“A lot of people think of persuasion as a dirty word because they associate it with tricking or fooling others. To me, principled persuasion is exactly the opposite.” – Arlene Dickinson
By Michelle Walter | Interview Colin Keddy
Many of us have heard a rags to riches story that encourages us to follow our dreams, in hopes of one day, becoming our own success story. However, it is not often that you hear a story of a female entrepreneur, who against all odds became one of the countries most successful business leaders.
At the age of thirty, Arlene Dickinson was divorced, had a high school diploma, no savings and no idea how to feed her four young children. In an inspiring interview with Arlene, PIE learned exactly how Arlene became the CEO of Venture Communications, co-host of CBC’s award-winning series Dragon’s Den and one of the country’s most sought-after female entrepreneurs.
Arlene’s father was a schoolteacher and he emphasized that all learning involves making mistakes. He encouraged her to take risks and inspired her to chart her own path. However, Arlene admits that in charting her own path, she decided to get married at nineteen, rather than go to university, and her father was not particularly keen on that risk. In fact, he told Arlene that she’d wind up barefoot and pregnant for the rest of her life because she didn’t have a degree! But even that inspired her in a way. “I thought, “I’ll show him”, and at the end of his life, he told me how proud he was of what I’d accomplished and that meant the world to me. I was savoring the moment, with tears in my eyes, when he added, ‘And just think how much further you could have gone with a degree.’ That was my dad.”
Arlene partnered at Venture Communications in 1988 and her eventual ownership came a mere ten years later, in 1998. When asked what motivated her to succeed, Arlene told PIE that a major turning point in her life was her divorce. She was thirty years old with four children, no money, and no diploma. “I had no choice but to try to succeed. My kids needed me to deliver and that propelled me forward through a really tough situation.” Today, Arlene’s children are all independent and able to take care of themselves, however, she is no less motivated to succeed. “My primary motivation is to be interested in, and excited about, going to work every day, and to feel that I’m adding value. But beyond it all, my family continues to be what motivates me to be the best I can be for them.”
Arlene joined Venture during a major recession and took many great risks to accomplish what she has to date. She had to persuade herself to buy out the company’s one remaining partner, assume the company’s debt and take the reins on her own, which was no easy feat. It was a huge leap of personal faith and a key turning point for the growth of the company, which has become one of the largest independent marketing firms in the country.
Arlene’s advice, for people struggling in the harsh economy, is to focus on potential, not problems, and actively look for opportunities that have been created by the current economic climate. Arlene explains; “There is a lot of room now for smaller, more nimble companies to succeed because larger, more bureaucratic organizations are retrenching. Then pursue those opportunities wholeheartedly, don’t wait until you’re 100 percent sure of success, or the opportunity will already have passed you by.” Arlene also has advice for young, aspiring women. “The biggest obstacles to your success aren’t the glass ceiling, or the Mommy track, or gender bias. The biggest obstacles are internal: your own self-doubt or, conversely, your own sense of entitlement. Don’t stand in your own way.”
Arlene has had many proud career moments, but when asked which moment stuck out, she explained that it was when she was able to walk away from a business relationship, which although highly lucrative, she felt like her company was being asked to do something that wasn’t strictly ethical. “The amount of money involved was painful, and I was very worried that Venture might really suffer as a result of this decision. It was difficult to do the right thing, knowing the consequences could be disastrous, and I’m really proud of myself for doing it, and proud of our entire team at Venture, that we were able to make up the lost income and go on to even greater success.”
“Even greater success” is an understatement when it comes to the success enjoyed by Venture Communications. Arlene transformed the company from a local operation into one of Canada’s largest independent marketing firms. Venture now has offices in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa. On top of being the CEO of Venture, Arlene has also released her first book titled Persuasion. The book explains how to achieve maximum success in business, and in life, without an MBA. It is an entertaining read, full of compelling stories. PIE asked Arlene what she hopes people will gain from reading her book. Her response: “A lot of people think of persuasion as a dirty word because they associate it with tricking or fooling others.
To me, principled persuasion is exactly the opposite. It means being true to your own values, being honest with the other party and making sure there’s something in it for everyone. Persuasion is all about relationships, ultimately, and you want to create long-lasting ones so you need those key ingredients; authenticity, honesty, and reciprocity. I hope readers will come away from the book with a better understanding of a crucial life skill that can help you in just about every business situation, whether it’s persuading someone to hire you, to promote you, to work with you on a tough project, or to stick by you when you’ve made a mistake. Persuasion has been the key to my own success and I really believe anyone can master it.”
To complement the release of her book Arlene has launched a signature line of Persuasion products including 2010 Persuasion Wine, Persuasion Coffee, on and Chocolate, as well as Persuasion Skin Care line which is designed to give the user a relaxing and spa-like skin care experience. As if this wasn’t enough, Arlene is also launching a mutual fund aimed at women. “A lot of women are intimidated into thinking they can’t manage their own money, which is nonsense. Financial literacy is a must in this economy, and the good news is, it’s not rocket science. I didn’t understand money until I was a single mom and had to figure it out quickly. I love the idea of empowering other women so they feel confident about their own ability to make smart financial and investment decisions.”
One would think that being the CEO of a major Canadian company, and the co-host of the hit television series Dragon’s Den, on top of launching a book and a signature line of Persuasion products, would be enough to keep one woman busy for a lifetime, however Arlene still finds time to partake in a number of community-driven initiatives, including The Calgary Municipal Lands Corporation, and in the past, the National Board for Kids Help Phone. Arlene told PIE that it is hard for her to resist anything that involves young children in need. “Kids shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the cracks in a society as wealthy and privileged as ours. I am the National Spokesperson for The Breakfast Clubs of Canada. Our children should never go to school on an empty stomach, or how will they ever have the appetite to learn? It’s critical that our kids are nurtured in every sense of the word.”
To conclude the interview, PIE asked Arlene if there is anything that she wishes to accomplish that she has not already. She humbly responded, “I want to make a positive difference in the world, whether that’s through charitable work, or helping people realize their dreams. And to keep realizing my own potential and living life fully. It’s an ongoing project, not something you ever complete, and the challenge is to keep looking for new ways to try to have an impact.”