Arlene Dickinson's hope for capitalism 'with a social conscience'

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First aired on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (12/03/12)

Most Canadians know of Arlene Dickinson as the strong but friendly dragon on CBC's entrepreneurship reality show Dragons' Den. She's the head of a multi-million-dollar Calgary-based marketing company and has a net worth of $80 million, so she's definitely in a position to offer business advice and investment.

But it wasn't so long ago that Dickinson was a single mom with four kids struggling to make ends meet. After she divorced her husband at 31 (which got her excommunicated from her Mormon church), a family court judge told her she couldn't gain custody of her children until she could prove she could look after them financially.

"I just thought I'd lost it ... this was the end of my world," she told CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos recently. "And I could do one of two things: I could accept that or I could fight and do what I've done. And it was the best motivator in the world for me and my kids."

She's documented her true rags-to-riches story in her new book Persuasion: A New Approach to Changing Minds. She only had a high-school diploma, but her ability to work with people and offer new ideas got her a job with Venture Communications, a local marketing company. Within 10 years, she graduated from employee to partner to CEO.

Dickinson is now one of the most powerful and influential businesspeople in Canada, but she's never forgotten where she started from, which is why social responsibility is important to her. She said the recent Occupy protest movements are signs that more people are now demanding a more responsible and accountable kind of capitalism, something she believes in.

"Somebody said to me [recently], is it capitalism that's wrong? I actually don't think it's capitalism that's wrong, it's the form of capitalism that's wrong," she said. "There is capitalism that has a heart and a soul and has a social conscience."

Right now, she's putting her faith in a crop of young entrepreneurs to put things right.

"I have full hope that there is a new type of business that's being formed, and formulated by the next generation, that has the triple bottom-line mentality: that says you have to do what's right financially, for the planet, for the people, and for the profit side, so I think that that's changing, and I'm hopeful that people are starting to think differently about what success looks like."

by Arlene Dickinson

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From the publisher: 

"At work, at home, and everywhere in between, we need to persuade others every day. To give us a job. To award us the account. To give us the first available appointment. Problem is, no one ever taught us how to persuade. Until now. At thirty-one, Arlene Dickinson was going nowhere, fast. Recently divorced, she had a high school diploma, no savings and no clue how she was going to feed four young children. But just one year later, she was a partner in Venture Communications. Ten years on, she was CEO, poised to grow the business into one of Canada 's largest independently owned marketing firms.

Today, as a co-star of the CBC hit Dragons' Den , she is one of the country's most sought-after female entrepreneurs. The secret of her journey from poverty to the corner office? The art of persuasion. Persuasion has become a dirty word; all snake oil and high-pressure tactics. But Arlene argues that true persuasion is about connecting, not conning. It's about cultivating authenticity, honesty and reciprocity in every relationship so you not only get what you want, but achieve an outcome that works for everyone. She'll show you how nothing can replace proper preparation, how a great pitch involves far more listening than talking, and how the art of storytelling is crucial to convincing others that you understand the bigger picture and that your way is the right way. Anyone can be persuasive but that process begins with persuading yourself of your own potential. Mastering the art of principled persuasion changed Arlene Dickinson's life, both personally and as a professional marketer. Let her show you how it can change yours, too."

Read more at HarperCollins.