Arlene Dickinson

Arlene Dickinson is opening up District Ventures. It's a first of its kind in Canada, a business accelerator focussing on the consumer goods packaged industry. (District Ventures)

What does a Dragon do after it's left its successful television den?  In Arlene Dickinson's case, she sets up a new business.

The self-made millionaire and CEO of Venture Communications has opened District Ventures in Calgary. 

It's a business accelerator venture capital fund, which is a fancy way for saying it provides support — both financial and knowledge-based — for smaller companies.

District Ventures is designed to give entrepreneurs the extra push they need to get to the next level.

What's on offer?

Aside from providing growth capital, District Ventures also offers physical office space including boardrooms, break-out rooms, and desks. It also holds after-work seminars and lunch-and-learns on various topics that appeal to small business owners. 

District Ventures also acts as a gathering place where business owners can collaborate, network and grow their businesses. Successful leaders provide hands-on assistance to help entrepreneurs fine tune their business plan.

Unlike other accelerators currently operating in Canada, District Ventures is focusing specifically on entrepreneurs in the consumer and packaged goods industry. It targets the food and beverage, as well as the health and wellness sector.

Being based in Calgary, some may think it's odd that Dickinson decided to prop-up the packaged goods industry and not energy, but she doesn't think so.

"We talk a lot about diversifying our economy in Alberta, especially because we are so dependant on oil and gas," said Dickinson. "We need to put our money where our mouth is and start to think about how we can diversify and create opportunities for other businesses and sectors to contribute to the economy."

Why health and wellness?

Dickinson's reasons for specifically choosing the health and wellness sector are pretty simple.

"We all wake up, we all eat and we all sleep and we need to take care of our health," she said. "So it's basic principles for me ... to make sure that we're taking care from a health perspective and from a food perspective. We're an agricultural nation and this just feels like a good fit."

The business has already attracted top level corporate sponsors, including Olds College, ATB Business and Bennett Jones LLP. It's also earned support from the federal government's Industrial Research Assistance plan.

District Venture space

The District Venture space is where entrepeneurs network, mentor and socialize. (District Ventures)

Membership has its privileges

So how do you get to be a member? Dickinson says her time on CBC's Dragon's Den gave her great experience on deciding on who to back.

"It helped me look at deals and do due diligence in a unique way," she said.

Because of her reputation after eight years on television, a lot of companies come to her. Others, she's sought out.  

"I am looking for businesses and products that are on trend.  I'm looking for great entrepreneurs first and foremost and I'm looking for ideas I feel are scalable and affordable."

All Things Jill is one of the companies Dickinson found. Headed up by Calgarian Jill Hawker, it manufactures natural and organic body products for the whole family, including the dog. 

Hawker has a storefront in Inglewood, but wants to grow her company and believes District Ventures will give her the mentorship she needs to figure out where she wants her business to go. She's signed up for the next six months.

"I'm really stoked about it. It's Arlene Dickinson right? She's a mentor for so many people in business in Canada, let alone in Calgary," said Hawker. "For her to be coming back to Calgary to do this is a really big deal. I'm grateful for the opportunity to just be near her."

Another company that's part of District Ventures is SoCIAL Lite Vodka. CEO Dan Beach says when Dickinson heard it had no sugar or sweetener and only used natural flavours, she felt they would be a great fit. 

Definition of success

When asked if she has any favourites at District Ventures right now, Dickinson politely declines to answer. She says that's like asking someone to choose their favourite child.

The question then becomes: how do you define success?

"Having companies that go through the accelerator, go on to grow and to become great companies with real revenue, add jobs, stay in Canada, and export their goods all around the world," said Dickinson. "Hopefully I'll be able to invest in some of them"

But the moral of this story is you can take the dragon out of the den, but she'll always be a dragon.