Story by Chris Ryall
CEO. Author. Public Speaker. TV Personality. Mother. Grandmother. And Dragon.
Arlene Dickinson juggles all of these diverse roles on a daily basis. Born in Germiston, South Africa, her parents and two sisters moved to Canada in 1959 when she was three years old. It was a humble beginning — the family arrived in Edmonton with just enough money to buy a beat up old car. There were no fancy houses or clothes. Graduating high school at 16, her goals were more modest — get married and have kids. No CEO aspirations or fortunes to be made. Married at 19, four kids by her late 20s, divorced by 30, this was obviously not the path to career and financial success — or was it?
Reality hit hard, so Dickinson hit back harder. Working tirelessly and without salary at times she began the process of observing, learning and just doing whatever it took to make ends meet. Dickinson gradually positioned herself to take over Venture Communications in 1998, a Calgary-based communications company, after working there for 10 years. Today, the organization has offices in Calgary and Toronto, and a blue-chip client list. Dickinson has garnered numerous awards and accolades, including being named among Canada’s Most Powerful Women Top 100, winning the Pinnacle Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence and standing among Profit’s and Chatelaine’s Top 100 Women Business Owners.
A best-selling author of two books, “Persuasion” and “All In,” Dickinson is best known to most Canadians as one of the Dragons on CBC TV’s “Dragons’ Den,” a role she began in 2007 in the show’s second season. The program’s ninth season begins October 15 with Dickinson, “Wealthy Barber” author David Chilton, Boston Pizza magnate Jim Treliving, Vancouver restaurateur Vikram Vij and entrepreneur Michael Wekerle. Dickinson is known as the “soft” Dragon. She is less about extinguishing the flame of contestants’ entrepreneurial dreams than fanning the flames of entrepreneurial endeavours.
Vacay.ca met with Arlene Dickinson in her downtown Toronto office of Venture Communications and discussed her career, “Dragons’ Den” travels and her unbridled passion for Canada.
Vacay.ca: You were born in South Africa but moved to Canada when you were young. Any memories of South Africa? Have you ever gone back?
Arlene Dickinson: I have gone back to South Africa many times. It’s a beautiful country. The first time I went back would have been in my early 30s. I still have lots of family there.
Vacay.ca: What did you dream of doing when you were a kid?
Dickinson: When I was a young kid I either wanted to be an actress or I wanted to be a social worker. Those were the two things I wanted to do. In a way I have achieved that dream. It’s funny I am kind of doing both now.
Vacay.ca: What do you like most about being on “Dragon’s Den”?
Dickinson: Listening to the dreams that other people have and seeing whether or not we can help them. The human nature of people having dreams and visions and wanting to build something is so rewarding to listen to.
Vacay.ca: Saying no to people on the show — is it hard to turn someone down?
Dickinson: It’s never easy to say no. You can say no without being cruel. I love when a person doesn’t get a deal on the show but goes on and does something amazing — just because we turn it down doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. But there are extremes on the show —you do see that no matter how much a person pushes and tries you can tell they are not going to succeed and you need sometimes to give people that reality view.
Vacay.ca: What is your ultimate business goal? Where do you see yourself in five years or 10 years?
Dickinson: I hope five and 10 years from now that I have done something meaningful that has helped entrepreneurs in a way that leaves a legacy around the value of what entrepreneurs bring not just to Canada but around the world.
Vacay.ca: Leaving the business world behind, let’s talk travel. What do you like most about travelling?
Dickinson: The most I used to like about travelling was the mental holiday. To me, it meant probably sitting on the beach or by the pool and relaxing. Now travelling means to me more of a cultural experience and understanding the local community that you are going to and what the world is all about. It’s a very different thing for me now.
Vacay.ca: What’s your favourite place for a holiday in Canada? Is there a hotel you really like?
Dickinson: That’s an unfair question! I love all of Canada. I can’t tell you how much I love our country. I think everywhere I have gone in Canada to the smallest town and the largest city — we are just so lucky. I would say Vancouver Island — the Sooke Harbour House — I loved going there so many times.
I tend to like the smaller hotels and resorts in this country — any place like that is much higher on my list of places to stay. In Montreal there are a lot of really small boutique hotels.
[box_light]Read about Sooke, British Columbia: Vancouver Island sweetens up to mead
Vacay.ca: What would be a dream destination and your favourite destination outside of Canada?
Dickinson: I would really like to go to Bali — I have not been there. I’ve travelled a lot. Each place has been so different for different reasons so it’s hard to pick a favourite. Maybe Thailand. I think Thailand was amazing. Going to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and the northern hills in Thailand and seeing the people there.
Vacay.ca: Favourite hotel outside of Canada?
Dickinson: I think the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok is one of the nicest hotels in the world. In terms of the experience, the history, it was a combination of everything that the Mandarin Oriental left an impression on me. The service and every aspect of the hotel, the history of writers, the library room, the view of the river — it’s pretty special and they have an amazing spa.
Vacay.ca: What do you like to do on holiday?
Dickinson: I certainly like to explore. When I went to Thailand I went to a spa for a week and it was fantastic. I’ve done things like that where there is a health benefit to it. It’s always lovely to rejuvenate on a holiday in a spa. How lucky is that!
Vacay.ca: Any memorable travel experiences?
Dickinson: I had a pretty memorable experience while in Africa and we were staying in the Ngorongoro Crater and we had one of the largest — they think it was a leopard or panther — was right on the porch on the little hut we were staying in and rattled the doors. That scared the bejesus out of us! On that same trip we slept right in the Serengeti in tents where you are right by all the wild animals, and that was amazing.
Vacay.ca: And an embarrassing experience?
Dickinson: The first time I went to France and it was about six o’clock and we were hungry and going for dinner and we stopped at a little restaurant. We were in a small little town in northern France and they looked at us like we had lost our minds because of course they don’t eat until later. It was six o’clock and they said come back. So I learned then you don’t eat early in Europe!
Vacay.ca: Any travel pet peeves?
Dickinson: I would say travellers that are not respectful of other travellers can be a pet peeve of mine. Because I travel so much on planes I find people are unaware of the people around them and that can be offsetting. They can have inappropriate conversations and they have to remember we are in this together.
Vacay.ca: What’s your must-take travel item on every trip?
Dickinson: My good set of headphones. Reading material. For all the reasons that I said about pet peeves.
Vacay.ca: Do you travel light or with a lot of stuff?
Dickinson: I can’t remember the last time I checked luggage. I can be really good of putting two weeks’ worth of stuff in a small case. I travel so much the idea of waiting an extra half hour on either end is just no.
Vacay.ca: Favourite restaurant in Canada?
Dickinson: Favourite restaurant is super hard because there are so many fantastic restaurants. Actually I don’t want to say because I’ll get in trouble with a bunch of restaurateurs!
Vacay.ca: C’mon, we won’t tell anyone.
[box_light]Learn more about Vacay.ca’s Top 50 Restaurants in Canada[/box_light]
Vacay.ca: If you were in charge of the Canadian Tourism Commission how would you promote Canada?
Dickinson: I would love to promote Canada because I don’t think they would ever find anybody as passionate or as well-travelled in this country as a marketer as I am. I’ve been in every nook and cranny and small town, north, south, east, west of Canada. I love it. That would be a dream job. That would be a dream client.
Vacay.ca: What three words or images would you use to promote our country to people who are visitors in Canada?
Dickinson: Because I have been to crowded countries and countries without freedom the words that come to mind are space, freedom and natural beauty. Some people translate that into mountains and streams but I translate that more into a feeling and emotional connection. Part of what makes Canada a great travel destination is also what attracts people to live in Canada.
Selling it (Canada) as a country of regions is a totally missed opportunity. We don’t sell it that way. We sell Canada as this homogenous kind of thing but really it’s all these compelling and interesting regions that should make want people to come back 10 times.
Vacay.ca: What is your most prized souvenir?
Dickinson: My most prized souvenir if I can put it that way is when I went to Afghanistan. One of the troops — she had gone to a local fair — and brought me back a necklace and it was made out of one of the local stones and was handmade by Afghani women. It wasn’t that it was expensive but that she had taken the time to go and do this and give it to me as a thank you. That was really touching. Also I got my first coin by the military crew for going above and beyond the call of service. I got the coin from (then) General Walter Natynczyk and have had a few since. Those coins represent me taking Canada out to the world. They would be my most prized souvenirs.
Vacay.ca: Final question: What’s next for Arlene Dickinson, personally and professionally? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Dickinson: You know I don’t know and that’s kind of the beauty of it. I love being able to say that, “I don’t’ know.” I never lived my life with that much of a plan about what exactly I am going to be doing.