attention to their employee and customer engagement data with the same urgency they do with financial data,” she says. With staffing as the biggest cost on most companies balance sheets, access to this underutilized data can be directly linked with revenue growth. 

Just before COVID-19 hit, Retainify expanded into the senior care and home healthcare space, harnessing feedback to track resident and patient satisfaction. “While long term care is government funded, there’s not enough auditing or feedback process in place,” she explains. “If they had regular pulse checks and were using that data consistently, we would have been in a stronger position to fight against COVID.” This aspect of her business continues to evolve and it’s an area she’s especially passionate about. 

Also with COVID came the need for increased employee engagement, providing Retainify with a unique value proposition. “With our software, employers can better understand the needs of their employees as they work remotely — conducting regular pulse checks and building programs and solutions that keep them engaged. If your employees aren’t feeling great, you can’t expect them to perform,” she says.  

With a small team and the ability to pivot, Retainify continues to weather the pandemic under Yvonne’s leadership. She in turn has turned to other entrepreneurs for support and guidance. She joined the Tech Undivided program through ventureLAB which she says helped her build a supportive group of women founders she can relate to. “Being part of ventureLAB has always made me feel like I have someone to fall back on, like they want me to be successful,” she says.  

It is support such as this, which Yvonne says is key to success. Whether that’s through mentors, other founders, or customers, this unwavering support allows you to make mistakes, learn, and grow. “My customers continue to fuel me to be better, get better, and do better with our software and business ideas.” 

Looking forward, Yvonne has a clear view of her mission. “I want people to really know what it means to harness the power of data, leverage feedback, and continue to improve,” she says. “We all need feedback to improve — and I want to normalize that process.” 

How Anu Bidani transitioned from a 20-year corporate career to bootstrapping a tech startup.

By Hailey Eisen 

For Anu Bidani — CEO of STEM Minds, a B Corp certified social enterprise that empowers youth through STEM education — the foray from a decades-long banking career into the world of tech entrepreneurship began with a problem. 

It was 2015, and Anu had been with Scotiabank for 20 years. She’d held a variety of roles within the bank with a focus on technology, in global capital markets, project management, security, and technology audit. She’d previously completed her MBA, had two sons, and for the most part considered herself to be quite happy. 

But like many who share her entrepreneurial spirit, Anu says she knew something was missing. 

Anu had a sense of adventure instilled in her from a young age — she and her family left India when she was 10 and moved around a lot — and had always been committed to lifelong learning. Still, leaving behind a stable job to build a company from the ground up wasn’t an easy decision. “I’ll be honest, I was fearful at first. In the corporate world I had a consistent paycheck and a strong support network — and starting out on my own was lonely.”  

What gave her that final push? One particular problem kept pulling at her, and the need to solve it was greater than the need for stability. 

While Anu was considering where she’d go next in her career, her sons were struggling to build new skills in school. “My older son, in grade two, had been diagnosed with ADHD,” Anu recalls. “He was reading at an SK level, he was learning so slowly, but I knew he was very smart.”

She enrolled him in a number of extracurricular programs but never got the value or results she expected. “The biggest problem was that no one spent the time listening to him the way he was,” she recalls. “Children are unique individuals and our job is to adapt to them; they shouldn’t have to adapt to us. The biggest heartbreak is knowing your child is smart but that others can’t see them that way.”   

I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem. And my kids were my inspiration.

With a background in computer science, Anu believed that technology could help solve this problem — but neither of her sons were showing any interest. While there were tools and skills Anu knew could help her son succeed, the program she wanted for him didn’t exist. “I wanted to use all my skills and knowledge to solve this problem,” she says. “And my kids were my inspiration.” 

In March 2016, STEM Minds was born. 

“What became very clear was how we teach kids really matters in terms of how they will grow and what they will end up being,” she says. Building a tech education program intended to arm kids with the science, technology, engineering, math, and soft skills they need to succeed in school, and later in the workplace, made a lot of sense to Anu. 

With her corporate hat on, she could see that the most successful candidates for any job she’d hired for all had the right technology skills. As a mother, it came down to a strong set of beliefs. “I’m a firm believer that if you follow your passion and your heart, work will never feel like work,” she says. “While I wanted to allow my kids’ passion to drive their choices, I knew their choices needed to be informed.” 

The data was also strongly in her favour. “Reports indicate that by 2030, 1 billion people will need to be re-trained in a massive global reskilling initiative, because the graduates today don’t have the skill set they’ll need for jobs of the future,” she explains.  

With no background in education or entrepreneurship, Anu began by seeking guidance from the local Small Business Enterprise Centre in York Region. Her first STEM Minds program was a camp run out of a Montessori School with 45 kids in attendance. From there she rented space in another local facility and began hosting weekend workshops. The response was excellent and eventually they ran out of space. 

In 2017, Anu decided to go full in, renting a 3,500 square foot space and launching her STEM Minds learning centre. “That was my commitment that I was going to stick to this and I was actually going to impact education. I knew that I wanted to build an enterprise platform, I wanted to make it accessible, I wanted to impact education globally, and I wanted to make it B Corp certified — I knew what I wanted, and now it was time to go into execution mode.” 

Today STEM Minds provides online courses, live virtual classes, and in-person classes for children ages 4 to 18, and has reached more than 39,000 students across North America. 

They run programs privately and also partner with schools. 

As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.

“The greatest challenge for me was funding,” Anu says, looking back at her start-up journey. “And it’s a huge issue for most entrepreneurs.” Until she could prove that STEM Minds could make money, she was forced to boot-strap the business with her own savings. Thanks to her corporate experience, Anu was able to handle her own incorporation, marketing, and accounting until the business grew in complexity and scale, and she knew she had to bring people on to help in these areas. 

“I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get access to a simple credit card or line of credit, but financial institutions still look at start-ups as high risk,” she says. “As much as we talk about innovation, I think there still needs to be more of an appetite industry-wide to support and fund start-ups.” 

And while she could do a lot on her own, one of the things Anu knew she wouldn’t be doing was teaching. The goal for STEM Minds was to hire great teachers, in addition to STEM experts, and support them as they learned to teach in this new way. The collaboration between teachers and subject matter experts has been key to success, as the learning process enables them to understand the content more deeply and relate to them more. “We had subject matter experts designing the concepts and topics and then teachers learning how to teach them. I wanted anyone to be able to learn how to teach STEM — because if teachers were able to work with the content, kids would receive rich learning opportunities.” 

Building content for the future was her ultimate goal. “The jobs of tomorrow will expect kids to have skills that aren’t being taught in traditional education today,” she says. “My mission is to teach kids how to learn new skills, to embark on lifelong learning, so that no matter what comes to them they’re able to adapt, adopt, learn, and grow.” 

As her growth as a small business continued, Anu realized that she was only able to service her community within a 30KM radius. She was ready for international growth and scale. “In 2018, we got an IRAP grant and applied that toward building a tech platform — a hub of content and knowledge.”

In 2019, the platform was built and they were trying to pilot the project with school boards, “but the market just wasn’t ready for online learning,” she says. 

When COVID hit in early 2020, all that changed quickly. “COVID exaggerated the need to adapt to online learning and our platform was ready. Last year we ran virtual classes from March to June, then in the summer we ran 10 weeks of virtual camp, and since September the adoption in schools and with families has been wonderful.” 

One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.

The next step is global expansion. With her focus on scale and growth, Anu says the timing was perfect to be selected for the Tech Undivided program offered by York Region-based ventureLAB. Following a competitive application process, Anu was given access to a support ecosystem of resources, networking opportunities, and expert advice on capital, talent, technology, and customers. Over six months, through strategic advisory and skill-building workshops, the program challenged Anu to refine her pitch deck to better prepare for customer and investor meetings. “The support I’ve received through this program has been amazing, and I now have such good clarity on how to scale and grow my business. I’m getting investor-ready,” she says. “Having a cohort of other women entrepreneurs has been so inspiring — in fact, it really gives me hope.”

As she gets ready for the next step in her business journey, Anu is happy to offer advice to others considering entrepreneurship. “One of the biggest mistakes many women make is to think small — and I strongly believe that if you have an idea you have to go big and you have to go bold.” 

As for her sons, her eldest is completing Grade 12 and is planning to go into environmental studies. With the skills he’s learned over the years, growing up in STEM Minds, he could become a coder or an engineer — but for Anu, what’s most important is that he has the tools available to make his voice heard, the skills to make informed choices, and the ability to express himself however he should choose. “He’s really passionate about climate change and how the planet is being treated,” she says, “And, no matter what field he goes into, he now has the ability to innovate and solve problems.”

Worried about the risks of exporting? Start with a strategic plan.

Expanding your business into international markets can be very rewarding — but it can also be an intimidating process. Though risks and challenges are real, they can also be mitigated using a well-prepared strategy. With the right planning and support, you can gain access to new opportunities, increased exposure, and an expanded customer base that lies beyond our borders. Kseniya Stogniy, a Regional Manager, Partner Channel with Export Development Canada (EDC) and formerly an Export Help Advisor (EDC), answers the top questions EDC receives from companies who are looking to grow internationally, but don’t know where to start. 

How does a company properly research and plan to enter a new market?

The first step, prior to entering a new market, is to create an export plan — a roadmap for your global growth. This plan will help you assess your company’s readiness for expansion, including the availability of resources, from funding to the knowledge and skills of your team. It will also help you look at the market and the approach you want to take to enter it. Once you’ve assessed your readiness, you’ll want to identify international opportunities in your sector, who your potential customers are, and how to best reach them. The next step is to create a strategy, which is the meat of your plan — the who, what, when, where, and why. EDC’s Export Help Hub is a useful resource at this stage; it’s full of expert advice on entering the US, EU, and Mexico markets. Lastly, remember as you move through the export process, continuously measure your results with a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and adjust as you go. 

How should a business strategically plan for market risks and challenges?

When it comes to exporting, with opportunity comes risk. What if your customer doesn’t pay, or your product gets stuck at the border? Understanding the risks that your company may face will help you prepare for them accordingly. The likelihood of risk can be based on several factors, including your company’s size, the industry you’re in, the markets you’re looking to enter, and your financial strength. If you’re a small business looking to export as a growth strategy, your risks will be different than a company that’s already an avid exporter, exploring new markets.  

You’ll want to start by examining your competition abroad. Some industries are traditionally safer than others, and while that’s subject to change, it can play a role in your decision to expand globally. You’ll want to look at what’s in demand in Canada for your industry compared to what’s in demand in the market you’re looking to enter. You’ll also want to determine how risky the market is you’re entering. Many Canadian companies are most comfortable first exporting to the US because it’s fairly similar to what you already know in terms of language, cultural norms, and similarity in tastes –– but you shouldn’t ignore the benefits of trade diversification. Finally, a financial analysis of your company’s strengths and weaknesses will help determine your appetite for risk. 

“When entering a new market, ensure that the opportunities you’re looking for are within the scope of your current business, that you can deliver on them, and perform to your highest ability.”

What should be considered when it comes to intelligent risk-taking?

The first step in intelligent risk-taking is to go into an exporting opportunity making sure you have the full picture. This is where your plan comes in. While companies often skip over the planning process, it’s a critical component. In creating your plan, you’ll be able to address what you need to know before entering a new market. These include: regulatory requirements, taxes, customs and tariffs, IP protection, due-diligence, and compliance. Having all of this in your plan means you’ll have a strategy to address these foundational items as you begin to take your company global.

How should a person set up their business to protect themselves? 

Many small businesses aren’t prepared for the risks their company may face during this growth process, which means they’re often caught off guard. There are steps you might want to take prior to exporting, like incorporating your business, rather than remaining a sole proprietorshipand there are benefits to both options. Beyond knowing your risks and preparing for them, companies may want to hire a risk manager. This individual will look at the market you’re expanding into to identify and monitor potential risks and use their expertise and market intelligence to guide internal decisions. You may also want to consider the costs and benefits of insuring your sales, to see if credit insurance makes sense for your business. 

At the end of the day, however, remember that not all risks can be planned for. The best advice I can provide is for companies to be open to experimenting. If you fail, fail fast, look back, make observations, learn from them and move forward, and adjust as you go. With the right tools, you can manage risks as they arise. Longer term, exporting can help lower business risk; a Deloitte study showed that companies who export are less risky because they’re more diversified, have a broader set of customers, and are better equipped to handle the ebbs and flows of economic upturns and downturns, leading to more resilient companies that stay in business longer.

What are some key factors to understanding distance/logistics and the use of resources?

When you’re dealing with a potential buyer or customer in a new market, there is a lot to be considered logistically. For example, who takes title of the product and when, who is responsible for delivering the product, who is responsible for placing products onto a boat or other form of transportation, and who is responsible for taking them off.  Reviewing Incoterms — a set of internationally recognized rules defining the responsibilities of sellers and buyers — would dictate who takes responsibility at what point. We also recommend hiring a freight forwarder as a small company exporting for the first time wouldn’t want to be stuck doing customs clearance or documentary clearance or dealing with other fees that may come up at the last minute. If you’re unsure of where to begin when looking for a trusted partner, EDC’s InList resource is a helpful tool companies can use when searching for a vetted list of providers. So, before you get into a new market, look closely at the supply chain as a whole. 

How do you research prospective business partners and build new relationships?

Once you’ve engaged with a prospective business partner, there are various ways to verify the business’ legitimacy before you go ahead and sign an agreement. The risk associated with this when you’re entering foreign markets is greater than when you’re dealing with domestic customers. This is a topic many companies don’t feel comfortable addressing because they don’t feel they have the contacts in those markets to conduct due-diligence. A good place to start is EDC Company InSight, which lets you search EDC data to discover insights about international companies — including buyers, suppliers, distributors, and potential partners. To dive deeper, the best resource you can use is the Trade Commissioner Service in a specific market. They will help you conduct due-diligence on a specific buyer or refer you to a local credit agency. They’ll also have best practices and other check-lists that will help you when working with a new partner for the first time.  

How can you plan to have sustainable growth in an exporting business?

When it comes to sustainable growth, the key is to not bite off more than you can chew. When  entering a new market, ensure that the opportunities you’re looking for are within the scope of your current business, that you can deliver on them, and perform to your highest ability. Do you have the backing to cover unexpected costs, longer payment cycles, and higher costs of sales? While ensuring you have the financial capital to pursue growth opportunities in new markets is key, don’t forget that having the right team of people in place is equally important. Make sure that you have sufficient support to operate the current business, so that you can pursue the growth opportunities in new markets, or alternatively, hire someone to focus on export market development. Taking all of this into consideration will help make sure the growth you’re approaching is sustainable. 

What is one way an export business can remain adaptable in an ever-changing market?

This is an important question, and the answer is to listen to your customers’ feedback. What works well in Canada may not work in a different market. So, after entering that market, take the time to step back and assess whether that solution is working there. You’ll want to determine how your reception is in the new market and whether there are customer comments or feedback you can incorporate into easy improvements. The most successful companies will be flexible and willing to make changes to their strategy as needed. It goes back to the advice I gave prior: if you’re going to fail, fail fast, and be agile to change and improve. 

AI can help small retail businesses make data-driven decisions — thanks to this tech founder.

By Hailey Eisen

Fatima Khamitova always felt that entrepreneurship was something she was born to do. The co-founder and CEO of Veer AI — a software company that aims to help retail companies make data-driven decisions — she credits this inner sense to her family and their unusual entrepreneurial paths.

Her father, a surgeon in Kazakhstan, left his medical career behind to start a real estate entertainment business. “My dad became a condo developer and had a chain of entertainment parks — like Canada’s Wonderland, but smaller — across many cities,” Fatima explains. Her grandmother, a role model for Fatima and a woman ahead of her time, worked as a dentist and then opened the first private dental clinic in Kazakhstan, which later grew into a chain of clinics.

“Growing up with an entrepreneurial family, I always had the idea that I’d go out on my own someday, I just didn’t know how,” she says, looking back at her own journey. 

Fatima began her career in investment banking, followed by an internship in Milan, where she worked for an incubator developing strategy for Italian start-ups in luxury goods. While this international experience helped her realize she didn’t want to spend her career in banking, she did recognize that her strength was in numbers. After a Master of Science degree in Analytics back in Toronto, Fatima embarked on a nearly 10-year career in consulting and data-driven strategy. 

Her corporate experience, including a few jobs with firms that were just starting out, gave her the confidence and expertise to eventually go out on her own. She also credits the robust network she built with helping her start Veer AI.

One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for. 

“Thanks to the nature of my career, I knew a lot of people in Toronto in the fields of data, strategy, and marketing,” Fatima says. “One evening I called up a bunch of my friends and invited them over for pizza and a brainstorming session. We were talking about all the things we’d learned at the companies we’d worked for.” 

The realization that came out of that brainstorming session was that while data was being leveraged to help large retail corporations understand their customers and market to them accordingly, none of the existing data-driven strategies were scalable for smaller players. “From that night, we decided we wanted to go after the small and medium size business sector, because a lot of things being done for those businesses were rudimentary.” 

Taking on the co-founder role with a partner as CTO, and many of the others who joined them that night becoming advisors, Fatima got to work bringing her vision to life. The goal: to use AI and machine learning to provide a better understanding of customers to small retail companies, allowing them to connect with customers in a more meaningful and impactful way. 

“We started our business a bit unusually, in that we didn’t want to take seed money right away,” Fatima explains. “While we had some interest, we didn’t want to dilute the value of the company and weren’t exactly sure what we were building. Instead, we decided to take on consulting work to pay the bills and pay for everyone we had hired.” 

When COVID hit in early 2020, Veer AI was faced with its first big challenge. “All of our consulting projects were canceled or postponed and many of our early clients whose data we were using to build out our software also faced a huge panic,” Fatima says. 

I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.

From this great challenge, Fatima was surprised to find a lot of opportunity. “I was the happiest person on earth when I found out that I actually had access to a number of hiring grants from the Canadian government which we could use to offset the income we’d been bringing in.” She also found great support through the start-up ecosystem in Canada and especially in Toronto. 

“I’m very much in awe of how amazing people have been; it was incredibly easy to call up people and ask for advice, and so many retailers have offered to support us, giving over their data so we could use it to build this platform.” 

In a time when being an entrepreneur is especially lonely, Fatima has also found support and connection through Tech Undivided, a program run through ventureLAB to challenge women-led tech companies to scale their businesses and compete globally. From being connected to a community of women entrepreneurs that were embarking on a similar journey, to being assisted with sourcing different avenues for accessing capital, Tech Undivided has proven to be an invaluable resource and experience for her.

“This program has been incredible,” Fatima says. “They’ve provided me with an advisor who I speak with weekly, and who has been the perfect sounding board.” Through her advisor, Fatima has not only found the connection she’d been missing since COVID began, she’s also been granted valuable advice from a fellow entrepreneur, timely introductions to other founders in the sector, and opportunities for growth. 

“It was my advisor who helped me figure out a new sales channel,” Fatima says. “For a while I was only doing direct sales and going from one company to the next, but my advisor helped me connect with agencies who have many clients in the retail sector and will help us grow faster.” 

With an eye to continued growth, Fatima is excited to see where things will go with Veer AI. She’s happy to be helping small businesses — especially in a time when they need all the support they can to compete with the big players. “Ideally we’ll continue building our product and have 100 clients by the summer,” she says. “All I want is for my clients to use this product and for it to genuinely help them.” 

She’s also eager to provide the help and support that was offered to her to other women founders. “My biggest advice is to keep asking questions and remember that a strong network is the most valuable thing a start-up can have — you can’t build a business in isolation.” 

How the co-founders of Three Ships built a transparent and affordable natural beauty brand.

By Karen van Kampen

In March 2017, 23-year-old Connie Lo and Laura Burget put together $4,000 in savings and launched Three Ships in Connie’s kitchen, hand making and hand-labelling natural beauty products. A month later, they landed their first retailer with an order of 40 packages of cleansing wipes. 

“I was floored,” says Connie, remembering how she raced to tell a colleague at her day job, “We just got our first order for more than a unit!” From that initial small order, the duo had big ambitions. “We always knew that we wanted to make this a massive company,” says Laura. “We believe in this mission,” adds Connie. “It’s a brand that people need.” 

Today, Three Ships is sold in approximately 1,000 stores across North America including Whole Foods, Hudson’s Bay and more than 500 Target locations in the U.S. Getting into Target “was definitely a mission,” says Connie, which included a year of cold calls and reintroducing herself to the buyer outside the men’s room at a trade show. “Laura and I started this business with a lot of determination and hustle.” 

The pair are also being recognized for their vision and hard work. As co-founders of Three Ships, Connie and Laura were the 2020 winners of the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours entrepreneurs who own and operate a small but impactful business. 

From the first time they met for a quick sushi dinner that turned into a three-hour business meeting, Connie and Laura knew they shared the same entrepreneurial vision. As a young girl, Connie joined her dad on business trips, watching him sell, pitch and negotiate for his cookware business. “That’s when I fell in love with the idea of running my own business,” she says. During the third year of her commerce degree at Queen’s University, Connie was co-chair of the Queen’s Entrepreneurs’ Competition and was exposed to start-ups pitching their brands. Then Connie met Laura and found her own innovative idea. 

As a chemical engineering student at the University of Toronto, Laura ran two businesses: an on-campus retail bookstore and a College Pro house painting franchise, both with eight employees. In her fourth year, Laura started brainstorming business ideas for a start-up after graduation. At the same time, she began using natural skincare products and was frustrated by how expensive and misleading they were, with brands purporting to be natural, sustainable or green without evidence to back up their claims. 

When Laura proposed the idea of a clean, affordable skincare line, Connie knew they were onto something big. As a “skintellectual” who researches the ingredients and science behind skincare products, Connie understood the confusion and lack of transparency in the beauty industry. When they launched Three Ships in the spring of 2017, “Our mission was to be the most transparent natural beauty brand in the world,” says Connie.  

What the pair lacked in financing, they made up for in grit and hard work, spending evenings and weekends mixing, pouring and labelling products in Connie’s kitchen. “We were literally measuring things out by the teaspoon and individual drops of essential oils,” says Laura. Then they carried the finished products on the streetcar to Laura’s apartment, where she shipped everything out to customers. 

As long as you have thick skin, you learn this stuff along the way.

In the early days, the pair lugged suitcases of products to farmers’ markets and craft shows, making much needed cash to keep the business afloat. Even though their margins would have been higher with a B2B model, Connie and Laura always stuck with an omni-channel approach. “When it comes to skincare and cosmetics, people like to be able to smell, touch and feel the product before committing to a new brand online,” says Connie. There is also the brand reputation and trust factor when brands are sold in reputable stores. 

While the business was starting out, Connie worked in marketing and sales at Kimberly-Clark and Laura had a sales position at a software company. During off hours, Laura worked on product development and packaging design while Connie went door-to-door in downtown Toronto with samples and a price list. Connie remembers walking into Urban Outfitters and learning from a sales associate that the retail store didn’t deal with buying. She would have to contact the merchandising team in the U.S. 

“As long as you have thick skin, you learn this stuff along the way,” says Connie, adding that it’s important not to give up. Several years later, Urban Outfitters contacted Three Ships, and will start carrying their natural beauty products this spring. 

It wasn’t easy negotiating with large retailers at the age of 23, says Connie. Being young and without financial backing or connections in the beauty space, Connie and Laura worked hard to fight imposter syndrome. “I think what helped was really just doing it,” says Connie, adding, “I don’t think it ever fully goes away because the challenges that you face as you’re growing a business are always changing.”

In late 2018, they moved out of Connie’s kitchen and started working with three contract manufacturers, keeping up with growing demand while staying true to their affordable, all-natural brand. “Our level of transparency is what sets us apart,” says Connie. Their target audience of 25- to 35-year-old conscious consumers can search the ingredients glossary on their website, and all products remain under $40 USD. Connie and Laura remember being unable to afford the natural beauty products on the market when they launched Three Ships, “So we would never want to stray from this original founding problem,” says Connie.  

Looking to the future, Laura and Connie are focused on retail expansion, growth in current stores and new product rollouts. “It’s going to be an exciting year of product launches every two months,” says Laura. “We have big ambitions.” 

Q&A: How Bethany Deshpande is turning challenges into opportunities.

Bethany Deshpande is the CEO of SomaDetect. She is a highly motivated, big-picture thinker who has more than a decade of experience in science and entrepreneurship and is always excited to tackle big problems in big ways. She told us about what’s next for her business as she adapts to the new economic landscape.

What area of your business has seen the most change since the beginning of the pandemic? 

We were always a distributed team with offices in Canada and the US; but with the pandemic everyone is working from home and it has been a big adjustment. We were lucky to have all of the technical infrastructure in place so that online work was completely possible. Even with this, we have definitely noticed changes in the team, how we work together, and how we’ve all adjusted to bringing our work into our homes over the last several months. 

What has been your biggest challenge in this process? 

In our company we create annual goals, and then break these into quarterly goals that we tackle one by one throughout the year. As a result of COVID, we had to let go of nearly all the Q2 goals that we had set. The biggest change for our company was caused by not being able to go on the farm to complete the fieldwork we had planned. This was a big switch for everyone in our company. In a business, you line up people, job descriptions, roles, and resources to be able to do certain tasks. When those tasks changed, several members of our team were asked to step up and take on tasks that didn’t necessarily match their job title or skill set. Everyone played a role in shepherding through the changes.

The pandemic gave me and our entire leadership team the opportunity to be totally clear about what our key priorities are.

How have you been staying connected with your customers and employees? 

We have been staying connected with customers and each other using the various online tools – Zoom, Slack, e-mail, all that. There’s no question that we miss face-to-face interaction. We miss handshakes, high-fives, and hugs, and we miss brainstorming together on a big whiteboard. However, we’ve also gained a lot with the shift to being completely remote and each working in our own homes. We share a lot of pet photos and moments that make it well worthwhile. We also have a number of folks on our team that are growing very exciting house plants or sharing their cooking with the group. We do regular hangouts where we play trivia and online games together – it is hilarious and fun. All this has helped us feel connected. 

How has the pandemic changed your approach to business planning?

The pandemic gave me and our entire leadership team the opportunity to be totally clear about what our key priorities are. I feel like everyone shifted to a total survival mode, and from that place it became crystal clear what we needed to do to have maximum Impact and be successful despite the challenges we were all living through, both personally and as a company. At the end of the day, I think it has helped us be more thoughtful and successful with our planning.

What keeps you positive? 

There is so much to be positive about! It’s really exciting to be working on new technology because it’s a little bit like watching magic be made and unfold directly before your eyes. On a daily basis, I get to see people do things that they have never done in ways that they’ve never done them before. it is absolutely wild and wonderful and impossible to do without feeling both grateful and astounded by the power of a team of people working together. Every week at SomaDetect is a gift full of surprise and wonder.

Meet Michelle Kwok, Entrepreneur and Founder of FLIK

Michelle is a born and raised Vancouverite —  medical science student turned social entrepreneur. She co-founded FLIK, a platform connecting female founders/leaders and students across the world via meaningful apprenticeships.  Michelle has had the honour of speaking at universities and spaces across North America sharing her thoughts on entrepreneurship, womxn empowerment, diversity and inclusion, and breaking down barriers. She now serves on the alumni advisory council of League of Innovators and as an alumni rep for Next 36 where she works to accelerate more youth entrepreneurs. She has been recognized as a Top 20 Women entrepreneur to watch in 2020 by Tease Tea Founders Fund and awarded as YWCA’s Young Woman of Distinction in 2020.

My first job ever was… a summer camp counsellor! It was such a blast. I got to work with my friends, was promoted to a camp leader, and grew into my first big leadership role. 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I felt so narrow in my academics in medical science. I went into medicine because I wanted to create a positive impact in peoples’ lives, but I didn’t think through the 8+ years of schooling. I was itching to make a difference, and found that entrepreneurship is the only profession where you can make your dream job and formulate it to create your dream impact — a scalable impact. I have so much respect for the practice of medicine, but I was always a Jill of all trades, honing many different skills, and working on several projects at once. Medical school was never for me. In entrepreneurship, I was finally able to use my designation as a “Jill of all trades” to my advantage, managing several departments, working with diverse people, and working towards a greater cause.

My proudest accomplishment is… Launching FLIK. It’s not just the action of launching my own company, but it was such a personal journey. When we first launched FLIK, Ravina and I both struggled from a major case of imposter syndrome. We had people telling us it wouldn’t work, that we didn’t look like tech founders, that we should just stick to what we know. We almost didn’t launch the company and so we might never have engaged this community of thousands of womxn globally. That was a major step: accepting that we might not be experts in tech, yet launching FLIK into the world was still the right path. Personally and professionally, creating FLIK from nothing has been my proudest accomplishment to date.

My boldest move to date was… When I decided I was leaving school a year early to enter Next 36, one of the top programs for young founders in Canada. I decided I would become an entrepreneur instead of going to medical school. I had 15 minutes left in walk-in academic counselling so I ran in. I asked to change my degree so I could graduate early, and I did it. I had this feeling it was the right move even though I didn’t know what my plan was going to be after Next 36. Deciding to graduate in 3 years instead of 4 was a bold move, but it was well worth it in the end.

I surprise people when I tell them… I have never had a traditional business education. I learned everything I know now through experiential learning, apprenticeships, starting ventures, and mentors that I met throughout my younger years.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… You don’t have to walk this road alone! Find a Co-founder with complementary skillsets and build a team you trust. Take advice from those who want to help you — so many people will want to help you. This can be a lonely road, and you have the power to make it a bit less lonely.

My biggest setback was… My imposter syndrome. It’s definitely something I still struggle with every day, but walking into entrepreneurship, I’ve never felt so much like I didn’t belong. I unfortunately wasn’t exposed to many female entrepreneurs early on and so felt that I shouldn’t be in the position to start my own company. I didn’t look like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, I had never known another Asian woman to be a founder of a tech company. Without this representation, so many times, I thought I could just easily give up.

I overcame it by… Reaching out to female founders who resonated with my identity. I learned from how they navigated barriers and challenges specific to womxn in business and entrepreneurship. I realized that I didn’t have to look like everyone else or sound like everyone else in a room to be a great leader or entrepreneur. My diversity of thought could be an advantage. I still struggle with imposter syndrome, but I try to remind myself that no matter what, I can push through and be part of the representation that is so needed in the world of female entrepreneurship. 

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… You wake up every morning to work on something you truly love and that you truly believe in. You have the power to make your work each day impact thousands if not millions in a positive way. This has definitely been the most rewarding year of my life.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Probably split it half way between work and sleep.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I’m a wicked basketball player. I started playing when I was 5 years old and I’m always the most unassuming on the court, because I’m 5’4 and a girl, but I’ve beat my fair share of boys on the rec courts.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business is… The most important trait you can have as an entrepreneur is belief. Half of this job is just believing that you CAN do it. You don’t have to be THE expert in your field, you just have to be the one with the deepest drive and belief in the work you’re doing.

I stay inspired by… My team. They each bring such incredible passion to FLIK, knowing they’re working towards a larger cause, each elevating the other.

The future excites me because… We’re just on the ground floor and there is so much more impact to create, so many more womxn to elevate, and so many more voices to amplify. 

My next step is… Expanding globally. We are serving 47 countries around the world, but we will be expanding further to other countries and deeper into the countries we are already working with. Womxn from all over the world need unique support and we are here to be that comprehensive resource to elevate entrepreneurial womxn worldwide.

Meet Resilience Expert and Champion of Women’s Rights, Komal Minhas.

Komal Minhas is an internationally respected resilience expert, host, interviewer, investor and champion of women and women’s rights. Featured on Oprah’s Super Soul 100 list, Komal has interviewed inspiring people including Michelle Obama and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and is the founder and host of the successful podcast Lessons Learned, featuring soulful conversations about resilience. Komal also just launched an online shop of inspirational uplifting prints, perfect for home or office.

My first job ever was… working the concession stand at our local hockey arena! I wasn’t allowed to work — as a first-generation Canadian, education was a major priority — but I secretly got this job so I could save up to go on a class trip to Europe in 9th grade. Of course my parents found out, but it all worked out in the end.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… my entrepreneurial spirit didn’t fit the traditional workplace mould. My business has become a creative vessel for me, and a space for me to make an impact, create wealth for myself and my team, educate and tell powerful stories. It’s my dream job!

My proudest accomplishment is… having my parents in the stadium the day I interviewed Michelle Obama in 2019. It was one of the best moments of my life to see their pride after holding space for such a powerful conversation with the former First Lady.

My boldest move to date was… pitching Michelle Obama directly at a meet and greet to interview her as part of her stadium tour. She took my hands and said, ‘this is destiny.’ It took 10 months, and lots of no’s for it to finally happen. That was my boldest moment!

I surprise people when I tell them… I am actually more of an introvert than an extrovert! I really love my down time!

My best advice to people starting out in business is… take your time. The start-up world is full of stories of ‘overnight’ successes, but they are few and far between. Do what you need to take your time as you build and do it in a way that makes sense to you financially.

My biggest setback was… being diagnosed with cancer and a neurological illness in the same 10-months. Recovery took a few years during my 20s. 

I overcame it by… listening to my body and taking recovery day-by-day. When you face mortality at such an early age, you come to appreciate life in different ways. That experience led me to having a strong focus on purpose and impact and finding a way to create a business that could help me maximize both things well.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… employing others and leading them in a mindful, empathetic way.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… sleep.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… how hard this journey of entrepreneurship really is and how much my support system helps me get through hard days.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business is… it takes time to find product-market fit and each failure is actually a powerful step forward towards something that will work and hopefully scale.

I stay inspired by… my friends, and making new friends who challenge me and show me what is possible in my own life.

The future excites me because… so much can happen!

Meet Hoda Paripoush, Founder and Creative Director of Sloane Tea

Hoda Paripoush is among the elite group of the first certified tea sommeliers in North America. Her tea knowledge is further supplemented by professional studies in perfumery at the Studio Des Fragrance in Grasse, France. Building on the principles of perfumery, combined with her love of tea and unwavering commitment to quality, she has created an artisan line of exceptional teas that speak to the elements of scent and taste. 

My first job ever was… working at a hot dog cart in my hometown of Brockville, ON.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… what I wanted to do was so unconventional at the time, that I had to create my own path for it.

My proudest accomplishment is… experiencing my tea aboard VIA Rail, especially because during our early years in Canada my parents worked as evening custodians at the Brockville VIA Rail station.

My boldest move to date was… selling our house to fund the growth of Sloane Tea.

I surprise people when I tell them… my family came to Canada as religious refugees.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… go forward like you know it will succeed.

My biggest setback was… COVID-19.

I overcame it by… pivoting how we view and run our business — innovation is key.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… that you have control over your destiny, and practically speaking, you have control over your schedule.

If I had an extra hour in the day I would… sleep (I operate on too little).

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… much about my family and upbringing, which is pivotal to who I am today.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business… is that you shouldn’t let the need for perfection prevent you from moving forward, because sometimes, just being the first one there, even if you need improvement, is what matters.

I stay inspired by… challenging myself with creative and unique projects — even if they are outside of my comfort zone.

The future excites me because… the platform of how businesses operate is changing quickly and dramatically, opening up opportunities for growth and innovation at an unprecedented level.

My next step is to… go digital — to curate and create online education on a whole host of topics related to tea and the world of hospitality, via collaborations, workshops and master classes.  

Meet Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Entrepreneur, Former Politician, and Author

Celina Caesar-Chavannes is a business consultant, coach and international speaker. She currently serves as the Senior Advisor, EDI Initiatives and Adjunct Lecturer at Queen’s University.  Her forthcoming book, Can you hear me now?, published by Penguin Random House Canada, is available for preorder. She was the former Member of Parliament for Whitby, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Parliamentary Secretary for International Development.

My first job ever was… working in the children’s department at Brampton Public Library. Minimum wage was around $3.50 and within a few weeks, it went up to about $3.75. I thought I was rich!

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I had applied to 732 jobs after completing my first MBA around 2013. After only getting four interviews, two second interviews, and zero jobs (because I was overqualified and had no managerial experience), I decided to go full force into launching my company, Resolve Research Solutions, Inc.

I made the decision to enter politics because… after close to ten years of running the company, I started to get bored. I decided to do a second MBA at Rotman in September 2013, and part of the program had a politics component — the first politics course I had ever taken. It intrigued me, as I knew I could bring my business acumen, love of research and passion for people into the political role. I signed up to become a member of a political party for the first time in February 2014, and the rest is history.

My time as a politician taught me… to be myself. That experience, as painfully beautiful as it was, allowed me to find my voice, in a place that was not designed for me to be there in the first place. 

My proudest accomplishment is… my three children, Desiray (21-year-old law school graduate), Candice (16-year-old who photographed and came up with the concept for the cover of my book — she also got the contract with Penguin Random House Canada to do so), and Johnny (12-year-old who is a gifted student in math and science, a competitive ballet, contemporary and jazz dancer, and all around good kid).

My boldest move to date was… intentionally stepping into my authentic self in September 2017, and deciding to speak up against microaggressions and racism in Ottawa. 

I surprise people when I tell them… that I am an introvert or a well-trained extrovert. I hate crowds and much prefer to be cuddled in my bed with a glass of champagne.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… understand your brand and do everything to protect it.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is… the flexibility to be at home with my children as they were growing up (and the money!!)

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… meditate longer.

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… how much I love taking care of my front lawn. I am obsessed with my grass.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business… is to never take the first offer. I understand my worth now, and therefore have learned to never sell myself short.

I stay inspired by… my children and the courage of the young people of the world.

It Will Take All of Us to Reach Gender Parity in VC Funding

Gender reveal parties have been a thing for the past several years, and in a couple of incidents, parents-to-be accidentally started catastrophic wildfires when a reveal event involving pyrotechnics went awry. Someone on Twitter proposed a safer alternative: give participants a wallet, and if they open it to reveal a dollar, it’s a boy, and if it’s 81 cents, it’s a girl. 

Ok, that was a little snarky, but the financial disparity would be even greater if the reveal were based on venture capital funding by gender instead of wages: the wallet announcing a girl would contain about three pennies, representing the 2.8% of venture capital female founders raised last year vs. 97 cents for a boy. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that 2019 was an increase from the 2.2% that went to women-owned startups in 2018. It’s too early to predict 2020 funding numbers.   

Will COVID-19 be a setback for women-owned startup funding?

COVID-19’s economic effects began in earnest in the latter half of Q1, so Q2 was the first quarter that fully reflected its impact. According to a July 2020 Crunchbase report, in North America, venture dollars invested in the first half of 2020 were down compared to investments in the first half of 2019: $64B this year as compared to $70B last year. 

The report shows that venture capital funding is down across every stage in Q2, from seed and angel investing to early-stage and late-stage investments to exits. According to a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, women entrepreneurs who are seeking funding are especially vulnerable at the pitching stage, as demonstrated by numerous studies where pitches from male entrepreneurs outperformed those from women, even when the content was identical.

Given that funding is down across the board, and knowing that the rate at which women are funded in comparison to men was abysmal before the pandemic, it’s reasonable to assume that women entrepreneurs will continue to receive a smaller slice of a smaller pie. And statistics for the boom years leading up to the pandemic-related downturn suggest that even if the economy bounces back quickly, women entrepreneurs will still face unique funding challenges. 

People trust people who look like them

The gender disparity in funding isn’t caused by conscious bias, at least not on a widespread scale. It’s human nature. Funding a startup isn’t like approving a home equity loan. By providing funding, a venture capital firm is endorsing an entrepreneur’s vision and entering a very long-term relationship. Once a startup is funded, the company CEO and venture partner will work closely together for many years. 

Because of the momentous nature of the decision, people tend to rely on their instincts and perceptions to find a good fit, and that typically results in venture capital firms funding entrepreneurs with a background and appearance similar to the decision-maker’s. In other words, male Stanford graduates tend to fund other male Stanford graduates. 

This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to men. A landmark Babson College study conducted several years ago found that venture capital firms with women partners were twice as likely to invest in a startup that had female executives on the team and more than three times as likely to fund startups that are led by a woman as CEO. The problem is, there are too few women in that role.

When I sought Series A funding for my startup several years ago, I ran an experiment by presenting my company and business plan to venture capital funds that were run by men and some that were run by women. You can guess the result. And so that’s why I started advising women entrepreneurs to pitch to a healthy mix of venture firms run by women or who have women partners. 

Venture capital firm parity is the only path to funding parity

Unconscious bias in favor of people who look like us and share a similar background may be human nature, but it’s a significant barrier to gender parity (as well as racial, ethnic, non-binary, etc.) in venture capital funding. For gender parity in funding, the solution is greater gender parity at venture capital firms. We’re making progress on that front, but not enough. 

According to Axios analysis conducted in 2020, slightly over 12% of venture capital decision-makers in the U.S. are women. That’s an increase from nearly 10% in 2019 and about 9% in 2018. If this slow rate of increase holds steady, we won’t reach gender parity at venture capital firms for many decades, and that’s too long to wait. 

To accelerate change, some groups in the tech sector are working on the issue, including an organization called All Raise. With bootcamps that help women and non-binary entrepreneurs prepare pitches, to a speakers bureau that raises awareness, to a community that connects funders with founders, All Raise is engaged in changing the situation on the ground. 

Ultimately, it will take a broad commitment across multiple industries, including venture capital, to solve this problem — for women, non-binary people and the BIPOC community alike. These groups will need to be persistent and look for openings. It won’t be easy, but the struggle for equality never is. 

About Bonnie Crater

Bonnie Crater is Co-Founder, President, and CEO of marketing analytics company Full Circle Insights .  In 2013, Bonnie was named one of the “100 Most Influential Women” by the Silicon Valley Business Journal, in 2015 the Sales Lead Management Association named her one of the “20 Women to Watch” and in 2016 Diversity Journal honored her as one of the “Women Worth Watching.” Bonnie holds a B.A. in biology from Princeton University. 

2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Winners

We are proud to announce the six winners of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. These award winners join the five recipients of the up-and-coming entrepreneur ‘Ones to Watch’ award category, which was announced in September 2020.

These winners are shining examples of the perseverance, ingenuity and grit it takes to be an outstanding entrepreneur. They have demonstrated that despite the challenges that have existed this year, the entrepreneurial spirit continues to thrive in Canada. This year’s winners and recipients span sectors that include healthcare services, engineering, beauty, technology, hospitality  and beyond.

“We’re honoured to celebrate the achievements of Canadian women entrepreneurs who have been critical to the success of our Canadian business community and economic growth,” says Greg Grice, Executive Vice President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “RBC is proud to partner with Women of Influence to put a spotlight on all of this year’s winners and finalists who have made tremendous contributions to their industries and communities through their work. Their leadership, commitment and entrepreneurial spirit serve as an inspiration for the next generation of Canadian entrepreneurs as they pursue their aspirations to be part of a resilient and thriving economy.”

Now in its 28th year, the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards program recognizes the country’s leading female entrepreneurs who have made impressive and substantial contributions to the local, Canadian or global economy. The judging panel of the awards program is comprised of 14 judges who are notably some of Canada’s top business leaders, including: Karen Brookman, Partner and Chief Innovation Office West Canadian Digital Imaging; Farah Mohamed, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Policy & Public Affairs, Toronto Region Board of Trade, Elizabeth Dipchand, Intellectual Property Lawyer, Dipchand LLP and Paulette Senior, President & CEO, Canadian Women’s Foundation.

The official announcement of the 2020 award winners was made at the first ever virtual RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards gala that took attendees on a cross-country tour to discover the Canadian cities and towns where innovation is taking place. It was held on November 18th and hosted by Marcia MacMillan, Anchor, CTV News Channel.

This year, over 8,600 nominations were received recognizing women entrepreneurs from across the country.

The Gala also honoured the recipients of the Ones to Watch Award: Eno Eka, Eny Consulting Inc.; Jenn Harper, Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics Inc.; Nadine Chalati, Chalati Lawyer Inc.; Rogayeh Tabrizi, Theory+Practice and Suzie Yorke, Love Good Fats.

“Now more than ever before, we are honoured to be able to recognize the incredible achievements and perseverance of this year’s award recipients,” says Alicia Skalin, Co-CEO & Head of Events, Women of Influence. “These women have faced the challenges of 2020 head-on, and seized the opportunities to continue to pave the way for women entrepreneurs across Canada; a strong testament to the bright future of Canadian business.” 

For more information on this year’s award winners, visit our RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards webpage

Meet Dr. Sarah Saska, CEO of DEI Consulting Firm, Feminuity

As the CEO of Feminuity, Dr. Sarah Saska (Sher, Her, Hers)  partners with leading technology startups through Fortune 500s to build diverse teams, equitable systems, and inclusive products and company cultures. Before co-founding Feminuity, Sarah led pioneering doctoral research at the intersection of equity, technology, and innovation. Her research highlighted the need for companies in the technology and innovation sector to centre ethical and equitable design and became the inspiration for Feminuity.  

My first job ever was… offering conflict resolution sessions to kids during recess in elementary school.

I decided to be an entrepreneur… out of necessity. When I was in grad school, I led research on the importance of equity and inclusion in the design of technology and innovation. In the process, I found gaps, biases, and blatant inequity in some of the technologies and innovations that are intended to make our lives easier, and better. These technologies weren’t inclusive or accessible for some, and were actually harmful to others. Some common examples include facial recognition software that doesn’t detect racialized people’s faces, natural language processing (NLP) that doesn’t recognize different dialects, and risk assessment algorithms that disproportionately assign high crime risk scores to Black people. In the midst of my Ph.D., I took a pause and joined MaRS Discovery District to translate my research into practice, and that’s how Feminuity came to be.

Tech companies must prioritize diversity and inclusion because… we’re at a critical moment in history where technology can either exacerbate existing inequities, or make things a heck of a lot better. Right now, many tech companies have more political, economic, and social power than entire countries. They are out-pacing law and policy and playing in the proverbial grey in ways that are having real, tangible effects on issues relating to equity and human rights. If left unchecked, we know that technological and innovative solutions will continue to hide, speed up, and deepen various forms of exclusion, discrimination, and inequity. A small sliver of the population should not be able to determine and design technologies that impact the majority of us; technology will be most powerful when everyone is empowered by it.

My proudest accomplishment is… my relationships.  

My boldest move to date was… turning down offers that while seemingly secure, financially lucrative, and optically prestigious, just weren’t right for me. They didn’t fit the type of life I want to live, the type of person I want to be and the kind of impact I want to have in the world.

I surprise people when I tell them… that we turn down clients whose values do not align with ours and that we’ve never raised money.

My best advice to people starting out in business is… to get really good at identifying and taking the advice that’s right for you and what you’re building, and to have the guts to leave the rest behind.

My biggest setback was… younger versions of me that had limiting beliefs in my own abilities.  Also, being in romantic relationships that didn’t support my vision. 

I overcame it by… doing the work and building an incredible support system. I now know and believe that I am resourceful and resilient enough to handle anything and it’s made all of the difference. It’s become clear to me from our work that the characteristics and qualities of entrepreneurs quickly become a core part of an organization’s culture, whether for the better or for the worse. So it’s up to us to continue to do the work to lead in more human, ethical, and equitable ways. 

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… read more! I usually have 3-4 books on the go at any time and I crave more time to read each day. I am currently reading: Ramesh Srinivasan’s brilliant research as detailed in Beyond the Valley,   Annie Jean Baptiste’s game-changer, Building for Everyone, and re-reading Esther Perel’s State of Affairs.

The one thing I wish I knew when starting my business is… when it’s best to outsource and pay other people to do something and when it’s best to invest in my own learning and development. We cannot do it all.

I stay inspired by… people’s stories.

My next step is… to launch an e-learning course to share everything we’ve learned about the diversity, equity, and inclusion practice over the past decade. I’ve been overwhelmed with requests from newly minted diversity and inclusion leads and Chief Diversity Officers to support them in their role, and it’s become really clear  there isn’t a practical, applied, and actionable program for new leaders to learn from.  It’s a gap in the market. We’re going to share everything from how we collect and analyze data using an intersectional analysis, to how we design equitable diversity and inclusion strategies, to how we develop custom metrics and evaluation, and more.  It’ll be another labour of love, but it’ll also be awesome to open-source this work.

Meet Mandy Farmer, President and CEO of Accent Inns and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Excellence Recipient.

With a focus on customer experience and team building, Mandy Farmer is an innovative hotelier known for her passion and dedication to making people feel safe and at home in her hotels. Mandy is the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Excellence Recipient. 

My first job ever was… a chambermaid, what we now refer to as a room attendant. However, the title of chambermaid was very fitting because I had to wear a floor length black dress and a frilly white apron complete with a bonnet, all while vigorously cleaning a room.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I love the ability to imagine some crazy idea, rally the team to see how the heck we would do it, and then implement it to perfection. Our brand new Tofino location is the epitome of this: it has a bike path through the lobby, psychic’s den with Tarot card reader, secret passageway to a 1980’s arcade, a mini disco and so much more!

My boldest move to date was… putting a bike path through our lobby.

My biggest setback was… COVID. It made the world stop travelling.

I overcame it by… quickly pivoting! Hotel rooms became office spaces, we welcomed and cared for out of town chemotherapy patients, we raised money with the United Way to provide free rooms for essential service workers who are afraid to bring the virus home with them.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… how nervous I get right before any public speaking event, whether it be townhalls with my team, media interviews or award functions (yes, I’m talking about the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards!)

When starting my business, I wish I knew… to dream even bigger. We are often bound by how far our imagination can take us.

My best advice for people looking to grow their business is… surround yourself with the most awesome team ever and grow the business together. Nothing will stop you then!

A great leader is… someone who inspires the team with a vision and the means to achieve it, then gets the hell out of their way.

The future excites me because… there are so many boring hotels for me to transform!

Success to me means… having fun, my team enjoying their work, and customers happy with their experience!

 

Meet Marina Glogovac, President and CEO of CanadaHelps and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Excellence Finalist

Marina is the President & CEO of CanadaHelps, a unique social technology charity that connects donors with all Canadian charities, helping them to succeed in the digital age. Under her leadership since 2013, CanadaHelps has rapidly accelerated its growth trajectory, tripling the donations it facilitates for charities to $275 million a year, and dramatically expanding its offerings for both charities and donors. Marina is a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Excellence Finalist.

My first job ever was… a culture reporter at a local radio station, and I helped produce a weekly talk show while I was studying Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Belgrade.

I chose my career path becauseI am driven by a desire to expand my insights and learn more. I’ve had several career paths; I started out preparing to be a literary critic and academic, but ended up running a charity — definitely not a career trajectory I would have ever expected in my younger years. In between I was a media and technology executive. While they seem unrelated, my various paths are all framed by curiosity and a desire to build something good and lasting. 

The part of my role that I love the most is… meeting with people at different charities across Canada, and learning about the huge breadth and depth of the sector — there are so many charities operating in Canada that I didn’t know about before. I love that we get to enable and help amplify their impact and their passion.

The biggest challenge of running a not-for-profit is… the mindset and expectation (of charitable sector staff, funders, governments, and Canadians) that NFPs should not invest into their own capacity and infrastructure. Canadians have been misled to believe that lean administration spending is the best indicator of an efficient charity, when in fact, most charities are not spending enough. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I initially came to Canada to join a modern dance company called Mobius.

My best advice from a mentor was… get comfortable saying “I don’t know”.

My best advice for anyone interested in a career in the not-for-profit sector is… be prepared for a huge infusion of meaning in your life. I’m proud of my career and the work that I have done, but feeling like what you do matters has a very unique way of making the stress and challenges worthwhile. But at the same time, anyone entering the sector must be willing to listen, unlearn what they know, and be open and flexible to learn new ways of doing things and being effective.

One thing for-profit businesses could learn from the not-for-profit world is… how to do a lot with little, and how social impact can be incorporated into a business model. 

A great leader is… one who is continually working on themselves. A leader must practice self-reflection, learn from mistakes, and be driven to grow and change for the better.

The future excites me because… leading with mission and achieving social good in addition to shareholder profits is becoming the norm. Young people are demanding change, and they expect social impact and profit from businesses. This energy from young people and the expansion of philanthropy is exciting. This is necessary to turn around the decline of the planet.

I stay inspired by… the stories of charities that are helping the world in so many ways, and the Canadians who generously support them. I’m inspired by being of service. 

How Lulu Liang became CEO of Luxy Hair at 25 — and then started a side hustle.

Lulu Liang

By Hailey Eisen

 

At 25, Lulu Liang was named CEO of Luxy Hair, a global beauty brand with more than 300,000 customers in 165 countries. She had joined the company just three years earlier as an operations assistant. 

While such a quick leap up the corporate ladder may seem unusual, Lulu insists she joined the premium hair extensions e-commerce company with the intention of rising to the top. Now, just two years into her tenure as chief executive, Lulu has added a side hustle, with the launch of Evergreen Journals, an entrepreneurial collaboration with a friend and former colleague. 

She credits her drive and success to the way she was raised — though the entrepreneurial nature of her career was certainly not what her parents expected. 

“They had really high standards for me growing up,” Lulu says. “I lived in Beijing until I was seven, and in those days, my parents would quiz me on my multiplication tables every night over dinner.” 

When her family moved to Toronto, Lulu didn’t speak any English, but her math skills were beyond what was taught in the grade three class she joined. “They were multiplying four times five using apples, but I had already learned my times tables up to 12 when I was five years old.”

Not speaking English, however, made things tough for Lulu. Plus, her parents were starting over in a new country and were working constantly. “They couldn’t afford after-school programs or care, so I stayed home alone a lot,” Lulu recalls. “Those experiences helped me to become really independent.”

As she grew up, Lulu found her footing, working extra hard in school. “I once got an 88 per cent on a math test, and my mom told me I was hopeless,” Lulu recalls, laughing. Thankfully, her mom was wrong. And, while Lulu thought about becoming an optometrist, she found herself stronger in math than sciences and enrolled in the Commerce program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. 

In her first year, Lulu went to a recruiting event for consulting firms and decided that she too wanted to be a consultant. “I was sold,” she recalls. “My goal was to launch my career in consulting for a few years, then do an MBA at an Ivy League school before working in leadership in the beauty or fashion industry.” 

Her love of fashion came from the movies. “As a kid growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, and I’d wear the same outfit five days in a row. But I watched The Devil Wears Prada and fell in love with that lifestyle,” she says.  

“Maybe I was thinking of becoming a math professor in another life. The math building at Queen’s was where I truly felt at home.”

At Queen’s, Lulu co-chaired the Queen’s Business Forum on the Fashion Industry (now the Queen’s Retail Forum), a student-run conference that explored the multifaceted world of fashion and retail from a business perspective. This hands-on experience, coupled with a summer internship at L’Oréal in Montreal, solidified her love of the industry. 

When Lulu secured a consulting job with Accenture at the beginning of her fourth year, it took the pressure off finding a job upon graduation. With that peace of mind, she decided to take on a more extensive course load. A year later, Lulu graduated with two bachelor’s degrees — the commerce degree and another full degree in math. “Maybe I was thinking of becoming a math professor in another life,” she says. “The math building at Queen’s was where I truly felt at home.” 

After a summer of travelling in Asia and Europe, Lulu started at Accenture, expecting to thrive in her role. “I had always done well in school and I wasn’t used to failure,” she recalls. “I guess I had a big ego back then, but consulting certainly humbled me. And to be honest, I hated it.”

In the midst of what she referred to as a “quarter-life crisis,” Lulu realized that she’d been working so hard toward this one particular goal that she hadn’t stopped to consider what would happen if it didn’t work out.   

It was around this time, while watching “morning routine” videos on YouTube, that she discovered Luxy Hair. “I had been following Luxy’s co-founder, Mimi Ikonn, on her YouTube channel,” Lulu recalls. She watched all of Ikonn’s videos in two weeks, then reached out to learn more about the companies that Ikonn and her husband, Alex, had founded. 

“They were hiring for a social media position with their other company, Intelligent Change,” Lulu recalls. “But, as I got to know them, they decided they wanted to bring me on to Luxy Hair and train me for a GM role they needed to fill.” 

Leaving consulting for the new venture world was risky — but Lulu was ready for the change. Luxy had grown from a startup created to fill a gap in the market for quality hair extensions to a scale-up with a million dollars in sales in its first year. In 2017, Time.com named Luxy’s YouTube channel as one of the 15 best to watch. Today, with over three million subscribers, the company’s videos have accumulated nearly half a billion views. The Luxy Hair channel has become a go-to source for tutorials, hairstyles, hair hacks, extension tips and more. 

“When I started with Luxy, we were a small group working from a co-work space,” Lulu recalls. “Now we have a beautiful office and an amazing team and we’re world class in what we do in terms of people and culture.” The company was named one of the Top 50 Best Places to work in Canada, something Lulu is especially proud of. 

“While there may be a stigma attached to hair extensions, and it’s still a niche industry, I know that lipstick was once taboo, too,” Lulu says. “Our goal is to empower women to lift each other up and make it okay for any girl or woman to change up their hair, make it longer, fix a bad haircut, create a natural balayage look without dye, or do something special for an event.” 

In 2018, Luxy Hair was acquired by the American beauty conglomerate Beauty Industry Group, and Lulu, then the GM, led the company through the entire sale process. One stipulation of the sale was that she’d stay on as CEO, while the Ikonns left to start another business. “Overall, we run the business autonomously, but the owners are really supportive and helpful when we need it,” she explains. 

“I had that moment of realization that there was no point of achieving huge successes if you weren’t going to feel happy day-to-day — the moments you work so hard toward aren’t you or your life, in fact your life is everything that happens in between.”

While 2018 was certainly a milestone year for Lulu (selling the business, becoming CEO, getting engaged and travelling a great deal), she says it was actually one of the most anxious years of her life. “I had that moment of realization that there was no point of achieving huge successes if you weren’t going to feel happy day-to-day. The moments you work so hard toward aren’t you or your life. In fact, your life is everything that happens in between.” 

Lulu began to think critically about her own habits, and what she did have control over in her life. Then she and her best friend created a tool they could use to build better habits. With the entrepreneurial drive lit within her, Lulu decided to take this tool and create a product she could share with others. 

Together Lulu and her friend launched Evergreen Journals and their first product, The Habit Journal, in May 2020. “Our journal is available online and will be in the Goop holiday gift guide,” Lulu says. “It feels really good to have created something of my own, and we have more products and ideas in the pipeline as well.” 

Looking back on her career to date, Lulu is proud of her successes and excited for what the future holds. “I’m so grateful I hated consulting, because I don’t think that if I’d been successful I would have had the courage to take the leap,” she says. “My greatest lesson in all of that was, sometimes you have to let go in life. It’s important to have goals and work toward your dreams, but you also have to let go of expectations and focus on what you can control. And don’t take anything for granted.”

Meet Soodeh Farokhi, Founder of C2RO and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Innovation Finalist

A visionary and energetic leader in the technology sector, Soodeh is the founder and Chief Technology Officer of C2RO, an enterprise software startup in Montreal, Canada. Soodeh is a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Innovation Finalist

My first job ever was… a QA Engineer at a telecommunication software company.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I am passionate about building products that change our quality of life, improve business efficiency, and have bold impacts on the world! I wanted to work at a company where there are no limits to my creativity and imagination.

My boldest move to date was… leaving my home country to study my Ph.D. abroad.

My biggest setback was… being judged for being a young female executive. I still experience ageism and sexism in my professional life, which I hope, with the impact each of us is making, my daughter won’t experience. 

I overcame it by… having self-confidence, perseverance, strength, and staying focused on my goal to prove that none of these stereotypes and injustices matter when you can have the biggest impact.  

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am a proud mom of an adorable girl and that I love astrophysics.

When starting my business, I wish I knew… that business is cruel and can be unfair. You can’t fight all the battles to make it fair so you need to focus and pick the ones that matter the most.

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… that nobody can empower you but yourself. So believe in yourself, follow your passion, do your best, and do not be afraid of failures. 

I stay inspired by… reading success stories of top world leaders and knowing that success never happens overnight.   

The future excites me because… it is full of unknowns and I believe it is better than what we think.

Success to me means… building a life that I am proud to live using my full potential and doing what I am passionate about.

Meet Nicole Neuman, President and CEO of Synergy Engineering and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Innovation Recipient.

As the President and CEO of Synergy Engineering, Nicole Neuman leads a world class team of EI&C engineers specializing in the design and global delivery of large materials handling projects. Nicole is a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Recipient in the Innovation category.

My first job ever was… a Red Cross swim instructor ahead of my lifeguarding years when I was 15. I was fortunate enough to selectively attend high school — provided my assignments were complete — so that I could work at the pools.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I’ve always enjoyed leadership roles and have been passionate about how I can contribute to people and our society. I found I had a knack for math and physics and I really enjoy working with people on new innovative technological solutions. I feel great when the people working with me are motivated and energetic encouraging that energy with a tangible goal we achieve together is extremely rewarding. I gravitated towards the senior leadership role at Synergy Engineering with the support and trust of my colleagues.  

My boldest move to date was… devoting my career to engineering in the mining industry!  I was originally discouraged from engineering by the people closest to me, but transferred into engineering from sciences at Simon Fraser University. Joining Synergy Engineering as a co-op student in 1995 and working at mine sites was extremely challenging — both emotionally and socially. At that time, there were very few women in electrical engineering and even fewer in mining, which presented huge challenges.

My biggest setback was… the first time I went to a large copper mine to implement a modification on a drive system I designed, and I was openly shunned by the mine employees (who were all men). They refused to work with me, sarcastically asking me what tool I needed to use to turn a screw as part of the modification, and then calling me the most horrible swear names to my face. At the end of that exercise I was driving away in tears.

I overcame it by… looking for women role models in the industry. The company leadership also helped shelter me from site work at local mines after that, often sending in a male electrician with me to interface with the mine staff while I led the electrician through the solution. Having a female role model was key to rising above the challenges that come with being a female engineer in a male dominated industry. Overcoming this particular type of challenge was empowering I hope to be that role model for others to encourage more women in this field.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… about my personal passion for the ocean and boating. Being on the sea revitalizes me, so I spend many days on my boat in various coves and bays along the BC coast whenever I can.

When starting my business, I wish I knew… more accounting principles, HR Law, and merger/acquisition tactics these are the areas that have been my greatest focus for learning and company growth and optimization most recently. These have been very fun to learn on the fly, but having a basic education in these areas would have been extremely helpful.  

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… follow your talent, your driving interests, and above all, reach out to more seasoned individuals to seek mentorship or to simply bounce ideas off of. Whatever your challenges, someone has gone through something similar, and I know from experience that when one overcomes challenges they like nothing better than to help others succeed as well.  

I stay inspired by… attending conferences and participating in engineering societies. There are so many passionate and ingenious people in this industry networking with them energizes the brain and encourages my drive to always do things better.

The future excites me because… I know I can contribute to mining technologies for greener solutions. The visibility we are gaining is connecting us with more diversified leading edge businesses and exposing us to interesting strategic opportunities that will keep all of our people engaged and excited for the work we do.

Success to me means…  success is really measured by how enjoyable the resulting work environment is for our employees. The biggest goal I can set would be to have everyone feel successful and proud of what they can accomplish in their career. If we can have that at Synergy Engineering, we will be truly successful in industry and in our society.  

Meet Sana Salam, Founder of Sodales Solutions and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Innovation Finalist

Born and raised in Pakistan, Sana Salam is the founder of Sodales Solutions, an award-winning SAP Cloud Platform (SCP) solution extension partner headquartered in Toronto. As a new immigrant to Canada, she worked hard to build her career in tech while self-funding her startup. She is a 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Innovation Finalist

My first job ever was… working as a mailroom clerk, where I spent my day folding envelopes and filing papers. At the time, the organization was going through the implementation of a system and I got an opportunity to volunteer in their testing team. This got me interested in learning about the systems implementation process and the required certifications and training programs. I saved up $17k USD to complete my first SAP certification course, which landed me a job at Capgemini Consulting. 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… during my career in consulting, I had three promotions in less than four years. Despite the steep career growth, I felt that I had not maximized my potential. I finally found my sweet spot as a “Turn Around” project manager for complex failing projects. This is when I thought about having my own company where we could apply lessons learned and bring an agile approach to IT delivery.

My boldest move to date was… quitting a high paid job and deciding to bootstrap a Software as A Service (SAAS) business without any influential contacts, without a technical cofounder or any initial investment. All of my competitors had seed funding, multiple co-founders and a huge network. I felt very scared.

My biggest setback was… during the early stage of the business, I faced a huge financial loss due to a potential business partnership that did not work out. As a result, I also lost most of my technical team and top paying customers. This was also the time where I had a late miscarriage and faced serious health issues. I thought we would have to shut down the company.

I overcame it by… deciding to not give up. I saw this as an opportunity to begin again — this was a turning point where I began to focus on the SAAS business model and started to turn the company from a consulting service company to a product company. I also worked on improving my health by improving my diet and working out. I lost 40+ pounds and gained my energy back. With a disciplined approach and a positive mindset, I found a way out.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that most of the YouTube videos on my channel are shot in my kitchen. I used to record videos on my selfie camera to teach various trends in the Cloud space. One of the videos landed me my first product customer, which was a major railway company in the USA.

When starting my business, I wish I knew… My biggest weakness would turn out to be my biggest strength — all of my competitors had senior technical salesmen on their founding teams. The industry was at its turning point at that time, where the budgets began to move to the line of business users as opposed to IT, with marketplaces becoming the front door for selling. This new industry trend required a non-technical and educational approach to selling, which aligned perfectly with my background.

My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… that disruption means building a great product that solves a real human need effectively and in a less costly fashion. To do this, you must be open to learning, experimenting, and failing. Taking a disciplined approach to innovation helps. You can begin in one vertical and continue to build upon your strengths until you have a repeatable business model within a singular vertical; don’t go too wide too fast.

I stay inspired by… dreaming about the things that we could be. When I wake up in the morning, I feel grateful to live another day where I can try to stretch myself and see how far we can go as a team. I also get motivated by failure, pain, and criticism. It makes me want to try harder.

The future excites me because… it is always full of possibilities. Despite failures, we still have a fair chance to achieve great things because our failures make us wiser.

Success to me means… progress towards a worthy goal and becoming a better version of ourselves during this process. The real reward of success is the person that we become and the qualities that we develop during the process of becoming successful.

Meet Lissa Ricci, VP of Small Business Solutions at Cisco Canada

Lissa Ricci has always been a sales leader — managing her first sales team when she was only 23 years old. Now the Vice President of Small Business Solutions at Cisco Canada, she understands that these entrepreneurs have different needs than enterprise companies, and is excited to be leading the charge to support them with tailored solutions. Lissa is passionate about technology and how it can help businesses grow, transform, and achieve their goals.

My first job ever was… A Youth Coordinator at our local Youth Centre in the very small town I grew up in. It was a not-for-profit called T.Y.P.S. (Take Young People Seriously). I was 14, and responsible for supervision during drop-in hours and helping to set up activities that appealed to 12-17 year olds. I worked with the board as the “voice” of the youth, providing feedback on improving opportunities for adolescents in the town, and helping to promote healthy extra curricular activities.

I decided on a career in sales because… I grew up observing my Dad building his career in sales and transforming our lifestyle. When I was 17, and it was time to choose my post secondary education, I remember telling my Dad I didn’t know what the job was called that I wanted to do, but described to him how I saw myself. He said, “Lissa, everything you are saying, you are in sales.” He then went on to explain the concept of earning a commission, and I was convinced that was the path for me. I took Business Sales at College and never looked back.

My proudest accomplishment is… Anytime someone shares with me that I had a positive impact on their career or life in some way. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and I am addicted!

My boldest move to date was… Quitting my career that I absolutely adored to be a stay-at-home Mom with my two kids — then re-entering the workforce almost five years later, completely vulnerable and terrified, yet genuinely ready and excited.

My best advice to people starting out in sales is… Don’t overthink it. The first step is just having the confidence to keep a general conversation flowing. When you think about it, we mostly do this all day, every day, in so many different ways! The rest will come with time and training. And you need to be motivated by making money.

The once piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Don’t overthink it! This is especially true for me when it comes to presenting.

My biggest setback was… “Judgy McJudgersons” — Sarah Knight has a great and quick read, You Do You, that devotes a chapter to this.

I overcame it by… Staying focused on what was within my control and what I was striving to accomplish.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… Read more! I always swap between having a business book or a personal book on the go. It takes me way longer than I would like to get through a book!

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… I took a year off before I graduated College and lived abroad in Australia. To earn money I was a telemarketer and sold 25L barrels of cleaning chemical to janitors and mechanics. It was an amazing year in the most beautiful country. I kept my commitment, came back and graduated college, and began my career right away.

The best part of my job is… The super smart and commendable individuals I get to learn from every day.

I stay inspired by… Knowing who I want to be in this world and how that represents my family, my team, and my organization. The more remarkable role models I meet, work with or read about, it allows me to continue to shape and mold the vision of ambitions I have. When you think you’ve achieved your wildest dream, that just means it’s time to create a new dream to go after.

The future excites me because… I have so much I still want to do personally and professionally. There are so many people out there I still need to meet and learn about and obtain knowledge from. Finally, watching my kids grow up and see how they will show up in the world and the great things they will choose to want to accomplish in their lives.

Meet Glori Meldrum, Founder of Little Warriors and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Social Change Finalist

Glori Meldrum is the founder of Little Warriors, a national charitable organization focused on the awareness, prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse. As a  survivor of child sexual abuse herself, in 2014 Glori opened the Little Warriors Be Brave Ranch, a first-of-its-kind, world-class, evidence-based treatment centre to help children across Canada who have been sexually abused. Glori is a finalist in the Social Change category of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.

My first job ever was… a playground supervisor.

I chose my career path because… I always saw myself more in my dad than in my mom; my dad was an entrepreneur and a part of me always wanted to be one like him. I always knew as a little girl that I would do something big, so it was not surprising when I started my own business at 23.

When starting out, I wish I knew that I was lovable and that I could do anything. I didn’t always feel lovable and I had many experiences in my life where I felt unlovability or not enough. Knowing that I am lovable has allowed me to lead with love, find acceptance, be vulnerable and to fully surrender myself.

The part of my role that I love the most is… healing kids. My dream of Little Warriors and the Be Brave Ranch has finally given kids a safe place to go and heal.

The biggest challenge of running a not-for-profit is… navigating the government and raising enough money to fill the beds. A personal one for me is the weight of survivors’ stories, being a survivor myself.

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am an introvert and I recharge when I am alone. It sometimes comes as a surprise to people when they find out that I’m a true introvert at heart, and when my mental battery is drained, I can’t find the energy to interact with people until I’ve done something to recharge it again.

My best advice from a mentor was…  to slow down and take care of myself. Remembering to slow down has allowed me to be present — in the moment — and not the past or worrying about the future.

My advice for anyone who wants to build a not-for-profit is… to never give up and to believe in yourself. It is one thing to discover your life’s purpose, but it is another to take a risk and really do something about it.

One thing for-profit businesses can learn from the not-for-profit world is… the impact that their money has on the charities that they support.

I stay inspired by… my community. I am inspired by people coming together because they believe in something, support something or want to create positive change. I am also inspired by the positive stories of the kids who have come through the Be Brave Ranch.

Success to me means… living in a place of love and grace filled with inner peace and joy. 

Meet Dr. Eugenia Duodu, CEO of Visions of Science Network for Learning and 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Social Change Finalist

Dr. Eugenia Duodu is the CEO of Visions of Science Network for Learning, a charitable organization that empowers youth from low-income communities through meaningful engagement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). A longtime community leader, she has an impressive track record in creating youth opportunities in over 40 low-income communities across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and is a finalist in the Social Change category of the 2020 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.

My first job ever was… concessions at the Skydome, now Rogers Centre.

 I chose my career path because… my career path chose me. I never really knew what I wanted to be; I just knew what I wanted to do. I knew that I had to be a part of creating change for my community and it was this desire along with my passion for science — that led me to where I am now. 

When starting out, I wish I knew that I didn’t have to have everything figured out in the beginning; there was a lot of pressure to have things sorted out early on.

The part of my role that I love the most is… being able to work with a group of incredible people and create meaningful change in the communities we serve. I love the fact that our strategies and conversations are actually making a difference!

The biggest challenge of running a not-for-profit is… the fact that you can’t address every issue that you encounter. We are in the business of making communities better and sometimes it can feel as though there is so much to be done to realize this goal. We have had to make tough decisions on what we should focus on and what kind of change we will hold ourselves accountable to. 

If you Googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am quite introverted. As much as I love being around people, I really value and need time alone. 

My best advice from a mentor was…  never trade passion for a paycheque. Follow your passion and you will never work a day in your life. 

My advice for anyone who wants to build a not-for-profit is… stay focused on your mission and take things one day at a time. 

One thing for-profit businesses can learn from the not-for-profit world is… that purpose and mission matter!

I stay inspired by… my family, friends, community, and the work of our organization.

Success to me means… fulfilling your purpose

 

How Sleeping Giant Brewing Company has planned (and pulled back on) their growth.

As Vice President and National Lead, Women Entrepreneurs at BDC, Laura Didyk used to spend most of her time traversing the country, interacting with women business owners. She’s keeping those conversations going virtually — and this month it’s with Drea Mulligan, co-founder and CEO of Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, based out of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

 

When Drea and Kyle Mulligan founded Sleeping Giant Brewing Company in 2012, she was working as a kindergarten teacher, and he was a family physician with a home brewing hobby. Armed with a business plan, a talent for brewing, and a shared passion for beer, the husband and wife team started with two taps and a hand-painted sign, and steadily grew their business into a multi-million dollar craft brewing company — and all without letting go of their original professions. 

Based in Thunder Bay, the brewery is named after the nearby Sleeping Giant, a large mountainous formation on the North shore of Lake Superior — the first of many nods to a city and region that they love. Now in a 12,000+ square-foot production facility, tap room, and event space (that has recently been transformed into a daycare) their distribution network stretches across much of Ontario and into Manitoba.  

In the five years that they have been BDC clients, we have seen them through strategic growth, a major move, ownership restructuring, and more. I caught up with Drea to find out more about her unique entrepreneurial journey, navigating the challenges of 2020, and her advice for other business owners.

 

Laura: I love your story, because it’s the quintessential entrepreneurial tale of turning your passion into a business. This all started because you and your husband were craft beer enthusiasts, right?

Andrea: Yes, we were those people who’d sit at the local bar and talk with strangers about beer, and how diverse it was, and how interesting. That’s where it started. 

Then my husband Kyle began home brewing, and things kept progressing with his passion and talent for brewing. Seeing people try Kyle’s beer, and the great feedback we got — we knew we wanted to eventually open a brewery. We were thinking, maybe we’ll do it when we retire, but we decided to take that first step of writing a business plan. Of course, the beauty of a business plan is it tricks you into saying, “Hey, I’ve got this whole plan, let’s open a business.”

Laura: So you decided to take the plunge. How quickly did it all come together?

Drea: We finished our business plan in the spring/summer of 2011. We incorporated our company in September, moved into our first location by the end of December, and sold our first growler of beer in June 2012. 

To be able to flip that in six months, and have our business up and running — some people will say you’re lucky, but I say, maybe it’s a bit of luck, but it was also a bit of common sense, focus, and a lot of hard work. We paced ourselves and were responsible. We followed our instincts. I’ll never forget when I talked to an owner of a larger craft brewery in Ontario before we opened, and he said, “Whatever your budget is, double it.” We said, “No way.” Our focus was to brew good beer, pay the bills, and make a bit of money. That was our little mantra when we were getting started. 

But people make that mistake. They want it all, and they want it all now. Our success came from being methodical while taking risks, being reserved and in control. It’s been a lot of us digging in our heels because we weren’t ready to grow faster than what we could control. We know the capacity to grow is still there — and it’s easy to get there if you’re following the growth somewhat organically, versus trying to be ahead of it. 

Laura: What I’ve noticed is that you take risks like any other entrepreneur, but you’re very strategic and intentional. Even though you knew it could and will be big, you started with the thinking that you were going to get there at your own pace.

Drea: Yes, we always had the plan to grow our business from the start. I was never afraid of failing. What made me nervous was I knew we were going to be successful. That’s not arrogance — it’s just I knew the supportive city, I knew what we were doing to bring a craft beer culture to Thunder Bay just as the resurgence of craft beer was taking off. I trusted our instincts and there was no option for failure. 

Laura: The city has always been a big part of your brand and business — from your beer names, to the local ingredients you use, to all the product collaborations you do, to giving back with Craft Cares. Was that focus very intentionally done or did it evolve organically?

Drea: In the beginning it was definitely intentional, because we love our city so much. It’s a beautiful place to live, great people — and even before we opened we knew we wanted to make Thunder Bay proud. So it started out intentional, became part of the fabric of our business right away, and it has developed organically after that. We’re now an anomaly in the brewery industry — unlike a lot of other breweries in Ontario, we sell so much of our beer out of our front door to our local community.

Laura: And you’re still active in the community in other ways, in that you’re still teaching, and your husband is still practicing. What has it been like trying to navigate two worlds?

Drea: That’s one thing I never thought about when we first opened. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to work our jobs. I’ve had to take leaves to be at the business, but I’m always torn because I love teaching. It’s not easy to manage, but Kyle and I are a good team and support each other. Our staff are also crucial to us being able to manage and grow our business while maintaining careers

I try to organize myself as best that I can. I also allow myself to not be perfect, because you can’t be when you’ve got a lot of balls in the air. I’m very open about that to my staff, I’ll let them know, I’m sorry, I can’t do this, or I didn’t get back to that specific email because I just opened a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic. We cut each other some slack.

Our SGBC team is strong, which is really important. They understand our situation and support us, not just the brewery, but also as a couple, and as working members of the brewery. This is what everyone signed up for — to have Kyle be a physician, and he’s not there every day. He’s in contact all the time. I’m teaching, and I’m still available. Normally, I’m there right after school, or I go in on the weekends. It’s not easy, and it’s definitely not perfect, but we’re still doing it at this point in time. 

Laura: And what about with the added dimension of a global pandemic?

Drea: The pandemic was not in our business plan! I laid off 24 people immediately. The 10 people who were left, we put our heads down and we worked so hard for months and months. Kyle and I tried to put our needs after the needs of our staff, because we had to be there to support them. They supported each other, too. They didn’t argue, they didn’t complain. They did whatever needed to be done. It was a wild time, and has already made for some unique reminiscing with staff.

Now we have staff that are returning. How does the staff that lived and worked through that cope with returning staff with a different COVID experience of being at home, or being laid off? We’re still navigating those waters. I think the important thing is communication. We do our best to talk through it, to talk about what’s going on, to try to check in with each other. We try.

Laura: That’s a great segue into how you ended up opening a daycare on site. How did that new venture start? 

Drea: By the beginning of July, I was hearing grumblings from our staff about the lack of childcare options they had due to Covid-19. I’m a mom, I know how important childcare is, and what an impact it has on your family and your own ability of what you can do, and also how it impacts the development  of your children. 

Over a coffee one night I was telling Kyle about these grumblings and said, “I wish we could open a daycare.” He looked at me and replied, “Why can’t we?”   

It came together quickly from there. I held a meeting with all our employees with families, and said, “Here’s the plan. We’re going to open a childcare facility. We’re going to be unlicensed and you are going to have the priority to have your children here. I just need to know who’s in or who’s out.” 

We had already thought about how many people had to be in for us to do this, and made the decision that we only needed one. Kyle and I, our thought process was, If we can do this, we should do this. So now the Barrel House, which is our new, private event space, is also the Sleeping Giant Childcare Centre. We plan on getting it licensed, so we can have space for more children from the community. 

Laura: Outside of COVID, what have been your biggest challenges you’ve faced while navigating your growth?

Drea: To become more ‘corporate’ and to become a CEO, and what that role truly means. I’ve struggled to make an org chart; there is a hierarchy, but to put it on paper, it’s an interesting process when we are trying to maintain the grassroots of the brewery. Going from ground zero to a now multi-million dollar business with still a lot of room to grow, it’s a big responsibility and it can be overwhelming. 

That’s why it’s so great to talk with other women in business who are further ahead of me and have created large, successful businesses. And just before COVID hit, we had begun working with BDC to create a 3 year Strategic Action Plan. This alone is helping us all speak the same language and reach and strive for the same goals. Planning, organization, and follow through are essential tools for any growing business.

Laura: What advice would you give to others who are following their passion and becoming an entrepreneur?

Drea: We’ve learned after eight years that we trust our instincts. That’s my best advice: You have to trust yourself. Also, failure shouldn’t be an option. Mistakes are welcome, but when you hit a roadblock, there’s always a solution — you just have to find it. You can’t be ego-driven.

Lastly, try to take care of yourself. Every single time I drive by Sleeping Giant, with that view of Lake Superior — it’s just a little bit of a centering spot for me. As an entrepreneur, you need to find those little moments in your day where you breathe. Every time I look at it, and I look at it a lot, I’m reminded about my company and our city, and how awesome things are going and how lucky we are.  The future continues to be bright!

 

How Luan Tolosa went from commercial real estate professional to fashion entrepreneur.

By Hailey Eisen 

 

Luan Tolosa’s entrepreneurial journey was set in motion during the first few weeks of her MBA at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business. Standing in the halls before their next class, Luan and her female classmates, all of whom were preparing for the next phase of their careers as the next generation of business leaders, lamented that corporate clothing had not changed much since their undergraduate degrees. What would begin as a school project would go on to reignite an old passion and prove to meet a real need in women’s fashion.

“I had always assumed that as we progressed in our careers, we would have more corporate clothing options,” says Luan Tolosa, CEO and Founder of SEWT — Suits Especially for Women Tailored — a women-led business based out of Vancouver and Toronto. “But as I started to have more conversations with women that I admired, I realized that we were still all struggling with the same lack of choices and lack of well-fitting, accessible, tailored clothing.” 

Having started her career in commercial real estate straight out of undergrad, Luan hadn’t had much time to explore entrepreneurial ventures, but always had an entrepreneurial desire. Born and raised in Winnipeg to first generation immigrants, Luan often had thoughts about creating her own clothing, having grown up around sewing machines and even having visited a garment factory during Take Our Kids to Work Day. 

When she enrolled in the Accelerated MBA program at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in 2018, she had the opportunity to put her ideas on paper and have her peers vet her business idea.  While Luan had gone into the program with the intent of continuing her career in the corporate world, she fell in love with entrepreneurship and finally got the courage to pursue something of her very own – a tailored suiting business especially for women. 

“It was in January 2018 that the idea popped into my head, it was May when we started the Entrepreneurship and Innovation class, and by October I had a full business plan with the vetting and input of my classmates. The hardest part is always getting started and my MBA put my idea on a rocket ship,” she recalls.  

By the time Luan finished her MBA classes in December 2018, she had a business plan, funding, and the support to launch. 

“I gave myself a goal to launch the business before convocation, which was in May 2019,” she says. “I knew if I didn’t do it then, I’d never do it.” 

Over the course of five months between finishing classes and convocation, she followed almost exactly the business plan she’d created in school. Ten days before graduation, Luan launched SEWT. She went to Kingston to walk across the stage as an MBA grad and a business founder.  

“Everything from my MBA was strategic, and the last piece to launch was the practical, nitty-gritty stuff that I had to figure out,” she says, recalling that first part of the journey. “There were the many moving pieces all the way from legal, bookkeeping, tax structure and shares to how to setup an e-commerce store. It was literally a five-month crash course in taking theory and strategy and executing.” 

Establishing and maintaining corporate values was of the utmost importance to Luan, who also completed her Certificate in Social Impact while at Smith. “My mission is bigger than suiting; it’s about how I can help and what impact I can have when it comes to building women up to the next level of their careers.”  

She’s also woven sustainability into all of her practices, from the overall belief in “slow fashion” to sourcing materials, producing products on a made-to-order basis to avoid waste, and committing to donating or reusing all returns. 

Collaboration and support are a big part of Luan’s success. While she started SEWT on her own, she credits the people who have helped along the way. “There were classmates, professors, fashion industry heavy-weights, among others, that were so giving of their time and expertise in helping me. What I learned was that everyone wants to help if you are willing to share your idea and vision,” Luan says. 

With COVID hitting Canada in March, things have changed a bit for Luan, but she says the pandemic has given her the opportunity to look at her company in more creative ways.  

“We moved our head office to Toronto and I’m excited to have two new partners in Toronto, which will allow us to serve the market more broadly.” With a ready-to-wear line of suits launching soon, pop-up locations in cities across the country and a new e-commerce strategy that will open SEWT’s platform to support other women entrepreneurs, Luan hopes to scale her business while remaining true to her core values. 

Luan’s personal mission is to also inspire others to explore entrepreneurship. “I didn’t grow up in an entrepreneurial family – it was the get a good education and get a good job story – but I want others to have the courage to explore entrepreneurship and take risks. I think everyone should try becoming an entrepreneur at least once – it’s the most difficult, scary and rewarding thing I have ever done.”

To support other entrepreneurs, Luan also works as a consultant in the entrepreneurial ecosystem with Spring Activator, a global incubator, accelerator and advisory firm in B.C., sharing the knowledge she’s gained along the way. “I love helping others launch and scale their businesses, and it’s always a symbiotic relationship because I’m still growing and learning too.” 

Her advice for women looking to start their own business? Take the first step. “So many people have great ideas and ambitions but are scared to get started,” she says. “For me, if a goal or vision seems unattainable, I do the smallest most achievable things first. Small actions turn into big moves. And I’m always reminding myself that it’s a marathon not a race.”