As an engaging storyteller, Arlene Dickinson of Dragon’s Den fame easily drew a rapt audience into her past with tales of poverty, determination and finding success last Wednesday during her visit as the latest speaker in the Fort McMurray Public Library’s Northern Insight series. Standing before an audience of over 800 people, she effortlessly held their attention with humorous anecdotes on how everyday life experiences taught her the business skills she used on her road to becoming a self-made millionaire.
To hear about those lessons, Dickinson, 56, went all the way back to when her family emigrated to Canada via London, England, from South Africa when she as three with a mere $50 in their collective pockets. The first break in the trip was when they arrived in London before heading to Montreal. It was in London where she remembers looking out the hotel window not really paying attention to the vistas around her, hardly able to contain her excitement of going to Canada and turned away. Her father made her turn back and really ‘see’ London because who knew if she’d ever see it again. It was there she learned the value of appreciating where a person is.
“And that picture of London is burned into my memory 50 some odd years later. He made me realize .. to make sure that you stop and take the moment and enjoy who you are.”
Settling into life in Edmonton, Dickinson remembers “we were really very poor.” Her dad walked to work to save the 15 cent bus fare. There was a lot of homemade soup, a staple that Dickinson came to see as a sign of poverty.
Soon, they headed south to Calgary in search of a better future, but before they got there, the car died, fortuitously or so it seemed, in front of a used car lot. The salesman wouldn’t accept the car as a trade in for another car so her father had to trade-in the only thing of real value the family had left: Their mother’s wedding ring. This diamond ring was made for her by her father and grandfather before they left South Africa and represented everything her mother had left behind.
Dickinson remembers watching her mother take the ring off her finger, tears streaming down her face, and hand it to their father who was able to negotiate ownership of another old Pontiac with it.
“I learned that sacrifice as a parent comes in many forms,” said Dickson.
From that day forward, her parents’ marriage was never the same, ultimately leading them to split. She acknowledges growing up in a very dysfunctional family where her parents frequently argued.
“I learned how to watch what people were saying,” she admits, adding she also learned how to tell the difference between what people said and what they meant, and how to bring calm to situations.
“That made me into a great marketer.”
Fast forward to high school where she was voted most likely to be a candlestick maker in her graduating year book.
“I love high school reunions,” quipped the now CEO of Venture Communications, a company she joined in 1988. Dickinson has also penned the book Persuasion, A New Approach to Changing Minds. Venture reportedly has annual gross sales of $45 million. Her net worth is listed at $80 million.
When she graduated and her father asked what university she was going to, she bucked the trend followed by her sisters and said she wasn’t. She just wanted to get married and have a family. And that’s what she did. She married her best friend’s brother at 19. She had four children by 27.
“We were really broke,” she recalls, describing their mismatched dented furniture in their home in Carstairs, AB. Anything she could can was canned; anything that could be pickled was pickled and she made her own bread. The couple built their home and it was here Dickinson learned to become a general contractor. This education is what taught her how to build successes and how to help others.
Soon her husband came to her and said he wanted to go to university to become a teacher.
“We were dirt poor. We had nothing,” she said as she recounted wondering what she could do to earn money while he was in school. She became a bill collector and learned there are two types of people: those who really want to pay their bills and can’t, and those who have no intention of paying their bills, and she learned how to tell the difference.
The irony was that while she was making the calls from her princess phone, she was getting those same bill collector calls: “We’re about to cut off your heating … We’re about to cut off your lights. And they did, many times,” she admitted.
“I learned the importance of money and how good it is for freedom.”
An affair when she was 31 led to a messy divorce and nasty custody battle. With no money, only a high school education and no job or skills – as pointed out by the family court judge – Dickinson said she was really desperate. As a single parent, putting food on the table for her four children was her prime motivator to succeed.
Her sister-in-law worked for a local TV station and lined up a ‘mock’ interview with the sales manager so Dickinson could practice her interview skills. “He was being a little bit of a jerk,” she remembers, asking why people would give her a job when she had nothing to offer. In the end though, she talked herself into the job.
“And that was the change in my life. Somebody gave me a chance and I got a job.”
That didn’t last too long and when she was fired, a very good friend who knew how important her kids were to her called her up with an offer: “We’ll bring you in as a partner at Venture. We can’t pay you anything; we’re not making anything. The company’s almost broke, but we’ll bring you in as a partner and you can at least tell the judge you have a job.”
After recalling her early days with Venture, Dickinson told those in the audience to tell a lot of stories of the early days. Storytelling is a lost art so people forget the beginnings.
“I tell a lot of stories of the early days at Venture and kind of getting started because I think the art of storytelling is being lost.”
She said those stories of the early days are important so people can understand their beginnings. Social media is invaluable “for all these wonderful connections, but we have to tell stories because stories create leaders and create opportunity to change the way people think and view what it takes to be successful.”
With that, Dickinson shared a story about not just leadership, but leadership in unexpected places, referring to her first visit to Afghanistan to visit the troops on the frontlines. She visited five bases and listened to a Canadian general give the same speech five times.
Those motivational messages of encouragement, support and empathy taught her what true leadership is. In that speech, he told the troops that their focus was paramount not only to their own safety, but to the safety of their entire team. He told them that if they were scheduled to go home in three weeks, that was where their minds were at and that wasn’t good. He needed their focus on the job at hand, here and now.
“If you don’t do your job, you hurt those around you on the team. Your job is important,” she recalled him saying.
“And I learned, in that unbelievably odd place, the value of a team, the value of leadership, the value of feeling like what you were doing mattered.”