The Disruptors: Changing the way things are done in Atlantic Canada

The Disruptors: Changing the way things are done in Atlantic Canada

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story | Contributors: Erin Elaine Casey

Join us at Fall Dinner on October 30.

What exactly is a disruptor? In business, it’s a person, event or innovation that changes the way we think about or do something — for the better. It’s someone who challenges habits and conventional wisdom and finds creative alternatives to how things have always been done. Most importantly, a disruptor is a person who proves the value of that disruption through positivity, action and results.

Business Voice talked to all four fall dinner speakers to learn the secrets to their success.

Focus on solutions, not problems.

For the most part, businesses and entrepreneurs are already well aware of the problems they’re trying to solve and clients and customers know what they want. “Identifying a problem only gets you about 40 per cent of where you need to go,” says Lydia Bugden, Managing Partner at Stewart McKelvey and the first female CEO of a law firm in Atlantic Canada. “Being solution-focused makes us more simpatico with our clients and
it’s where we need to be.”

“As lawyers, we’re trained for resolution instead of just problem-spotting. More than ever, focusing on solutions is how we drive our business and how our clients want to see their service providers giving value. Startups and emerging businesses are also looking for solutions that make things easier or make business more successful.”

A great example is Halifax-based Harbr, a three-year-old tech startup that developed innovative project management software for high-volume construction and store development teams. Ashley Kielbratowski is Co-Founder and heads product development. “We’re targeting a lot of retail brands, including online e-commerce brands that are moving to brick and mortar stores,” she explains. “They don’t want heavy software — they want to manage it on their own, they know what they want and they need to move fast.”

“A big vision for the company is being able to predict construction, which some people think is impossible. Through machine learning, we can now run predictions around different building tasks and generate a very accurate timeline. It’s a lean process to get the data direct from project partners and you, the owner, can see progress and collaborate in real time. Being able to see this in action and practice in an industry that is resistant to change is really rewarding.”

Find your thing and do it well.

Quality is the name of the game at Benjamin Bridge winery in the Gaspereau Valley. In the 10 years since Vice-President Ashley McConnell-Gordon formally joined the family business, wine output has grown from 2,000 to 40,000 cases each year.

“We’ve invested in the people, the growth, the equipment and sustainable practices,” she explains. “Our business growth is always quality-driven first. Our vineyard is certified organic and has been organic since we began 20 years ago, before people were even looking for it.”

“My parents’ vision was to take the time to investigate and research how to align our unique growing conditions along the Bay of Fundy with our stylistic pursuits. If we can do something people can be proud of locally, we’ll be known internationally and really shine a light on this place we love.”

Lauren Sears would agree with that approach. She helps run three businesses from her desk: Common Good Solutions, a consulting and training firm for social-purpose organizations; Placemaking4G, a recruitment company focused on attracting and retaining young talent in Atlantic Canada; and Social Enterprise Institute (SEI), an online learning management system that provides accessible content about building businesses that create impact. SEI has users in more than 50 countries and 170 universities around the world.

Each of these businesses is a community interest company (a structure that only exists in B.C., N.S. and the UK and requires 60 per cent of profits be reinvested back into the mission of the company). Sears likes to talk about building your “partnership muscle” and seeing strengths where traditionally we’ve seen weakness — particularly rural Nova Scotia.

“A lot of our work involves community engagement and looking at all the stakeholders who touch an issue,” she says. “We have lots of training partners and all our businesses work together. We’re taking a stab at 21st century community development and do a lot of work with not-for-profits and charities, social purpose organizations, purpose-led business and social enterprise business models. We’re pretty agnostic about structure and how people do their work, as long as they’re doing good.”

Take responsibility for your community.

Working together for the common good is key. Whether that’s supporting other women, building up rural areas or making sure enterprises give back, purpose is one thing Kielbratowski, McConnell-Gordon, Sears and Bugden share.

“Construction and technology are two male-dominated industries,” says Kielbratowski. “But we’ve done a good job in our company at having women in leadership positions and here at Volta [Innovation Hub] we’re surrounded by companies doing the same thing.”

Bugden emphasizes the positivity that women bring to the table. “In terms of innovation and transformation, there has to be positive energy and that was missing in the past in terms of our regional outlook. I think having more women at the table today builds positivity about opportunities and builds problem-
solving capacity. There are a lot of positive men out there as well and you can see the difference in their businesses and their communities.”

That positivity is also reflected in how we think about where we live. “Businesses need to be rooted in community and have families around them,” explains Sears. “What are those unique assets that each municipality has that will attract and retain young people? Think outside the box. I know that seems cliché but there are so many new models and models that can be tweaked and adapted — there’s always more than one way. People might think you’re crazy, but you should validate how crazy you are,” she laughs.

“I get excited about the idea of rural sustainability, creating meaningful careers and bringing people back to the province,” adds McConnell-Gordon, “not disrupting the special ruralness of Nova Scotia. Export is my approach. We need to get our product outside Nova Scotia so we can change local perceptions around our wine. If the Globe & Mail will give us a great review or Gordon Ramsay will list our product in his London restaurant, that changes the local perception, displaces imports and grows the local industry, including wine tourism.”

Start small. Stay focused.

Each of the fall dinner speakers might seem like they’ve “arrived,” but not one is resting on her laurels. Wearing the mantle of disruption means constant learning, evolving and leading both personally and professionally.

Bugden sees passion and focus as key. “When we talk about impact, we use language like ‘start small and scale fast’. I think this applies equally to making an impact locally and globally, at work or in the community. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, but at the same time you can’t pilot and test for 10 years or you’ll lose that momentum. Be laser focused and ready to move quickly.”

For McConnell-Gordon, it’s important to “figure out the quality move” — whatever that means for your business or your life. “Wine is one of the toughest places to do it, because regions are hot or a style is hot for a certain period of time, but you can’t be chasing that. We’re going to do what we’re naturally suited to do. That’s part of being specialized and doing well at what we do.”

“I always go back to the problem and start small,” says Kielbratowski. “Stay focused on the problem you want to solve, talk to as many people as possible, but stay focused. Find the right customers and align with the right network. Always have your end goal in mind but take it one day at a time and one thing at a time and stay connected to your bigger vision.”

Finally, Sears throws down a serious gauntlet for today’s businesses. “I love when people look at us really confused and say, ‘You’re doing what?!’ when we talk about giving away 60 per cent of our profits. Common Good Solutions put about a quarter-million dollars back into the community last year alone. I can tell you if every other business could do that, we wouldn’t be paying so many taxes and having so many problems to solve. Business is the most nimble institution we have in society and it can make real, substantial change. What would happen if more large, for-profit corporations did the same thing?”

Don’t just sit there. Get going!

Kielbratowski says we should follow our passion, even if it feels daunting. “People ask me ‘How are you doing this?’ I tell them just do it! Find good people and good team members and make sure you’re in it together. If you have a dream, just do and just keep doing it.”

“Success really is about passionate engagement,” agrees Bugden. “You’ve got to love what you’re doing in your day job and in your community. I can now look back and see transformational change in Halifax and in Nova Scotia and think, ‘I was involved in that.’ That doesn’t come if you’re a bystander.”

Sears urges us all to take action about what we’re passionate about — now. “Because we don’t have time. Climate change is here. This is why looking at collaborations and partnerships instead of at competition is critical. I’m so tired of people saying you shouldn’t invest in Atlantic Canada. We have enough resources, enough money and enough talent to make things happen.”

< Back to Articles | Topics: Cover story

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