As the founding executive director of the G. Wallace F. McCain Institute for Business Leadership at the University of New Brunswick, Nancy Mathis argues that keeping entrepreneurs connected to one another is a key factor of long term business success in the region. To this end, she directs the energies of the institute she leads with the kind of up-close-and-personal gusto that once served her well as the owner of her own high-tech business. Contributing editor Alec Bruce had a chance to sit down with her recently. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
ALEC BRUCE: Atlantic Canada has been described as a region of entrepreneurs. What advances have they made in recent years?
NANCY MATHIS: We are making advances but probably not in the way that people are thinking. The advances have to do with the dramatically increasing degree of connectedness between and among the entrepreneurs. That’s the area I’ve been paying the most attention to over the past four years. Entrepreneurs and organizations are more tightly tied to one another than in the past. There’s more passing up the batons, as it were, as entrepreneurs grow from one stage to another. Another related development is the frankness with which entrepreneurs now express their challenges and talk about the resources they need.
What are these challenges?
There are still silos between the provinces. But there are also silos around individuals. Entrepreneurs often feel very alone. They feel they can’t talk about their challenges with their friends or their spouse. That makes them feel different or even unique. When you get entrepreneurs together, however, they are able to talk to one another and that sense of isolation begins to dissolve. That’s what I mean when I say the growing sense of connectedness is the big thing I am seeing.
But is there a unique flavour to the Atlantic Canada entrepreneurship challenge? Others from outside the region have observed, not always kindly, that ours is a particularly underdeveloped part of the country.
There may be a feeling among entrepreneurs who aren’t connected to other entrepreneurs that it’s tougher here. But there are challenges everywhere. We say the grass is always greener and the money always flows in Silicon Valley. Innovation is always happening in Waterloo. Boo-hoo is us! If there is a challenge that’s particular to this region, it’s our low population density. You have to have a large catchment area in order to get the critical mass necessary to run certain things around here.
How does the Wallace McCain Institute further the sense of connectedness you talk about as crucial to entrepreneurial development?
Our overall mission is to help entrepreneurs in New Brunswick and the surrounding region have a better chance of success. Full stop. We’re all about turning off the noise and putting people together. There’s three pillars to what we do. One is developing the personal capacity of the entrepreneurial leader. Another is developing a company’s resources for success. And the third is working on what I call the business ecosystem. So, we have a CBC program called, “Made in New Brunswick.” We’ve run roundtables on leadership. It’s all about getting the word out that entrepreneurship is a viable choice. We work with the school program on revamping entrepreneurship teaching in Grade 11, and we bring entrepreneurs into the classroom.
As to the institute’s specific programs, we have 17 in all. Our focus is based on peer groups. We assemble gatherings, ranging in size from 10 to 15 individuals who have a common bond. They might be high-growth potential entrepreneurs. They might be sons and daughters of multi-generational companies. They might be the second-in-command to an entrepreneur founder who changes direction every day. But they all need a common forum to share and discuss and work through strategies and ideas.
The audience that we have is so broad. We have 108 members. The youngest is 23, the oldest is 58. We’ve had a high school dropout. We’ve had four PhDs and a medical doctor. We’ve had people with two employees and people with 1,000 employees. The range is enormous. We’ve had retail. We’ve had heavy industries. It’s all across the board. Sometimes people think the institute is all about the start-ups or the tech companies. But it’s not.
Doesn’t social media, now that it’s so prevalent, help break down the silos of silence?
I have this argument with people all the time. In fact, social networking can be an agent of increasing isolation. When you introduce something in a face-to-face way, it is liberating. Consider the retreat environment for some of the peer groups we run. All of a sudden, this good old-fashioned way of doing business is innovative. It’s innovative to participate in a gathering, away in the woods, two days a month out of your business life, where you can actually think. When you can feel somebody’s intent through their eyes, it’s much more helpful.
How do you measure the institute’s success?
In a couple of ways. Number one is attendance at these sessions. The entrepreneurs pay for them, so there’s a financial commitment up front. Pricing runs anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 depending on the program. Our largest program, the Entrepreneurial Leaders Program, ELP, had 98.7 per cent attendance last year. So we measure success by the fact that they pay and the fact that they attend. They wouldn’t do either if this was of little value to them. They also recommend others for the program. This year we had 331 people nominated for 15 positions. That’s a key metric.
We also have a variety of key sponsors. These are high net-worth individuals across the region who believe that entrepreneurship is absolutely essential to the future. Every year, we have 30 of those sponsors not only agree to give $5,000 to support somebody in one of the programs, but also spend 30 minutes with each of three members. We have 108 members paying dues and participating in these peer groups.
You were, at one point, an entrepreneur running your own business. Now, you’re helping others find their feet in business. As you speak of “connectedness,” don’t you find an odd disconnect in your own experiences?
Innovation is where I came from. I commercialized my PhD research. Mathis Instruments produced sensor technology to measure variations in material, mostly used to detect consistency in pharmaceutical powdered and compressed tablets. I did this between 1995 and 2007. But when I sold the company and accepted the position at the institute four years ago, the same sense of innovation came with me. So, if I’m given the task of helping New Brunswick entrepreneurs have a better chance of success, how do I innovate that? I had to figure out a way how to repurpose what I learned in business.
Eight years ago, I was asked to join the New Brunswick business council. I felt that I had fallen into the pages of the Cod Fathers book. I sat around the table, I met them and I listened to them. I was very inspired by their passion. How can I expose more entrepreneurs to this? And being a chemical engineer, I’m wired to scale things up. How can I connect those individuals with more entrepreneurs? The business council set out a mandate for itself to make New Brunswick the best place to start and grow a company in Canada. And that’s where I take up my mandate at the Institute.
But it is quite a different thing to run your own business. Is it not?
It’s a different kind of busy than running your own business. One of the key things that I love about what I’m doing now, is every single person I deal with, without exception, is at the top of their game. And when I was running our business, I was the CEO but I was selling to pharmaceutical companies. I’m selling to some mid-level plant manager within a massive organization. But the bottom line is I’m no less of an entrepreneur today than I was five years ago. It’s in the person. It’s not in the shell you are wearing today. It’s how you approach change. It’s how you approach creativity and access resources out of your control.