How Arlene Dickinson Is Investing in Canada’s Future

"We’ve had a level of uncertainty in all of our lives that never existed before, and we now have to think about what it is we want to accomplish as a society"

Canadian Business is relaunching in fall 2021, building on its platform as a trusted media brand and social network for the country’s fastest-growing companies and their innovative leaders, who are changing Canada for the better.

Canadian Business gives these leaders—and those who want to learn from them—the resources, networking opportunities, and inspiration to innovate, connect and continue to challenge the status quo. One of the ways we are doing this is through launching the Canadian Business Leadership Circle, CB’s leader-in-residence program where each month we engage a different C suite-level executive making an impact in their field. As part of the program, readers will have the chance to connect with these progressive-minded business execs for mentorship and professional development through exclusive content, virtual fireside chats, and more.

Joining us as leader-in-residence for July is Arlene Dickinson, CEO of Venturepark— Canada’s most extensive business growth ecosystem—and star of CBC’s Dragon’s Den. Here, Dickinson speaks with writer Alex Derry about the changing face of entrepreneurship and the role of leadership in a post-pandemic world.

How did you get your start with Venture?

In my early thirties, I was asked to join Venture Communications as a partner. It was a very early-stage startup, which basically meant I worked for free. I had been working in media sales prior to that, so I had a little bit of marketing experience, and had found that I really loved marketing. I ran the company with a couple of partners for several years, then bought them out, and went from there. I started to figure out how I wanted to build the business and did a little bit of angel investing as the company grew and things did well. One of my employees was looking to start a business and asked me for an investment. That led to an understanding of how investment worked. I was also working with many businesses in my marketing career and had lots of opportunities presented to me. Then as I was investing and growing the business, and getting a higher profile, I joined Dragon’s Den

How have these experiences shaped your approach to entrepreneurship?

They helped me understand what differentiates people who have an idea and think they want to be entrepreneurs versus people who are driven to be entrepreneurs. I started to recognize that entrepreneurialism is its own identity. These experiences also shaped my own entrepreneurial journey. As I was helping entrepreneurs, I was also building myself as an entrepreneur. Back then, I thought of myself as running a marketing firm, but I was really an entrepreneur-in-training. I started understanding and thinking about risk and how I could build a business differently, and what the opportunities are. And it helped me understand what it means to back somebody—it’s about more than just money.

How has the idea of leadership evolved for you?

It’s important to find your passion as a leader. Purpose-driven entrepreneurialism and leadership is important—leaders need to know what they’re trying to get to and why they’re trying to get to it. It’s got to have meaning. It’s got to have a social impact. It’s got to have the opportunity. It’s, of course, got to be economically viable. 

What common values are emerging in the business world as we come out of the pandemic?

When we think back years ago, business leaders were all about, “let’s take the hill, follow me!” Today, leadership is about saying to your team, “I don’t have all the answers. This is all uncharted territory. Here’s what I’d like to build. Here’s why I think it’s important.” And then making sure your team is feeling included in the process. Today it’s about more flexibility and less rigidity, more empathy versus the hardcore approach of “I’m in charge, do what I say.”

What mega-trends do you anticipate businesses will have to navigate as Canada reopens?

We’re going to have to navigate a changing workforce. Just think about how many people are deciding that work isn’t for them, at least the traditional type of work. We’re seeing record numbers of people quitting their jobs and going on to do different things. That’s an opportunity for young people. That means leaders are going to have to understand how they can keep their core teams together while still being aware that the workforce is changing. 

We’ve had a level of uncertainty in all of our lives that never existed before, and we now have to think about what it is we want to accomplish as a society, how businesses can serve those needs, and then how we compete globally. 

What are you working on these days that’s getting you excited?

The pandemic really was an awakening for me, as it was for many of us. We stopped and thought about what mattered, what we want to leave as a legacy, and what we want our society to be. I had a lot of time to think about how to navigate this period, and what I want as we come out of it.

I reinvented Venturepark, which is a business growth ecosystem focused on supporting and marketing consumer goods companies in the food, health, and personal-care space. All of it existed before the pandemic, but the notion of bringing it all together in one ecosystem and leveraging each other’s diverse skill sets all driven by the same goal was something that we did during Covid. We’ve got a venture capital fund, an accelerator, a commercial kitchen, two marketing companies, and a media platform. I’m about to raise my second fund, which I’m excited about. We’ve been investing in companies across Canada, and it’s been incredibly rewarding to see how this ecosystem has grown.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who are inspired by your journey?

In Canada, we’re taught to be low risk, as a country and as individuals. But that low risk does not come with a high reward. We have to push ourselves to leverage the intelligence, skills, and innovation that we have and lift up brave leaders. We have to use our values to purposefully help change the world. Dream big, and don’t let anyone else tell you not to. We really do have what it takes to compete, but we have to push ourselves harder and harder to make this country all it can be.