At the age of 3, when Arlene Dickinson emigrated with her parents from South Africa to Canada, she was scared, and to calm herself on the plane, she talked to an imaginary friend she called Bilah.
“My parents thought I was a little odd,” confesses the 54-year-old self-made millionaire, chief executive officer of Venture Communications, a star of CBC’s hit reality show Dragons’ Den and author of a new book, Persuasion, A New Approach to Changing Minds.
In reality, she was talking to a reflection of herself in the airplane window.
That habit – of checking in with herself and finding the resources to carry on – has served her well. She acknowledges that $80-million is her reported net worth – not bad for someone who, at 28, found herself divorced with four children under the age of 10 and only a high-school education.
Bilah is the name of one of her companies. (She has several investment vehicles, she says.) “It’s a company with imagination,” she explains, adding that it’s behind the launch of a line of chocolate, coffee, wine and beauty creams, all called Persuasion, tied to her new book.
Seated in her Toronto office of Venture, a full-service marketing company with annual gross sales of $45-million and blue-chip clients such as Toyota, Red Rose Tea and Unilever, Ms. Dickinson is the picture of demure confidence. This Dragon’s Den feels like a Mother’s Den of comfortable seating, pastel colours and soft lighting. On one wall, she has a “shrine” of sentimental memories from her TV show.
“I bought that from a young entrepreneur to remind me of the skill and craft that people put into their work,” she says, pointing to a framed chain-mail T-shirt one contestant made. There are carvings with the words “Dragon’s Den” from Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where she travelled a year ago to boost moral with Team Canada members.
In conversation, she moves breezily between confidence and vulnerability, as if both compete for dominance. Asked what she feels about being a TV star, she talks about the pressure she felt about her physical appearance. “When I first saw myself on TV, I was ‘Oh my God. I wish I was thinner and didn’t have those wrinkles.’ ... They took a risk by not casting the younger, hot chick,” she says, perched at the edge of her chair, looking down at her feet. But then she straightens up, smiling, and says, “And I loved that they did that. ... It says a lot about what they’re looking for on the show. And it allowed me to be myself.”
Dressed in a blue blouse and harem pants, her feet in sparkly ballet flats, Ms. Dickinson looks as though she is ready to curl up on a sofa with a cup of tea. Only her Chanel jewellery, designer watch and coifed hair, with its signature grey streak, suggest the high level of her professional success. Even in demeanour, she is cozy, often ending declarative statements with the one-word question “right?” as though the approval of others is important.
That’s part of her message – that success in business comes from listening to others, from emotional connection and reciprocity. And it’s her style on Dragons’ Den: She is the sensitive counterpoint to Kevin O’Leary’s barbed responses. “No one has talked about [persuasion]in a way to say you can do it in a principled way, you can persuade people and still win. You don’t have to be this sly kind of manipulative person,” she says.
Nice gals can finish first.
One of three sisters, she grew up in a Mormon household in Calgary wanting little more than to have a family, and when circumstances forced her to take charge of her professional life, Ms. Dickinson discovered a knack for marketing and brought her interest in nurturing to a relationship with clients. “When did emotion become a dirty word in business? You don’t do anything for anyone unless you’re emotionally connected to them.”
Ten years after joining Venture in 1988, a fledging company in Calgary, she became sole owner, building its reach across the country and winning several business awards as well as honorary degrees.
Her children, now ranging in age from 27 to 33, paid a price for her need to work as much as she did, she says. She could never afford a nanny. “There was a combination of latch key and babysitters,” she explains about her child-care arrangements. “My kids, I’m sure, would have wanted to see me at some of those soccer games or concerts. But do I regret that? No. Because then I wouldn’t be able to help them as I can.”
For Ms. Dickinson, the balance issue for working mothers is always individual. “If someone feels happy and content working 70 per cent of the time and that makes her a better mom, why not?”
And neither should women feel the need to juggle home and work personae. “When you force yourself and say, ‘I can’t be the mother type’ at work and you are the mother type, then you’re trying to be something you aren’t, and you will never be really happy. … I am the same person in this office as I am on Dragons’ Den as I am with my kids.”
Still, for the all the confusion she endured – she suffered from feelings of inadequacy as a young woman, she says – she always knew she could rely only on herself. “My parents taught me that happiness was a choice,” she says.
Ms. Dickinson married her best friend’s older brother when she was 19, feeling lucky that someone wanted her to be his wife, she writes. That the family in which she grew up had little money didn’t deter her from throwing herself into staying home, baking bread, canning vegetables and having babies.
She married a second time at 41, when she was successful. That marriage lasted seven years.
True to her entrepreneurial ability to tolerate risk, she is about to marry again. Her fiancé, David Downer, is a sales entrepreneur, almost 10 years her junior, whom she met in 2009 at a launch party for Dragons’ Den. “It is an emotional risk,” she acknowledges. But the key, in business and in personal matters, is to remain open to possibility, she advises. “Twists and turns in life aren’t dead ends. When things don’t go well, like divorce, it’s really up to you to say, ‘Let’s turn that corner and see what’s around it.’ ”