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Cybele Negris

Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Cybele Negris is the co-founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Webnames.ca, a registrar for domain extensions as well as a provider of web hosting, e-mail and web-development services. Ms. Negris is also a member of the board at the Royal Canadian Mint and sits on a handful of boards in the science, technology and housing sectors in British Columbia.

I was born in Hong Kong and moved here with my family when I was eight years old. My last name is Greek, my father is part Chinese and part Greek.

English is actually my second language. I remember in school in Hong Kong, they segregated the kids with non-Chinese last names from the kids with Chinese last names. I went to a Catholic school and certain classes were in English, such as religion. I learned to pray in English. At first, when I moved to Canada, I didn't want to speak English. Then, within about six months, I didn't want to speak Chinese at all.

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Part of the reason we moved to Canada was because of me. I was very stressed out as a kid. The school was very competitive and I was one of those high achievers. My parents used to say, 'Cybele, you have to slow down. Stop doing homework. Go watch some TV.' We also had family in North America – in B.C. and in California.

I didn't have a specific career direction growing up. When I went to the University of British Columbia I started studying commerce. I was following my dad, who was very entrepreneurial. He knew a lot of people in the business community. I watched him and was inspired.

I used to have a huge fear of public speaking. After a year studying commerce, I realized there would be a lot of public speaking involved and thought 'there's no way I can finish this degree.' So I dropped out of commerce and ended up doing an arts degree instead, with a major in psychology. Even though my marks were really good, and I was being encouraged to get my PhD, I realized it wasn't my love.

I worked at various departments at UBC while in school and, when I graduated, I got a full-time job in the human resources/finance departments. I was then promoted to faculty relations manager in the president's office in my early 20s. That crazy work ethic that I had from when I was a kid perpetuated. Some nights I would work there until midnight. I would literally scare the security people who would say 'you should go home.'

After a few years, I decided the public sector was probably not the place for me, long term. I started my own consulting business and was doing different projects, including for UBC. It was through a UBC contract that I met my future business partner at Webnames.ca, John Demco.

When we started Webnames.ca in 2000, I took support calls alongside everybody else. It was all hands on deck. There were no job descriptions. We did whatever it took. People slept at the office some nights. It was a grind, but I think I earned a lot of respect working alongside the team and not delegating everything.

I was quite a shy person back then. I didn't want to be the face of the company. I would rather work behind the scenes. If I was asked to speak at an event, I would typically try to back away from it or get someone else to do it. It was a big issue for me. There were so many years where I would be driving to a speaking engagement and think, 'I would rather get into a car accident than to have to do this right now.' That's how bad it was.

I have since overcome my fear of public speaking. I've done a lot of it in the past few years. Now I go up on stage and my heart isn't pounding. There are times where I still have a bit of nerves but not to the point where I'd be shaking or my voice is cracking.

Entrepreneurs overcome a lot of things. Are we smarter? Probably not. It's the fact that we don't give up. My significant other, George Moen, a serial entrepreneur and past president of Blenz Coffee, told me the word 'fear' stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. So whether it is public speaking or something new I haven't tackled, I feel pretty fearless these days. I've had so many worse-case scenarios played through my mind and, in the end, things always turn out okay.

We hire for cultural fit. Skills can be learned. We've built a team of people that challenge each other. We have pretty lively debates, but it's always respectful.

My advice for other leaders is to recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are – and then hire the right people to fill the gaps. Because I don't come from a tech background and own and run a tech company, I hire smart people. I don't always understand everything that they're talking about – nor should I. My expertise is in running the business and, in my view, hiring the best people in their role and letting them be leaders and be the best they can be without standing in the way. My role is to motivate and inspire them to do better – and to not micromanage.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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