Alison Lawton: The Connector

She made big money in finance and technology, then big friends in Clinton and Gates. Now Alison Lawton is putting all that money and social capital to good use.


She made big money in finance and technology, then big friends in Clinton and Gates. Now Alison Lawton is putting all that money and social capital to good use.

Like any stay-at-home mom, Alison Lawton schedules her day around her kids. She drops her two children off at elementary school in the morning, and picks them up at the end of the day. She’s even a volunteer crossing guard. But where she differs from other soccer moms, even in tony West Vancouver, is in the A-list celebrities she includes among her close personal acquaintances: she has held private one-on-ones with the likes of Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela and even the Dalai Lama.

At the age of 39, Lawton has reached the pinnacle of not just one but two careers. Her first is in finance, where she co-founded a dot-com incubator during the boom of the late ‘90s. The second is as a philanthropist and social activist, where she produced an award-winning documentary film about child exploitation in Uganda’s bloody civil war. And along the way, she would marry, then separate from, mining magnate turned film mogul Frank Giustra.

A native of Montreal, Lawton completed a communications degree at Concordia University, then headed west for adventure in the early ’90s. “I was an anglophone, trapped in Quebec with an English last name,” she explains as we settle into a booth at the Park Royal Caffè Artigiano for our interview. “I wanted to do something different and didn’t want to go to Toronto.”

Thanks to the influence of her mother, a nurse, Lawton had spent a lot of time volunteering at hospitals and soup kitchens as a kid, so it was only natural that she would turn to the non-profit sector when looking for work in Vancouver. A communications contract with an environmental company led her to the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. That, in turn, would lead her to a meeting that would mark the first about-face in her career.

Lawton was raising funds for Earth Day International when she approached David Richardson, at the time president of Investor First Financial Inc., a Vancouver investment firm. “He said, ‘If you can raise money for a non-profit, you can raise money for profit. You should come work with my firm,’ ” Lawton recalls.

The timing of the invitation was perfect. Lawton was having second thoughts about her fundraising work; in particular, she was frustrated by conditions donors would attach to their contributions – conditions that often put the donors’ interests ahead of the cause they were supporting.

Richardson, who came from the Winnipeg family behind venerable Canadian investment firm James Richardson and Sons Ltd., offered Lawton a glimpse into the world of independent wealth – and that world suggested new possibilities. “I thought eventually I’ll be able to invest my money in social change, in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be tied to the outcomes that worked for the donor but for the cause,” she recalls. “I can’t say it was that calculated at the time, but I knew something wasn’t working, and I was pushing to find what would work.”
[pagebreak]Lawton proved a quick study in the world of high finance. She joined Investor First in 1995 and completed the Canadian Securities Course while selling real estate limited partnerships and film-industry tax shelters. She would leave within a year, and in 1997 she founded her own investment firm, Winfield Venture Group Ltd. Sensing opportunity in the mushrooming dot-com sector, in 1998 she joined Vancouver tech entrepreneurs Dave Schulz and Rory Holland to found IdeaPark Ventures Inc., a tech incubator.

Although Lawton declines to provide any details, it was also at about this time that she met Frank Giustra, the former president and CEO of Yorkton Securities Inc., who had formed Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. in 1997. The two were married in 2000.

Meanwhile, mining magnate Ian Telfer had taken an interest in IdeaPark and in February 2000 bought the firm for $2.5 million in stock and cash, changing the name to Itemus Inc. Lawton would be looking on from the sidelines when in July 2001 Itemus filed for bankruptcy. Lawton admits it wasn’t financial acumen that was responsible for her good timing; it was the birth of her son in November 2000. “He was my golden boy because he was my ticket out,” she says with a laugh. “The stars aligned.”

Looking back today on her brief career in finance, Lawton describes the same kind of unease she had felt in the non-profit sector. “I was very lucky to have participated in Itemus,” she says, “but something didn’t sit right with me there either. It’s not right to be able to put in a certain amount of money and walk away with significant gains, only to watch it go bankrupt. If I win, he loses. Where is the justice in that?”

Pondering the injustices of both the profit and non-profit worlds led her back to school; Lawton enrolled in a master’s degree in communications at SFU, where her thesis focused on the role of the media in creating value in financial markets. After completing her coursework, Lawton was at a crossroads. “I’d had a taste of the non-profit world, I had a taste of the for-profit world and I had a taste of academia,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, how do all of these powerful stakeholders work together for social change?’”

The answer would come in the form of a chance encounter with Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian foreign affairs minister and head of UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues. Axworthy encouraged Lawton to apply her experience in communications to a worthy cause, suggesting she look into the under-reported forcible conscription of children in a bloody civil war in Uganda.

Lawton visited the region, met many of the child conscripts and gained access to Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, as well as to Betty Bigombe, chief negotiator between the Ugandan government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. At first her only goal was to bring back some video footage that Axworthy might use in his lobbying efforts or that instructors might use in the classroom at the Liu Institute. But as the material continued to accumulate, she felt compelled to do more with it and sunk $1 million of her own money into producing the feature-length documentary film Uganda Rising, which garnered awards at film festivals around the world, including an honourable mention at the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Lawton separated from Giustra in 2008, and today she has a hand in multiple social, philanthropic and financial ventures. She channels most of her social activism through Mindset Social Innovation Foundation, which she founded following the completion of Uganda Rising. She also has close ties to UBC, where she serves as a fellow at the Liu Institute and where in April 2009 she donated $1 million to a journalism course that sends students abroad to report on under-represented social issues. And she remains active in the investment community through her Winfield Venture Group, where she continues to oversee investments.

But as far as her two kids are concerned, Lawton’s number one job is mom. “They think I just sit at home waiting for them to come home,” she says with a laugh, “and that’s great!”