entrepreneurs

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SheEO

Lessons learned from our SheEO Sisters

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Our fabulous cohort: Suzanne, Magnusmode’s Nadia Hamilton, Abeego’s Toni Desrosiers, Skipper Otto’s Sonia Strobel, Twenty-One Toys’ Ilana Ben-Ari, Madeleine.

It’s no secret that we are longtime champions of women entrepreneurs in general, with a special fondness for those who find their inspiration in the social impact realm.

We were especially touched and impressed by our SheEO Radical Generosity cohort, who, chosen from among 230 companies across Canada based on their overall business merits, also happened to all have a powerful social impact, as well as incredible lessons and role modelling for us. Here are our impressions of four rockstar entrepreneurs and their amazing initiatives.

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Sonia and Suzanne get their Empathy groove on playing with Twenty One Toys.

Twenty One Toys teach empathy, failure and non-visual communication skills to children and adults alike. Developed by industrial designer Ilana Ben-Ari originally to facilitate play between blind and sighted children, she discovered that they also had novel, universal applications for basically anyone who would benefit from enhancing their communication and relational skills (hello, most of us, am I right?).

It was amazing to watch Suzanne and Sonia Strobel (more about her in a minute) find their way through explaining how to arrange the pieces while blindfolded: it was a moment that beautifully demonstrated the toys’ power, as well as the human capacity to reach beyond our limitations, imagined or otherwise.

Ilana is one of the bravest, most resilient people that we have ever met. While Suzanne and I often rely on one another for support, Ilana has traveled on her own to China with precious few resources, spent her last pennies on manufacturing and even wore a borrowed dress to the Purple Carpet gala. Whether for your team, your kids or whatever people you could use better communication with, check out Twenty One Toys: they’re revolutionary.

So: back to Sonia. We like to think that we’re fairly up on sustainable business, however when it comes to essential, non-urban industries like agriculture and fisheries, we know that they are vital and yet have to confess to being in need of education: Sonia to the rescue!

Did you know, for example, that over half of the seafood available at stores or restaurants is mis-labeled? Or that most of our local BC catch travels as far as China (not swimming) for processing, changing hands up to 20 times, losing freshness and costing more at every step? Sonia created Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery (CSF) to support family-owned Fishermen (Fishers of all genders apparently agree on this name) and provide consumers with fresh, sustainably-caught seafood.

One of the things that struck us most powerfully about Sonia is her remarkable ability to speak her truth. It’s one of those things that I catch myself on sometimes: wanting to please others, or sacrificing my needs for the sake of perceived efficiency. Not this lady: maybe it’s the fresh seafood that gives her the courage?

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(L-R) Nadia, Toni, Ilana, Sonia, Suzanne, Madeleine and Coach Loren Walsh.

One of the most powerful questions asked by Magnusmode founder Nadia Hamilton was “Have you ever been lost?” Fur sure, however consider what this might be like as a daily experience: this is the need that Nadia is solving for. Inspired by her autistic brother Troy, Magnus cards help people with autism and other cognitive disabilities navigate life.

When I think of Nadia, the phrase “the fierce face of love” comes to mind. She is – for real – a fighter: trained as a boxer and uniquely compelling in how her love for her brother has motivated her business – do not even consider resisting her. Know anyone with autism or other cognitive challenges?

Some of us are fighters, and some of us are lovers: which brings me to Abeego founder Toni Desrosiers. There is a lot of talk out there about vulnerability these days, however we have rarely witnessed it as powerfully as in Toni’s presence.

Her innovative products are born from her experience as a Holistic Nutritionist, and were frankly not what I expected. Whereas I had been seeing their value proposition more from an environmental perspective (reusable beeswax wrap replacing plastic wrap and containers), what I ended up learning was the value of keeping food fresher (and ergo healthier) for longer through the lesson of biomimicry: think of the breathable skin of a lemon or avocado – you get the idea.

As the famous E Myth tells us, it’s one thing to be an original thinker and come up with new products or services, however entirely another to run a business selling those things. The ability to do both is extraordinary, and these ladies are it.

Thank you Ilana, Sonia, Nadia and Toni for sharing your brave, smart, strong selves so fully: we are beyond grateful for your leadership and lessons!

Suzanne and Madeleine in Calgary 2016

Insights from the Road

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Some of our major breakthroughs and insights have happened for us – business-wise, as well as in our relationship – outside of Vancouver. Sometimes those places have been exotic and/or distant destinations like Kampala, Amsterdam and San Francisco. This time, considerably closer to home, some really great things happened in (yee haw!) Calgary, Alberta.

When we were invited by a major national bank to speak at an event they were hosting for their women entrepreneur clients, we were more than a little surprised: we’ve never been invited by a mainstream organization of this size to do anything, let alone speak at one of their events. And yet apparently such places are looking for new ideas and inspiration from people like us: it was time to stop navel gazing, give it our best, show up and see how it feels to move from the fringe to centre stage.

“Centre stage” may be a bit of an exaggeration, given the relatively small (40 people) size of our audience – however this was a new demographic for us: mainstream (ie non social/impact-defined) entrepreneurs in the middle of a major economic downturn, their enterprises ranging from environmental science to equine leadership training to interior design to commercial leasing.

Our given topic was Entrepreneurial Innovation in the Age of Constant Disruptive Change: how’s that for daunting? As cool-sounding and timely as it may be, it initially struck us as a bit overwhelming and kind of scary. I spent the first few months of this year attending the newly-minted Vancouver home of the THNK School of Creative Leadership, and if I learned nothing else there (more to come on that front in future posts), the technique of “reframing” will forever be with me.

It’s a basic concept, that in THNK’s hands gets taken to a whole new level: essentially, “flipping” negative or limiting ideas to explore new possibilities. To illustrate the point, halfway through the presentation (which we started under the original title), we instead offered Dancing in an Infinite Landscape of Freedom and Innovation as an example of taking a different approach.

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Similarly, our take on VUCA, an increasingly common “how it is these days in the business/world” acronym for the military-originated construct of Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – we reframed as CODE, or Colourful, Opportunity-Rich, Diverse and Evolving.

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Consider how each one of these definitions of “reality” or “the future” make you feel. They both contain essentially the same elements, however if you believe – as we do – that how you feel (scared or excited, as one example) about your business, the future – or basically anything – can affect its outcome, then this type of creative reinterpretation of “reality” can be highly empowering.

Which is not to say that it changes the situation, it just changes how you react to it: the degree of confidence or optimism that you bring as a leader can radically change how you approach your path forward, and even the entire game. In sharing our stories, we further suggested that applying our inherent skills in feminine leadership (regardless of one’s gender) are the very tools that have helped us to find our path in the “VUCA/CODE” environment.

Within a few short hours we went from feeling like rebel outsiders to being part of a likeminded tribe, sharing our wisdom, experience and creativity to find new solutions in changing times. Insight: institutions are not people. While large companies may be less nimble than small, entrepreneurial ones, they are highly resourced – and even willing – to champion change and leave a positive legacy for the future. We loved the day’s leaders’ curiosity, openness and genuine desire to support their clients and build community among them.

There are arguably bigger problems to solve than Alberta’s failing extraction-dependent economy, however if we can be part of that, then let’s do it: who knows, perhaps the women (and other creative and/or impact-minded) entrepreneurs will be the ones to lead the way to a more sustainable future?

Thank you BMO Bank of Montreal for initiating this transformational conversation and for hosting us in true Calgarian style. Our 10-gallon hat also goes off to the remarkable Marysia Czarski, whose facilitation skills were world class.

And finally to the tenacious and committed women entrepreneurs of Alberta, for co-creating an extraordinary day of possibility: we are beyond grateful to stand with you. One of our favourite things to do is be with other entrepreneurs, as we always learn and feel energized from our shared challenges. Moreover, receiving such overwhelmingly positive feedback left us completely buoyed by the whole experience. Let’s do it again!