Michele Romanow spent her childhood on a Regina, Saskatchewan farm, with chores that included everything from mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, and even changing car tires.
“There were no boy tasks or girl tasks. It was just farm mentality, where there was work to be done, and you did it,” said the 32-year-old tech entrepreneur and TV’s Dragons’ Den judge.
“Inadvertently, that turned out to be such a powerful message,” noted Romanow last week, as the Women in Tech keynote, at the Discovery World OpenText conference, in Toronto.
She quickly learned she became the “scrappy woman who really built something from nothing.”
Her business ventures began as a Queen’s University student in 2006, when she opened up a sustainable coffee shop. “It gave me the first sense that I could build something.”
Not long after, she and two friends launched Evandale Caviar, a start-from-nothing sturgeon caviar business out of New Brunswick, “the craziest thing that three twenty one year olds could come up with.” It included hiring fishermen, leasing boats, and haggling for licenses.
The hands-on farm girl hauled sturgeon to a manufacturing plant, where she did “all of the processing – a really polite way of saying ‘getting the fish to the end product.’” In their first year, they netted roughly $100,000.
In 2011, though the launch of the partners’ discount ecommerce site, Buytopia.ca, began with a non-functioning website at a trade show, it became one of Canada’s fastest growing companies, with 2.5 million subscribers.
She also co-founded SnapSaves, a mobile couponing app, acquired by Groupon in June 2014.
Today, Romanow is on the list of 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, and was named as one of the Forbes Top 20 Most Disruptive “Millennials on a Mission”.
Her career, until now, has comprised of incremental steps that have culminated in large successes – and she cautions against expecting massive leaps.
“There’s no moment meditating on a mountain where that a-ha moment will take you to the next big thing,” she maintained.
Small innovative ideas, she said, helped propel some of the biggest brands today. AirBnb’s original plan had been to offer business travelers simple in-home air mattresses in downtown cores, and Uber’s initial intention had only been to be able to “hail” a car with an app. Both are now multi-billion dollar companies.
In terms of managing a team, she “learned over time” that different generations require a different kind of leader.
“I have a junior level approach, and they’re millennials. I’m a millennial, so I know what that’s like. Their expectations just went up. It’s like ‘I’ve already been here for three months, and I’m already looking for more stuff to do.’ You can either look at that as a negative, because you see they’re unhappy, or look at it as an extraordinary positive. If they can get through the next twelve steps faster, it’s so important.”
This is in contrast to her “executive level approach” to find the right partners – “I’ve had two partners from the beginning, and we know what works,” she explained to B2B News Network.
And while Romanow and partners entered certain industries they had no previous experience with, that model might not be right for everyone, she noted.
“There’s a school of thought that says you should go into the space you know well. And there’s another school of thought that says you could go anywhere, and have a fresh perspective. And innovate by what you think the customer needs to know.”
Earlier in the conference, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky imparted his own life and business wisdom to the OpenText audience.
Recognizing the indispensability of each link in the work chain is crucial, he asserted.
“When you put together a hockey team – an organization – you have to understand that each and every person on that team is a valuable commodity. So, whether you are a fourth-line player, or a sixth defensemen, or back-up goalie, each and every contribution you make to your team is invaluable,” the sports icon said.
“I always felt as the captain of a hockey club, it was imperative that each guy in the locker room felt as important as the All-Star guys or the Hall-of-Famers… teamwork is so imperative.”
Gretzky played twenty seasons in the National Hockey League for four teams – including the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings – from 1979 to 1999. Nicknamed “The Great One”, he is the leading scorer in NHL history.
The best leaders, whether in life, business or sports, are the ones who “work the hardest, and are extremely unselfish. They want people to succeed and want the guy beside them to be better each and every day.”