Interview with Arlene Dickinson | Founder and CEO of Venturepark
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Arlene Dickinson is one of Canada’s top business leaders, a venture capitalist, and an ardent investor in small businesses.
Born in Germiston, South Africa, Arlene was the youngest of three daughters and her family immigrated to Canada in 1959 with only $50 in their possession , before eventually settling in Calgary.
Over the last 35 years Arlene has launched, operated, managed and invested in multiple businesses. She is the Founder and CEO of Venturepark, a leading business growth ecosystem comprising of five communities led by business, capital, brand, innovation and CPG specialists. Arlene joined the Dragons' Den TV show in its second season and appeared on the show for eight seasons, investing in a variety of businesses.
In 2015, Arlene took a brief hiatus from the Dragons' Den TV show following the show’s ninth season, but in April 2017 announced her return for the show’s twelfth season.
In our interview with Arlene see talks about her origin story, entrepreneurial journey and her motivation for investing into small businesses.
Thank you Arlene for participating in this Q&A session. We would like to start by exploring your entrepreneurial journey. Firstly, why did you decide to become an Entrepreneur?
Arlene: I became an entrepreneur when life handed me the opportunity and there was little else open for me to do. I had lost a job and was invited to join as a partner in a marketing firm for sweat equity. I had no other opportunities in front of me and so I took the leap. My father was also very influential in my life. He was an educator who became an entrepreneur later in life. Through him, I was introduced to the world of entrepreneurship and raised with the belief that anything is possible. By emigrating our family to Canada, he put me in a great place to put that concept into practice.
You have spent most of your career helping, supporting, promoting and investing in small businesses. Why?
Arlene: I believe in the power of entrepreneurialism. To build communities, create jobs, innovate and scale. Entrepreneurs create, and I want to do all I can to help them create, grow and build meaningful businesses. Also, small businesses are the foundations of our communities. Restaurants, gyms, florists, bakeries – the list goes on. I can’t imagine life without them, and the economy would certainly suffer too. In Canada, small business owners employ almost 70 percent of the private labour force and are the largest contributors to gross domestic product.
I know the struggle of an entrepreneur, speak their language and am fortunate enough to be able to support them. So, I’ve dedicated my career to providing these unsung heroes with the support and tools they need to push their potential.
Has your entrepreneurial and leadership journey been influenced by any past or present business leaders?
Arlene: I am an avid reader and have spent many hours devouring every word I could from entrepreneurs of all stripes and success. Their shared words, stories, defeats and successes all helped form my thinking and belief in myself. This is why I wrote three business books. The words on a page influence so many who are finding themselves alone with their thoughts or fears. Books help us all to be touched by people we would never be able to meet or spend time with. We learn an enormous amounts from them.
What do you attribute your success to as a business leader?
Arlene: I think self awareness has helped my success. This is not something that comes easy as it means introspection and retrospection on your own life. We need to understand our impact on others and try to empower not discourage those who are working hard alongside of us. It's still work in progress for me.
The other thing I feel has helped me is understanding my “why”.
I think finding your purpose is more important than finding your passion, as one ensues the other.
For me, it was first about supporting my family, and as they grew it became about supporting entrepreneurs.
What key challenges have you faced in your entrepreneurial journey and how have you navigated these?
Arlene: Finding the courage to speak to others about my struggles was a very real thing. I always felt I couldn’t ever expose my fears without looking like a failure. The opposite is true. The more vulnerable I allowed myself to be with people whose advice I respected, the more I learned. I also will say here that I always dreamt big. My biggest challenge came, however, when I allowed others to tell me that I should temper my goals and aim less high. That is a huge challenge but once I overcame the naysayers I learned that anything was possible. Why did you originally join CBC's Dragons' Den and what legacy do you intend to leave behind as a Dragon?
Arlene: When I got the call from CBC in 2007 to audition for the show, I initially hesitated. My children encouraged me to join and needless to say, it has been an incredibly meaningful part of my life’s journey.
To me, Dragons’ Den is about dreams and having the courage to chase them.
Taking an idea you brainstormed in your basement to the shelves of grocery stores across the country. Having the ability to innovate, do good in the world and contribute to the economy. It’s all made possible by the show.
The legacy I hope to leave behind as a Dragon is the power of listening well, helping others where you can, teaching people to invest where they should – in themselves and finding the courage to live your dream.
CBC’s Dragons’ Den originally started with just one woman, now it has three powerful women as Dragon investors. They also brought on Wes Hall has their first black Dragon. These changes are a step in the right direction for the show but is there more that can be done in the diversity and inclusivity space?
Arlene: There is always more which can be done in the name of diversity and inclusivity. Seeing the cast evolve over the years has truly been rewarding, but it can’t stop there. Making purposeful decisions to invest in brands led by entrepreneurs of diverse communities, invest in products that serve underrepresented groups and providing guidance to those who don’t have the expertise to take their idea to the next level, are also steps in the right direction.
You launched Venturepark, District Venture Plus, and Venturepark Voice in 2021. Please give us an overview of what these companies do, their value proposition, target market and where they sit within the Venturepark ecosystem?
Arlene: While Venturepark was officially launched in 2021, the ecosystem has been years in the making. Comprising of five communities, Venturepark touches every aspect of business to help entrepreneurs fund, create, scale, reinvent and drive business growth. I have always believed that commercialization in the food and health sectors will become key economic drivers for our nation, and so I built the ecosystem to support brands in the food and health CPG space. Readers can learn more by visiting www.venturepark.ca.
Before concluding this interview, what advice do you have for startups currently seeking investment to grow their business?
Arlene: How much capital you need, when you will need it, and who you should take it from, are key questions to ask yourself. Do the work. Plan the next couple of years and truly understand what you are going to need to be successful. Examine the worst case, not just the best case scenarios, so you can be ready for either. You need to plan the future, understand when you will need capital and not wait until the last minute to try and raise it. Find a partner who will help you on the journey and understand that timing of investment is critical to success.
Capital is A solution not THE solution. A great business owner knows how to attract investors, grow the business, tackle the headwinds and find scrappy solutions to solve the problems of growth.
Is money a catalyst for growth? Absolutely, but nothing will ever beat the ability to grow with your own energy and commitment.
Thank you Arlene for participating in this Q&A session, we wish you all the best.
Arlene: Thank you.