The theme for RBC’s International Women’s Day this year was Celebrate the Power Within. Arlene Dickinson joined the global event to share her messages of optimism, resilience, purpose and self-worth – and how she has drawn on the power within throughout her journey.
International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It is also a moment to recognize the work that is still to be done to advance gender equity. Mary DePaoli, EVP & Chief Marketing Officer had a special one-to-one conversation with Arlene Dickinson this year’s guest at RBC International Women’s Day event, where she spoke candidly about imposter syndrome, her journey through entrepreneurship, the women she admires most and the power of reinvention.
Here, we share the messages that resonated deeply with an audience of thousands of women and allies who were in the room or tuned in from around the world.
“We can celebrate and think about all the work there is to do.”
When asked for her thoughts about International Women’s Day, Dickinson shared that she had mixed feelings. “A year ago, I was going out in public saying I didn’t feel we had a lot to celebrate – that I felt like there was so much to do. I felt we needed not to celebrate and instead think about all the work that was ahead. But today, I woke up feeling more optimistic, realizing you can celebrate at the same time that you can think about all the work there is yet to do. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s okay to feel proud of what’s happened, and also to recognize there is more to accomplish.
Today, I felt hopeful.”
“My best lessons in life have come from being a mother.”
Dickinson was very much an accidental entrepreneur, driven by a need to make money and put food on her table for herself and her four children. In the middle of a contentious divorce at age 30, fired from her job at a media station and with no post-secondary education, she landed a role as a “partner” at Venture Communications. “That really meant come work for free, because they had no money,” she said.
After working hard for a number of years, she wanted to accomplish more. At the time, she was 16-18 years younger than her two male partners – one of whom wanted to retire, while the other didn’t want to build the business. “I had this untapped ambition, I found what I loved to do. I really wanted to take this over and grow the company.” Turned down by banks who said she needed male partners to obtain financing, she used her working capital and sweat equity to eventually buy them out and build the company her way.
“My leadership style came from having raised four children and having to do it with no money. You learn how to be scrappy, you learn how to be determined, you learn how to listen to needs and competing interests. So, my best lessons in life have come from being a mother.”
“I had champions who gave me opportunity.”
When she started her business 35 years ago, mentorship wasn’t an established concept. ‘I didn’t have mentors, but I did have champions,” she explained. “I had people who believed in me enough to give me an opportunity to do work for them.”
She shared that the ability to succeed is often just a function of opportunity. “We’re all equally capable,” she said. “The only difference sometimes is being given the opportunity to be as good as you can be. And that is really important for us as we think about equality, diversity and inclusion. It’s about giving people opportunity – because if you don’t let them try, they’ll never win. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had people who gave me opportunity.”
“Success comes at the intersection of purpose and passion.”
Dickinson revealed that while she is incredibly confident professionally, personally she is very insecure. So when it came to being on Dragon’s Den, she said it was difficult to be put on a platform she didn’t feel she deserved. At the same time, she felt incredibly lucky and blessed to have been given a chance to be on a TV show that helps other people realize their dreams. “I have seen, without exaggeration, probably 4,000 entrepreneurs who have come through the doors of Dragon’s Den and probably another 3,000 – 4,000 over the course of my 17 seasons who have come to me personally. I have watched people’s dreams come to life.”
Dickinson feels grateful to have had the chance to hear stories of immigrants who have come from nothing, women who have been abused, stories of marginalized people – whether Indigenous, from the BIPOC community or the LGBTQ+ community – who have had nothing but held onto their dreams. “They were given absolutely nothing in life, but found a way to still believe in themselves and that has helped me get out of bed every day. It is a purpose-driven life that I am trying to lead. I always say that success comes at the intersection of purpose and passion. If you can follow your purpose and you can find passion doing that, there is nothing better.”
“We have a responsibility to speak out.”
While celebrity has its perks from time to time, there is also the weight to celebrity – DePaoli acknowledged how hard it has been for strong, opinionated women in the public eye to be on social media. Dickinson agreed but has come to a personal compromise.
“On social media, what I have learned to do is put my opinion out there and then not read the comments. I hate to say that, because I want to exchange ideas and I want to have conversations, not a monologue. But if you listen and read the comments, you will get so discouraged that you won’t do it anymore. I’ve had enough people tell me that it matters to put positivity out there and talk about things in a way that matters to others, that I feel the need to continue to do it.”
She goes on to say that she feels she has a responsibility to speak out. “I think all of us have an obligation – and we can sometimes forget that it doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity or not. You are in the best country in the world, you have a job, you have your health, you have people supporting you at work – you need to do something with that. You can’t just ignore that and take it for granted.”
“We don’t need to wait for something to happen to us to make a change.”
In her best-selling book Reinvention, Dickinson talks about the reinvention of her business and herself after the tragic floods in Calgary, where she lost her office and almost lost her business entirely. What kept her going was her obligation to her team and to her clients. Out of that journey she realized who she was and what she wanted to do with her life – and that was to support entrepreneurs.
The event also made her realize that many of us wait for something catastrophic to happen to change our lives – whether it’s losing a job, getting sick or losing a family member. “There’s something that happens that triggers us to realize we need to change our life. But why do we wait for something to happen to us to say, I need to change who I am to be happy? So, reinvention came with the idea of how introspection can lead to understanding what it is you are. Thinking about what you want to be can be the catalyst for change.”
“Keep raising your hands high.”
When Dickinson set out in 2015 to raise a $100-million venture capital fund focused on Canadian food, beverage, health and wellness startups, she met with skepticism. She was told she would raise a maximum of $16 – $20 million.
But she had confidence in herself – she found the power within.
“You have to be your own best cheerleader because you don’t often get those words of encouragement or hear what you want to hear from people. So you have to be able to cheerlead yourself and be confident that what you’re doing is the right thing for you and the people around you. That takes courage and confidence.
Dickinson had the audience do an exercise. “Raise your hands as high as you can right now. As high as you can.” Everyone in the audience raised their hands. “Now I want you to raise them higher.” Everyone raised their hands just a little bit higher.
“What does that tell you? What did we do? As humans, we temper ourselves. I said raise your hands as high as you can, and then said raise them higher. How is that possible if you raised them as high as you could? Because you didn’t think you had the confidence to stand up and be seen.
“But that moment of standing as tall as you can matters. It matters not just to you, but to the people around you and who think, they’re going to do something amazing – they’re really confident in themselves. So, raise your hands as high as you can, even if you don’t feel the confidence. Just keep raising your hands high.”
In this moving and candid conversation, Arlene Dickinson shared messages of optimism, issued challenges to the women in the room and revealed vulnerabilities that demonstrated it takes introspection, confidence, champions and your own inner power to live a life of purpose and passion. On International Women’s Day, Dickinson and thousands of RBCers celebrated the progress we’ve seen so far while recognizing there is more work to be done on the road ahead.
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