Arlene Dickinson is one of the most recognizable business people in Canada, thanks in large part to her role as one of the entrepreneurial backers on CBC TV’s Dragons’ Den. But she is much more than “the Funder” label that she was given by followers of the program.
With three books and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, Arlene is a guru to some. Recently, she created what is being called a “super firm” of marketing and communications.
Business Edge publisher Rob Driscoll and I sat down with Arlene to talk about everything from celebrity, to a worldwide aura of fear, to the state of journalism.
1. (Kelly) What is the thinking behind the company you just formed – BelieveCo?
Arlene: We all, as independent agency owners – and, Rob, you will appreciate this for sure – that, when you are working in the media or the marketing business, as an independent, you are always up against big companies. You are always up against size and scale. And you can be scrappy and independent, and still figure it out and service clients well, but what makes you different when you are doing all those things and competing is that you end up becoming very independent.
You end up having to make choices as an entrepreneur. You end up trying to figure out, how are you going to survive? And then one day you go, how am I going to exit out of this business? Who do I sell this business to?
And you look around you. Gee, there's a lot of multinationals, and when I say multinationals – big corporations, publicly traded organizations that are buying agencies, and that's an option. And you can sell to them, but then you think that everything I've built as an independent gets lost when you do that.
And I was at that stage where I thought that I can't be the only independent shop out there trying to figure out, ‘how do I keep the legacy of what I built?’ And have an opportunity for the people that have come along with me and not lose all of that when I sell to somebody who doesn't care about either one of those things, the legacy or the people – it’s all about the revenue and the clients.
So I was really struggling with what to do, and it struck me that, what had been worked for me was building relationships in my career. And those relationships had become either client driven or team driven. And, again, I couldn't be the only agency thinking that.
So I decided to see if I could consolidate and put together a play that actually focused on being independent and relationship driven, and kept founders at the wheel. And I found many likeminded people, actually, and saw that there was a huge opportunity. And so we raised some capital, and got those people on board, and put together what now will be one of the largest independent shops certainly in Canada … and we hope to be in North America. It's just a great opportunity to take everything that an entrepreneur is and represents, and put it at scale.
2. (Kelly) Is it fair to call it like an umbrella agency?
Arlene: No it's one business. We have three market-facing brands. So we've got BelieveCo, which is the marketing agency. We've got Argo, which is the public affairs agency. And then we've got Castleman, which is the indigenous advocacy and communication agency. So those are market-facing brands, but we are one business. And we are out there working together.
3. (Rob) How has it gone so far?
Arlene: It has only been a few months, so I think it's going great. The energy and the enthusiasm for what we have started here is really palpable. We have had a lot of likeminded people who have said that they would like to join us.
4. (Rob) Is there an ethical component to your customer base?
Arlene: Yeah, listen I always think when you are philosophically aligned with your clients and your team, you are going to do better. When you are pushing water uphill just for the sake of revenue, you are not. And, yes, there is a view to doing work with people who have likeminded values, and who care about the same things, and who are committed to relationship building as opposed to a vendor/supplier relationship, which many agencies have with their clients and vice versa.
5. (Kelly) We wanted to talk about Dragons’ Den, of course. (Rob) In the early years, Business Edge actually did an article talking about how few of the promised investments actually came through. But my understanding is that really changed, and that you earned a reputation as being “the Funder”. Did the show really start to put the money behind the pledges?
Arlene: All the dragons on the show have their own; it's their money. They can do what they want with it, when they make a decision on the show. Lots of these things fall through because when you start doing due diligence – the real due diligence that happens after the show – the businesses … or the dollars are not what was presented, or the entrepreneur doesn't really want to do the deal. There are all sorts of reasons that deals fall apart, but I've always operated from a belief of we have to have the conversation after the show. You can't just not have the conversation. I don't know the close rate of the other dragons; I have no idea because it's hard enough keeping up with my own stuff. But I hope that's true, Rob. I hope that's true.
6. (Kelly) What would you say is your biggest success out of Dragons’ Den?
Arlene: Oh, I've had a few really good successful stories. I can think of three actually, right off the top:
Balzac’s Coffee – it's a coffee company based in Ontario that I invested and got involved in, and now we actually literally own the business. It's a fantastic company, and it's done very well.
OMG Candy – they came on about seven or eight years ago, and they have gone on to have huge scale and have done very well.
Cook it – which is a meal-kit-delivery company based in Montreal with a female founder that's gone and done very well.
All of these companies are doing tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and they all started off with very small revenue. So there's been some really great success.
7. (Rob) Now, celebrity can be difficult as we know – well, I don't know … I've heard about that – but have you found it challenging to balance your personal life and the celebrity life?
Arlene: That’s a great question. And I’ll just say it’s a great privilege to be on television. There's a weight to that to make sure that you represent and that you are true to yourself. When I'm on Dragons’ Den, I really am just myself. And so it's not like I have to be a persona on TV and then something else in person. So, for me, it's been probably less of a shift to say, okay, you know me as this character on television, but I'm somebody completely else in real life. I am who I am on the show, too. It's still an adjustment for me when people recognize me and talk to me. Where it happens the most is if I'm going out to a store … with no makeup on, and I look horrible, and that's inevitably when somebody will recognize me and want a picture.
That's actually what I say on my Twitter account. I say I'm told I look a lot like that woman on TV (laughter). No, it's just been a privilege. I don't have any other way to say it. Is it hard work and all those things? Sure. The ability to have a platform as a result of it, the ability to have a voice in what matters for entrepreneurs in this country – it's just been a privilege. I sometimes think you get elevated too much because you're on television. You’ve got to be careful not to start believing your own press, I'd say. And you have to remember that you're just a TV personality.
8. (Kelly) It's interesting because you are more than a TV personality. Of course, you are an author. You are an inspirational leader on LinkedIn. I follow you, and I'm amazed at the hundreds of people every day who just write, “I needed to hear that today. Thanks, Arlene.”
Arlene: The thing about LinkedIn that I find lately is that there is a lot of hubris on there, a lot of people talking about how great they are. And then there is a lot of people that are self-acclaimed gurus on everything. My posts on LinkedIn – first of all, they are my posts. I'll be in the middle of something horrible at business, and I'll think, okay, what's the lesson here? And then I'll write it into my LinkedIn post, or I'll be … reflecting on the past.
You don't want to sound like everything's always great out there. And I think the reason my posts resonate is because I talk about some of the struggles I've had, and I think being vulnerable and being honest is what drives the response I get.
9. (Rob) It’s great that you can be authentic and be admired. When I get authentic on LinkedIn, I get banned. (laughter)
Arlene: There's times I probably could be a little more authentic from that perspective, Rob, but I don't know – there are times that I read some people's posts, and I think it's just too perfect. Life isn't perfect. Business isn’t perfect.
10. (Kelly) I really appreciated your recent post about fear and not letting fear be the thief of your joy, I think you said. What motivated a post about fear?
Arlene: I think maybe this is a function of my age, you know, that because I am older now, and I think about things differently. Most people, as they get a little bit older, their risk tolerance becomes less. I'm actually getting less afraid of risk as I get older. And it's because I think about the context of time, and I think about what I did wrong in my life where I started when I was afraid. I was just literally afraid to try things because I didn't want to embarrass myself or I didn't want to look stupid.
I think I let fear get in my way a lot. And so I was ruminating again about, why didn't I do those things? Because I didn't want to look stupid? Who cares? Like I've said over and over again that my dad always said to me – that I would be a lot less worried about what other people thought of me if I knew how little they did. He said: “Arlene, you’re five minutes of gossip at somebody's dinner table, and then they move on to their own lives. So what do you care if people don't like what you're doing? You have to like what you're doing.” That’s so, so true.
11. (Rob) Now, along the lines of the fear theme, a lot of what I write about and what we cover with BIG Media (BIGMedia.ca) is related to the issues of today that often get misrepresented through sensationalism in the media. And I think it's a big problem. I know you're in a position where you might not be able to speak completely freely on it, but I really feel like the mainstream media model is broken – that they're all falling over themselves to publish the most sensational, shocking material. And the truth is almost completely lost in that. Now, you're in the media world on the other side helping people with their branding and so on, but do you see the mainstream media model being broken?
Arlene: It's a really big question, and I do have thoughts on it. Rob, I'd say that everybody became a “journalist” because they were able to publish something. And when that happened, there was this mass move to social media as a result. And you saw papers and traditional media suffering in terms of audience and reach, instead of sticking to what they knew … they needed to figure out how to get the audience back. And in an effort to do that, they created sensationalism to try and just get eyeballs and get people to read things. I can understand why they went there, but in doing that they opened up this huge blindside to being criticized for not being journalists, for not sharing the truths, for being very sensationalist. I invested in a company called Goodable…. Goodable is a media platform that only does good news. It's owned by a fellow who was a journalist who went into war zones and, just, he's an amazing human. And he said, what's wrong about this is everybody's clicking on the bad stuff because that's what the news is – getting people to click on bad things. So he created this platform called Goodable, and he is actually demonstrating that people are craving truth. They're craving good news, they're craving values, they're craving not to have to make choices between one side and another. And a lot of the media is trying to get people to choose between one side and another. I think there are media that are starting to get it, but we do have very far right, very far left.
We have media, our mainstream media that's far too politicized, and we've got to get back to media that is about the journalistic truth and fact seeking, and about sharing and helping people understand what is real versus what is fake. And that's going to take courage because that means letting go of some eyeballs and holding onto a core audience that actually is seeking the truth. That's hard for them to do because they have shareholders, and because they have pressure, and because it's very complex. And I don't think it helped when, you know, Donald Trump because he didn't like what they were saying, started blaming them for everything. So mainstream media became a target, and an easy target because if I blame mainstream media, then I can have you listen to the media that I like, which I mean … Fox News or whoever it is. And the one that I can control the message on, so I'm not so certain that it was mainstream media's fault. Maybe it was mainstream media's fault for not being true to itself….
One of the challenges that mainstream media had was that it created a lot of opinion columnists who, really – they are opinion columnists, they are not spreading the truth. That's just their view. But people started to conflate the truth and the opinion, and what and who had the louder voice became what was heard the most. And who had the most followers became what was believed. You've got, whether it's, and I'm not trying to pick on Fox – but you've got the Tuckers of the world, and what they're saying. Is that journalism or is that opinion? It's opinion.
12. (Kelly) One of our recent interviews was with the CEO of a copper company (Claudia Tornquist), and we talked with her about whether it was difficult as a woman in the mining world. Her perspective was that the glass ceiling, while it may have been there, has softened. What are your perspectives on that?
Arlene: You're making me really think hard right now (laughter). Do I think it has softened? Yes, and no. I don't mean to be wishy-washy. My main answer is no. It hasn't. We've come a long way. There's been a lot of progress. Things have definitely shifted. There's a lot more awareness and advocacy for women in business and women in their careers. At the same time that's happening, though, we have a deterioration of women's rights and of human rights. And so if you think about it, you've got, while I might have more opportunity in my job, I'm facing health crises in terms of what's happening with controlling my own body, and I'm facing crises relative to the pandemic that could set us back decades in terms of our progress, because you saw women going home to take care of their kids and their parents, and doing homeschooling, and having to give up their careers because they just weren’t able. Or entrepreneurs who were working at home who couldn't do it anymore because they had to take care of their families. It's easy to say, yeah, it's better in the business world because there's more opportunity, but how can that be true if at the same time we as women are losing our rights, and losing our position, and losing our voice because of legislation that is being put in place, because of a belief system around where women belong, because of beliefs that are really starting to get more and more ingrained around how we don't have a right to those positions in the business world, or we can't perform in the business world because of our biological functions as females. It's really messy, and so I don't think it has softened because we are facing a tsunami of prejudice and bias right now that I don't think has been dealt with properly.
13. (Kelly) Do you think that the whole pandemic and the way it was managed with the lockdowns and everything has had a huge impact on women in the workforce?
Arlene: I don't think that there was anything put in place by government or elsewise that created it. I think what happened was that it was just a reality of slipping back into traditional roles.
Nobody had to say women should stay home, but as soon as we said kids are going to be homeschooled, it slipped to a traditional facet that fell on the mom's shoulders. And so I think it was less about policy and more about just going back to some traditional values and views that aren't true, but were probably necessary given the circumstances. I don't know. I wouldn't even say they were necessary. I think it just happened as a result of what happened with the pandemic.
The pandemic and whether government managed it well or not, there's a million different perspectives on that. I was an advocate for vaccine. I believed in them, and I think that they are the reason that the virus has been controlled, but that's just me. And I have a right to that opinion. Doesn't matter if people agree with me or not.
14. (Rob) You touched on something that we write about again quite often. And the ability to say your opinion and actually just be respected for it – I feel like that's been lost in the last few years. And part of it is because of the media and part of it is because of the politicians – but do you find that it's become more difficult to speak freely?
Arlene: If you're going to speak freely, you have to be prepared for the hatred. And you have to be aware of, between bots and trolls, it can be debilitating to be honest on social media. But I have learned to put my view and opinion out there, and I don't spend a lot of time looking at what other people are saying about it, because if I did, I wouldn't put my opinion out there. It would be too hard. So you have to have a bit of an iron will against it, and once in a while I'll engage if somebody said something that really bothers me. But for the most part, I try not to engage because it isn't a dialogue that's being created on these social platforms as much as we want it to be. It's a bunch of opinion being thrown out there, and you can choose to listen to that opinion and look at it, and you can learn from it. And that can be on either side of the coin. An opinion can be changed by somebody expressing their view thoroughly and articulately, and providing background research and information that gives me pause to ponder and think about whether I'm right or wrong. I think that's healthy debate, and I love that, but healthy debate on social media is very rare. So it is better maybe to express your opinion in person with somebody that you can have a healthy debate with.
15. (Rob) And when someone like me says ‘but the vaccine didn't stop transmission, so you are exposed to the side effects, plus usually the virus itself.’ And there's still no data in my mind that suggests a healthy person should get vaccinated with the current lineup of COVID vaccines, and media, again, I'm going to blame them. A lot of times it just gets simplified, so instead of breaking into demographics, we all just say, oh, a whole bunch of people died, so everybody should get vaccinated. Now when someone comes up with a counterargument like that, do you engage sometimes ... and will you right now? (laughter)
Arlene: I do engage. I have had those debates. I don't know you are wrong... Do I believe you are wrong? Yes, I believe you're wrong, and I believe you're wrong because history would say whether it's smallpox, whether it's tuberculosis, whether it's chickenpox, whether it's anything that we've been vaccinated for as a species – that those things have stopped – measles, etc. – because of vaccines. And so I do think that vaccines are an effective way to combat the spread of a virus. I just think that's the science. I do have a lot of friends in the healthcare industry that I spoke at length to when this was all going on, and tried to understand what was happening on the front lines, and tried to understand what their views were. A lot of scientists, friends, a lot of people – and not even just friends – people that I respected and had read about. And I also read the other side of it. I also spent a lot of time trying to understand why people didn't think it was a good idea, and all I can say is I respect your choice. You have a choice. But I do believe that the reason that we are where we are right now is because the vaccine was implemented. That's again, my opinion.
16. (Rob) I engage on social media just about every day, and I just try to elevate the discussion, and then I ask my data scientists to go tell us the truth and remove every bit of spin that they can. I think, unfortunately, very few people have access to the important data, and I think things are changing. Just on your point of vaccines in general, we wrote an article on vaccines, and it was essentially a celebration of the success for like smallpox and polio…. The data on this one is very different, so we are still finding out. But I always appreciate just a discussion where it does not descend into vitriol.
Arlene: Yeah, it doesn't need to. There needs to be tolerance for everybody's view, and there needs to be understanding of where everybody's coming from. Having said that, another quote I always use is, ‘lies, (damn) lies, and statistics.’ You can interpret statistics however you want, and that's part of the challenge. That is what has happened here. I belong to a business group, and there's a few people on that business group that are on your side of the debate, and there was a lot of exchange on that in that group. And I can tell you I still come back to doing what's best for everybody – has to be something that is a core value. So that's where I came from.
17. (Kelly) Is there anything else that you would like to say about going forward and what is in fact a divided … (Rob interjects: “population.”) population, that's the word. Thank you very much – a divided population. What would your advice be for someone on how to stay strong, and not be afraid.
Arlene: This is going to sound maybe corny… I believe that good can prevail. Good could be defined in many ways. What is a good person? I think when you think about human rights, and you think about equality, and you think about tolerance, and you think about the fact that when we all die the same – your colour, it doesn't matter.
Your belief doesn't matter if you're vaccinated. And I think if we could realize that we're born the same, and we die the same. Everything in between starts to become less extreme. There's so much, somehow weird desire in the world to pick sides quickly. I said this earlier, but this notion that you have to be on a side; you don't have to be on a side. And if you do need to choose a side, take your time choosing it. We have to actually think about what's right and what's good. And I believe that's possible. I believe in the nature of human beings to be good. And if we can just try and find the good in people, we will be less divided. And maybe that's me being Pollyanna, maybe that's not possible, but I like to think it is. I like to think that we all have a place in this world. It’s messy right now. It's really messy. It is very fearful out there. We have got to stop being afraid and start being courageous to defend each other, and to defend what's right. And when I say defend, I don't mean fight. I mean stand up for the people that are vulnerable, and who don't have what we have. The three of us on this line are very fortunate. I believe in good. I do. I believe it will prevail.
18. (Rob) We do, too. We are going to work hard to spread it.
Arlene: Good. I'm glad.
19. (Rob) I believe in women entrepreneurs, and I have Kelly as a business partner in Business Edge, and I have Laurie Weston as a partner in Big Media Ltd. And I know that there are tremendous benefits to having women on leadership teams and on boards of directors – that's well documented in my life, and in studies. Do you find that we can empower women and still celebrate motherhood and find a balance there?
Arlene: Like a thousand percent. Biologically, we get to bear children, and it's incredible. I mean making life is actually a pretty damn cool thing, and it's a pretty incredible thing to be able to do…. I don't feel like that limits me in the workforce. If I want, if I choose to stay home and be a great mother, I should have that choice. If I choose to work and be a great mother, I should have that choice. I don't think it should limit us whatsoever. I've experienced biases of being a female, or you're going to come to work, and "you're going to get pregnant, you're going to have to go off on maternity leave." Huh. Men need to get over themselves. It's just so ridiculous.
20. (Rob) What is next for Arlene Dickinson?
Arlene: I am fully dedicated to fostering the entrepreneurial spirit and building businesses that support the next generation of innovators, making a positive impact on the Canadian economy and beyond. My commitment to supporting entrepreneurs remains strong, and through my venture capital fund, District Ventures Capital, I will continue investing in and nurturing innovative Canadian businesses in the food, beverage, and health sectors. We offer not only capital but also mentorship, expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate growth and bring groundbreaking ideas to market.