She’s known for her role on Dragons’ Den and has become a Canadian, if not international, icon, so I can be
forgiven if I’m a little nervous about interviewing Arlene Dickinson — the Jann Arden bestie, self-made multimillionaire and mother of four who managed to build an empire out of nothing but savvy and hard work.
And yet, ask Dickinson what she loves most about growing up in Canada and she pulls out such humble, sentimental gems as Highway 2 in Alberta. “One of the things that I’ve always loved is driving the number
2 highway in Alberta and seeing all the yellow canola fields and the hay bales that are everywhere,” she says.
“Just that trip on the number 2 highway and stopping at farmers markets’ stalls has always been something I’ve loved, and it’s a memory that is always with me. Even when I’m flying, I like seeing the farms from the air and seeing all the beautiful things that are growing in this country. I just love this country.”
It’s impressive that someone who has starred on one of TV’s most popular shows, has hosted two podcasts, published three books (including her latest, Reinvention: Changing Your Life, Your Career, Your Future) — in addition to holding roles as general partner of District Ventures Capital and president and CEO of Venture
Communications — can still take the time to smell the roses. So much so that in her downtime she enjoys
puttering about in the garden. “I love gardening and harvesting in the garden. Just, you know, going up and collecting whatever’s fresh,” says Dickinson. “I also can, and I do all sorts of things with the products that come out of my garden. I have a garden in Calgary, and another at my cottage in northern Ontario. I grow tomatoes, lettuce, garlic, beets, carrots, peas, onions, strawberries, potatoes and all sorts of herbs.”
Besides gardening, Dickinson admits that she enjoys passing the time with walks, reading, listening to music and visiting with friends. And home-cooked meals, she adds. “I love to cook.”
While the super-entrepreneur grew up in Calgary and has homes there and in Toronto, she shares that she feels “at home anywhere in Canada,” though she’s especially fond of the coasts. “I love Vancouver Island and B.C. I love Fogo Island,” she says.
Still, it’s Calgary, where she was raised, that she calls home. “I’ve had a home in Calgary my whole life,” she explains. “I also have a home in Toronto, but Calgary has always been my home base. I love the walking and bike paths. I love the river systems. I love the proximity to the mountains. I love that the people are friendly and that it’s a young city. I love the vibrancy of the city, and also the city’s evolution. I just love the whole natural vibe of it.”
Filming Season 16 of Dragons’ Den at the time of our interview, and already a successful business owner in her own right by the time she was picked for the show’s second season as one of the dragon investors, Dickinson shares one of the key lessons she’s learned from all her years on the show. “I’ve learned to never be surprised by anything. That innovation and resilience are alive and well in Canada. That a good idea can come from anybody at any age and stage or place in their life,” she says.
While Dickinson initially made her mark in marketing and communications, she has since shifted her focus to investing and supporting other businesses, particularly in food and beverage and health. In May, she announced the launch of Venturepark, a business ecosystem that Dickinson created that works on the food and health and personal-care consumer goods space.
“Everything I do now is in the investment space and the marketing space,” she says. “That’s all we do now. We invest in those areas because I think that Canada has an enormous amount of talent and expertise in food and health, and we need to foster and encourage growth in that area. So I invest in it. I help market, and I have an accelerator in it. I do everything I can to support businesses in that space.”
So what would she like to see more of in this area? “More support, whether it’s capital or shelf space, or consumers looking for and supporting and buying Canadian-made products,” she says. “I’d love to see more
recognition of brands that are starting to do well so that they stay in Canada, as well as more manufacturing facilities in Canada, and co-packing facilities.”
When talk turns to Canada’s agriculture industry and farmers, Dickinson tells me about the importance of the last mile. “I’m a big believer in the last mile, that a lot of the value equation and in anything to do with agriculture, it’s in the last mile,” she says. “We are a country that is very much driven by commodities, and we need to think about how do we turn some of those commodities into consumer goods so that we can get the value that is actually built into that last mile of development. So I think for agriculture and farming, it’s how do we create that whole supply chain from farm to table, and work on that.”
Sustainability and green living products and services are other areas Dickinson sees as areas of great potential. “It’s no secret that the pandemic has made us all think harder about our health and what we consume, and the impact of what we eat and what that means to our bodies and our futures. Paying more attention to sustainable farming, sustainable agriculture, thinking about how we can ensure that our products are providing the efficacy and the long-term opportunity from a farm perspective of providing goods that are really good [are all opportunities],” she says.
In 2018, Dickinson debuted a podcast with Jann Arden called The Business of Life, where they talked about everything from entrepreneur life to being a mom and a songwriter. Dickinson has since launched a second podcast, called Reinvention. When we ask her what business or person has impressed her the most with their reinvention, Dickinson inspires us once again with her big heart.
“I think any entrepreneur who’s figured out how to take something and reshape it to address some market need is a hero in my mind,” says Dickinson. “And, especially during the pandemic, having to struggle through things and find a way out of them. I would say that it’s every business that had to rethink what it was doing through the pandemic to be able to survive and/or change completely. I think that those are the ones that are
In addition to her podcasts and starring on Dragons’ Den, Dickinson is also the host of the TV series Under New Management, in which she coaches budding entrepreneurs on assessing businesses for sale. We can’t help but ask: What are the top things someone should consider when shopping for a business to take over?
“Number 1 is, can they see the missed opportunity?” answers Dickinson. “Did they see something that the existing owner can’t see, where they can bring their skills to the table to help the business grow? And whether what they do is actually going to add value. [And then there’s] making sure the marketplace is looking for what this business has to sell, because often we forget to ask if there is a fit for the service or the product in the market.”
By the end of our interview, two things are clear to me. One, there is no stopping Dickinson, a woman you can count on to make anything happen. (Just my kind of person.) Two, you can take the woman out of Calgary, but you can’t take the Calgary out of the woman. In the best possible way.
COFFEE WITH ARLENE
Harrowsmith: Where’s the best place to sit down and have a coffee in your town?
Arlene Dickinson: I really like the Sunterra Market coffee shop.
Harrowsmith: When you go to the local farmers market, which vendor do you visit first?
Arlene Dickinson: Generally the bread vendor.
Harrowsmith: When company arrives from out of town, where do you take them?
Arlene Dickinson: Oh, to Banff.
Harrowsmith: Does your town have a mascot or any unusual roadside attractions or monuments?
Arlene Dickinson: Well, there’s Harvey the Hound, from the Calgary Flames.
Harrowsmith: What’s the strangest annual event or festival or little-known fact about your town?
Arlene Dickinson: There’s a wonderful thing called the Lilac Festival. It’s every spring, down on Fourth Street, which is really lovely.
Harrowsmith: What kind of bragging rights does your town have?
Arlene Dickinson: The 1988 Olympics were held in Calgary. The Calgary Stampede. The mountains that are so close.
Harrowsmith: It’s Friday night and you’re not in the mood to cook. Where do you go or what do you order in?
Arlene Dickinson: I would probably order in something like Thai food. I love Thai food.
Harrowsmith: What is the most popular item at roadside stands in your area?
Arlene Dickinson: In the fall, there’s some amazing corn from a little town called Taber, not far from Calgary, that you can buy at corn stands.
Harrowsmith: What is your favourite road or house?
Arlene Dickinson: I love the 1A highway because it heads to Banff. It’s probably one of my favourite roads.
Harrowsmith: Favourite flower?
Arlene Dickinson: A lily.
Harrowsmith: Favourite tree?
Arlene Dickinson: A weeping willow.
An editor with 15-plus years in the publishing business, Catalina Margulis’ byline spans travel, food, decor, parenting, fashion, beauty, health and business. When she’s not chasing after her three young children, she can be found painting her home, taming her garden and baking muffins.