2020 Women of the Year Awards: Entrepreneurial Leader

Our first annual Women of the Year Awards.

Credit: Credit: Peter Holst

Winner: Pilar Portela

President and CEO, Astra Smart Systems and i4C Innovation

Pilar Portela has founded nine companies, three of which have been acquired. Though she didn’t begin her formal post-secondary education until her late 30s, she’s been employed in the tech industry for most of her career, at a variety of organizations in her native Costa Rica as well as in Canada and the U.S., while running businesses on the side.

At 38, Portela started her bachelor’s in international trade from Distance State University in Montes de Oca, Costa Rica, followed by a master’s in project management through the University for International Cooperation in San José, her hometown. She completed both while working full-time. In 2015, having spent five years in Silicon Valley as director of software development for a multinational, she moved to B.C. to become CEO of technology incubator Accelerate Okanagan.

Entrepreneurship lured Portela back to working for herself, and she relocated to rural B.C. to launch two businesses: Astra Smart Systems in 2016 and i4C Innovation in 2017. Burnaby-based Carl Data Solutions acquired them in 2017 and 2019, respectively, and Portela remains president of both companies.

Astra, with its eight employees, offers an end-to-end solution for industrial environmental analytics, everything from collecting data through sensors to running networks to transmitting the collected information for analysis. The idea for Astra came as Portela reflected on “finding solutions that can solve global problems,” she remembers. “It’s extremely expensive to collect and transmit data, so [businesses] often don’t have enough of it to be able to make decisions.”

That’s where Astra comes in, offering low-power and low-cost networks. With clients in Canada, Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico, the company will expand into Colombia, Brazil and North Africa this year.

i4C Innovation runs parallel to Astra, helping it reach its targets. Portela’s second company in Trail is a hub of eight companies, hand-picked by her, working together to help each other scale up. The idea is that the partners can join forces, for example, by putting in bids to work with larger organizations, Portela explains. “[i4C] was really about proving you can do innovation in rural communities,” she says. “It was profitable from the beginning.”

Portela says i4C grew out of a belief that collaboration is the key to success in business. That, and revenue: “Investors will come if they see money coming in,” she adds. “I am a believer, because of what I have done, that a company that has revenue will be acquired at the best rate possible.”

Finalist: Bridgitte Alomes

Founder and CEO, Natural Pod 

Bridgitte Alomes got the idea for Natural Pod when she couldn’t find products for her kids that clearly indicated their origin and what they were made of. Founded in 2006, the company moved from toys into environmentally responsible furniture for educational spaces. Its recyclable, compostable pieces, designed and manufactured in B.C., are made with Forest Stewardship Council–certified materials.

Burnaby-based Natural Pod, which offers about 250 furniture items that clients can combine to create their ideal layout, has created some 15,000 spaces in Canada, the U.S., Asia, Dubai and Australia.

Alomes, who studied at University of South Australia, worked in software marketing after moving to Vancouver in 2000. “I always had this drive, this passion to do something more creative and impactful,” she says. “[Natural Pod] could not have grown without our community and without inspiring others to think about their learning environment differently.”

Finalist: Margaret Brodie

CFO and director, Rubicon Organics

Thriving in uncertainty is key to success in the cannabis industry, says Margaret Brodie: “It’s an environment with constant change.” In 2015, the Vancouver native was the first hire at organic cannabis producer Rubicon, which has since grown to 65 people.

Previously a CPA and CA with KPMG after  studying at what is now UBC Sauder School of Business, Brodie worked in her hometown and London with companies such as BHP, Diageo and Honda Europe.

Rubicon sells its Delta-grown flower under the Simply Bare brand, which hit B.C. and Saskatchewan in February. “We are gunning to be Canada’s preeminent certified organic craft cannabis,” Brodie says.

Finalist: Shannon Byrne Susko

Founder and CEO, Metronome United

After founding, leading and selling two technology companies six years apart, Shannon Byrne Susko was persuaded by a fellow CEO to come out of retirement and coach him. From that first client grew Byrne Susko’s latest venture, Metronome United, a Whistler-based firm founded in 2011 to support entrepreneurs and leaders of small to billion-dollar enterprises.

The Halifax native, who has master’s degrees in computer science and business dynamics, advises clients using the business growth strategy that guided her to success, a methodology she developed with two employees. Those two joined her in launching a parallel company, Metronome Growth Systems, offering cloud-based software to implement the approach. It has been licensed to more than 1,000 businesses with a total of 10,000 users.

In 2018, Metronome United expanded to certify others; 60 people from around the world have begun certification, and there’s a wait-list of 170. “These coaches give us an exponential reach,” says Byrne Susko, who has also published two books to further extend the reach of the Metronome system. “We want to give back to others to make it easier to grow their companies with speed and confidence.”

Finalist: Ashley Ramsay

Co-founder and CEO, Bensay Innovative, dba Yeti Farm Creative

Pete the Cat and Hotel Transylvania are big names in children’s animated series, and they were created in Kelowna at Yeti Farm Creative, founded in 2012 by Ashley Ramsay and her husband, Todd. The company has produced content for Amazon Studios, Corus Media, Surfer Jack Productions and WildBrain.

Previously, Victoria-born Ramsay earned a BFA from UBC and worked as a producer at a Vancouver animation house. “You have to decide at different milestones whether you’re going to grow or not,” she says of running a business.

Yeti Farm, now developing its own series, employs 170 people in its 11,000 square-foot studio; by 2022, Ramsay expects to add 55 more staff and move to a facility double the size.