Arlene Dickinson’s advice for women entrepreneurs

The Dragon with fancy sleeves on how to find a mentor, cold feet and why the term ‘work-life balance’ makes her wince

BCBusiness chatted by phone with Arlene Dickinson in Toronto. On May 19, BCBusiness will host Dickinson with fellow former Dragons’ Den investor David Chilton at the Orpeum in their first ever joint event. Tickets are available here.
I hope you don’t mind if we start big picture: what’s your personal definition of success?
Success has always meant challenging myself by doing what I thought I couldn’t do. My definition is very personal: it means the ability to look at myself in the mirror and be able to like who I am and feel like I have really pushed myself to do things that I didn’t think were possible. It’s never been a financial number. It’s more feeling like I’ve lived my life fully.
Do you have any advice on how entrepreneurs should shape their own definition of success?
The question is itself the answer: you have to shape your own definition. You can’t hold yourself to what other people think success looks like or feels like. It has to be something that makes you feel good about what you’ve accomplished. It’s important to not think about the definition in the context of what other people see and view as success, but instead what you see or feel is going to make you satisfied or happy. But that’s the hardest thing in the world to do because it’s so easy to live by other people’s standards
In your first book Persuasion, you emphasized the importance of your core network of mentors on your career. What advice do you have for people who are entrepreneurs, or who perhaps aren’t, on how to build a similar circle of supporters?
Reach out to people that are visibly higher profile or held up as a standard of success. The best mentors that I’ve had in life and the people who have been the most supportive are people who I’ve met at dinner parties, at events or just through business, people with whom I’ve felt a connection, a connection in a way that I felt trust and authenticity. Those relationships really did start from a place of what can I do to help you and not what can you do for me.
If you’re looking to build a network, start by asking the person in your immediate circle, what’s the hardest challenge they’ve overcome? And you would be surprised at the answers you will get. So I think you need to understand that mentorship can come from anywhere, starting there, and then building your network as you go about building your business. Don’t always expect that someone super busy or super high-profile is going to take that time because they might not be able to.
So when entrepreneurs reach out to you, or someone comparably busy, what do you find to be the best way to go about it?
For women in particular, there are many formalized programs, like the Women’s Executive Network or Women of Influence. For entrepreneurs working at startups, there’s Startup Canada and YOUInc., my site, with lots of programs and expert advice where you can learn.
What are the biggest challenges that female entrepreneurs face on the path to launching, and then running, their own business?
The market is still not funding female entrepreneurs the way it needs to, so one of the challenges is raising capital. One of the other challenges is finding the confidence to take life experience and turn it into entrepreneurial success. Sometimes there’s hesitancy or a lack of belief that the things you’ve learned along the way are actually valuable as it relates to building a business, which is far from the truth. Getting in your own way is a big challenge as sometimes you’re just a little less brave and bold.
What’s the most common doubt you find among people who are anxious to become entrepreneurs, or get cold feet at the prospect?
This is going to sound so cliché, but that first step really truly is the hardest. A lot of people say I want to be an entrepreneur but I worry about this or that, or I want to try to start a business, but I can’t seem to figure out what I need to do. But to me that’s a little bit of a red herring excuse. The real thing stopping you is yourself, and your own belief that you might not do well at it.
In the U.S., there’s the acceptance that starting a business and failing is a sign of success in its own way, because you tried something and were prepared to fail. Through that failure you learned something. We need to encourage that perspective in Canada.
While I find the word “intrapreneurship” particularly awful, the concept seems to be having a bit of a moment. Do you have advice for employees who are looking to inject some form of entrepreneurship into a corporate job, a job that they can’t afford to leave, or who don’t have the ambition to start their own business?
The notion of “intrapreneruship” kind of fascinates me, because really all it says is that you’re prepared to be more of a leader inside of the context of a large organization and take a few risks along the way. If it means that you’re willing to test the status quo, find a way to move agendas through large organizations more efficiently, and find ways to get people to work alongside of you, than it’s an awesome concept. But at the end of the day, that’s really just managerial training.
This is a question from a colleague of mine: what advice would you have for women (and men) who are transitioning back to the workplace after spending a few years raising children, or a shorter break on maternity or paternity leave?
Just because you’re at home with your child doesn’t mean that you should stop pushing yourself to learn and stay engaged and understand what’s going on. Don’t distance yourself from the business, continue to stay up to date with things in the industry you’re in, continue to stay in contact with people, and continue to feed your mind while you’re taking care of your child and being a great parent.
I think the biggest mistake is to go away for a year and not engage at all. Absences can create distance, which create a lack of top-of-mindedness and present a steep learning curve for you as you try to get back into the workforce. So you want to demonstrate that you know what’s going on in your absence, while still allowing yourself to make sure that you’re being the kind of mom or dad you want to be at home.
When you hear the term “life-work balance,” what does it mean to you?
Like you hate intrapreneurship, I kind of hate the notion of this. We’re all so different, and the notion that there’s this magic formula downplays the fact that we all live different lives with different degrees of success, competing interests and competing ideals.
So, personally, I think work-life balance means being able to have the freedom to do what I want, when I want to do it. And for me that means getting to spend time with my family. But that could also mean spending time on exercise, spending time at work—whatever makes you happy. And again, you shouldn’t let someone dictate it to you. If you’re happy, you’ve found it, and if you’re not, figure out what’s making you unhappy and change it.
Any last thoughts?
You need to have courage to start a business. You need to have courage to persevere. I actually just tweeted the quote: “In order to never quit you have to see hope, and in order to see hope you have to never quit.” That kind of working your way through the challenges of being in business is not to be understated. It is incredibly important.

For more of Arlene’s success stories and wisdom, come see her live on May 19. For a limited time, get 50% off tickets with the promo code FLASH at