By Joseph Mathieu
Photos by Chris Roussakis
Arlene Dickinson, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur who appeared for years on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, knows what it’s like to take risks and speak her mind.
She wants young Canadians to do both.
Dickinson opened the third annual SOAR Student Leadership Conference to a full house at Carleton University on Saturday, Jan. 21.
Her keynote speech in the Kailash Mital Theatre preceded the conference’s 26 workshops to develop student potential by teaching them skills to become more effective leaders and trailblazers.
The CEO asked the 450 students: “What does a leader do when everybody says you’re crazy to be doing what you’re doing?”
Arlene Dickinson: Being a leader comes with obligation
Being a leader comes with an obligation, she said. “To stand up as a leader is the most important thing you can do. Be unafraid to share your opinion, to feel good about the values you have.”
Louise Hayes, president of the Carleton Alumni Association, presented Dickinson with a video from the 2012 season of Dragon’s Den. In one episode, four of the five dragons passed on a deal to fund a new chocolate candy called OMG’s, but Arlene decided to trust in the founders despite their lack of sales.
OMG’s went on to succeed as one of the better returns on investment from the hit TV show.
“The world didn’t end because I said what I believe was right,” she said.
The SOAR Student Leadership Conference is an annual one-day event for student leaders at Carleton that provides informative and interactive workshops and presentations.
Before investing in companies on the Den and co-hosting another CBC show The Big Decision, Dickinson became CEO of Venture Communications in 1998 after 10 years working there. She began investing at 31, after raising a family right out of high school, and is also a philanthropist, a national spokesperson for the Breakfast Club of Canada and a best-selling author.
Throughout a career of risks and rewards, she was offered unique opportunities. Eight years ago, she joined hockey players and musicians on a trip to Afghanistan. There, she watched Army Commander Gen. Walter Natynczyk rally his troops as she accompanied him to the frontlines.
“He gave the same speech five times,” she said.
“He said: ‘Some of you might be going home in the next few days or few weeks, which means it’s highly likely that your mind is on home . . . but I need you focused, I need you here, I need you now.’”
Dickinson also saw him work alongside his soldiers, explaining that he may be their leader but it didn’t mean he knew everything. Soldiers under the intense pressure of an active war zone heard from their general that what they were doing mattered, and that he would be in the trenches with him. They were reassured that Canadians valued them, their work was important and they had been selected for this job because they were special.
“Isn’t that what everyone wants to hear?” Arlene Dickinson asked the student delegates.
The next generation of Canadian leaders, she said, has an obligation to stand up and say what they believe is right.
“You have a voice that matters,” she said. “Be unafraid to be vocal and to share your values.”