As one of Canada’s well known businesswomen, Arlene Dickinson is back to join the dragons on CBC’s 14th season of Dragons’ Den. She is recognized as one of Canada’s “top 100 women” for business and entrepreneurship. Like many successful women, Arlene’s early life included overcoming obstacles and self-doubt, and lessons in perseverance.

A quiet, curious child, who was very much a book worm, Arlene Dickinson immigrated to Canada from South Africa at age 3. Married at age 19, Arlene found herself jolted into adulthood, raising four children in her twenties. Through struggle and humble beginnings, those memories and lessons serve her today, keeping her grounded and grateful; traits she wanted to infuse in her children. “I have two boys and two girls. I wanted them to have generosity and gratefulness because I think those are two qualities that people always need to have. I also wanted them to learn confidence and courage, to hold themselves to the highest standards, to be what they want to be. I don’t want them to be what somebody else expects them to be.”


The gutsy CEO of Venture Communications used her creative vision and strategic approach to grow the company from a small local firm to one of Canada’s largest independent full-service marketing agencies. “I joined in 1988 as a partner. But basically, I worked for free. We didn’t have any money, so I got the title.” Venture Communications flourished, and in 1998 Arlene bought out her partners, taking over the company. Arlene credits such traits as independence and self-reliance as part of her success. “I was raised to believe that I could pull my boots on and get to work. I was able-minded and able-bodied and was able to do it. I guess that was the best lesson that my dad gave me. To believe that my opinion matters, that it counts and that I was capable of taking care of myself.”

Arlene Dickinson

On the outside, most people would look at Arlene Dickinson and say she has “made it,” yet this outspoken entrepreneur thinks there is much more to do. “Oh no, I still don’t think I have made it. This is a kind of curse that probably drives people, inherent insecurity that’s never quite enough, that we could do more, and that we should do more. I think this is the drive that many entrepreneurs have, that is constantly pushing yourself. Success to me is feeling that I’m doing everything I can. You’ll always fall a little bit short, and you’ll always want to do a little bit more. I think that’s the beauty of the curse.”


That desire to do more doesn’t just apply to her own business. At this stage in her life, she has the time and resources to help others. “I’ve always done what I can. I think that when you get into a position where you have, as a role model, real influence on people; due to your money, time and effort, then you do have the ability to try and help people with their struggles. Those things have been very meaningful to me.”

Arlene serves as a role model for both young women and mature women who might have limited ideas of what is possible for them in the “second half” of their life. “I hope to be somebody who can show women that you don’t need to look like the stereotypical kind of figure that people sometimes put on women. I want to be able to represent that you can be strong and independent and contribute to society; you also can be single and older. You don’t need to be twenty. You don’t need to necessarily have a partner and two and a half kids and a dog, and a white picket fence, and a perfect figure and all of those things. You don’t need to have all that to be the best you can be.”

Part of the journey of being all we can be is the ability to deal with obstacles, and challenges from our past and not let our past determine our future. “I think that everybody has challenges in life that they have experienced as a youth, whether it’s their family, a financial situation, bullying or whatever they have gone through in life. When you dwell on a negative past, you can let it define you. You do a disservice to the present and the future. Although that can be very difficult, and I am very respectful of people who have gone through horrible childhoods and horrible things in their past, I’ve seen how the past can destroy people’s lives. So, it’s really important that we try our best to deal with the past, so that it doesn’t ruin the future.”


As outspoken and authentic as she is, even a star like Arlene Dickinson has insecurities. “Oh sure, I’ve got insecurities that you could write on a mile long field. Everything from being hard on yourself for your physical appearance, or I’ll go back after this interview, and I’ll think, “Why did I say that? I should have said this.” I’m proud that I’ve gotten to a place where I appreciate my physical state versus where I constantly belittle it. And I think we constantly are re-evaluating and thinking about what we’ve done and said. We’re all incredibly hard on ourselves. But I have learned to get past it. I have learned to accept that it is what it is. I am a much kinder version of myself than I used to be.”

Arlene Dickinson

Few people get the opportunity to participate in a long running, successful Canadian television show. Appearing on “Dragons’ Den” impacted Arlene’s life in a way that led to a deep sense of gratitude. “To get a chance to be on a hit TV show is rare. People have been so kind to me. Some of the emails I get, stop me, and make me cry because I realize the impact the show had on people’s lives. While you give up much, your privacy and some of yourself, I find that when I walk down the street, people stop me on planes, and in restaurants. They are so enthusiastic about somebody who’s helping them pave a way to make it a bit easier for them. Those things are incredibly meaningful to me. It is beyond anything I could ever hope to accomplish in my life, and all from a TV show.”


Principles of lean start-up, and “fail fast and fail often” are terms buzzing in business these days. Arlene feels they need to be put into the right context. “Life is like a business with a series of lessons. This notion of everyone should fail and fail often; I don’t even like the word. Because “failure” to me feels too finite a description for what life is, that is an evolution. I think life isn’t perfect and you’re always going to be learning. If life were not full of those things, then it would be pretty boring. You’re always going to encounter obstacles and challenges. How you manage, that is really how you get through life. When we overcome those things, we learn, and we grow, and we become stronger and deeper, and we see the meaning. I just say, try. If it doesn’t work, try again, only this time, be a little bit smarter, then if that doesn’t work, you just try again.”

Terms such as “social capitalism,” “social entrepreneurship,” and “people, planet, profit” are changing how we define profit and business models. Arlene started District Ventures, a unique Canadian ecosystem that focuses on bringing capital, marketing, programming and commercialization to the food, beverage, health and wellness industries. Twice a year District Ventures invests $150k with 10 Canadian entrepreneurs in exchange for a minority equity stake of their company. “I think it’s important we have social enterprise. It’s one thing to help people succeed, and another thing to have a ripple effect through the economy, and into other people’s lives. There’s nothing more exciting to me than a true entrepreneur who’s committed to doing something meaningful and then supporting that effort. I think that’s what’s led me first to be a marketer, and now a venture capitalist. So I love business from that perspective.”


For some entrepreneurs achieving a high level of financial success and notoriety, triggers a desire to create something of deeper meaning. “I would say today, success for me is centered on this feeling of legacy. District Ventures Capital matters a lot to me. I want to leave something that I believe has impacted Canada. It is a country that accepted me as an immigrant child and has given me every opportunity to be all I could be. I think Canada is well situated to help feed the world and to hopefully take our great agricultural and health expertise and create products that could actually change and help our economy significantly.”

Arlene is the author of two best-selling books, “Persuasion” and “All In”, and is preparing to launch her third book, “Reinvention.” A generous philanthropist, mother of four and grandmother of seven, Arlene Dickinson is an inspiration to others for her values and compassion as a person. Although very accomplished in business, it is how she conducts business that sets her apart: capitalism with a heart. And as most of us would agree, these are the ideals and traits you need when building a true legacy.