Arlene Dickinson is best known as one of the tough-talking, no-nonsense venture capitalist co-hosts of CBC’s Dragon’s Den.
The highly successful businesswoman, who the broadcaster bills as a multi-millionaire, came by her success the hard way. She arrived in Calgary as a three-year-old with her immigrant parents, who were fleeing South Africa for a brighter future in Canada.
“My father and mother wanted us to have a better place to live,” she says. “But we were the typical immigrant family, with five dollars in our pocket. Growing up, we had very little.”
That upbringing has influenced Dickinson’s attitudes toward money, the trappings of material wealth and the things she is trying to pass along to her five grandchildren.
Dickinson left the Den in January after eight seasons, and now shuttles between Calgary, Toronto and a cottage in Collingwood. She runs marketing communications firm Venture Communications, and as a result of her Dragon’s Den experience launched YouInc., which invests in and encourages entrepreneurs.
I asked her about a mistake that taught a memorable lesson and what advice she has for her grandchildren.
Your money mistake is connected to flowers. Can you explain?
Growing up, we had very little, and so buying flowers was an extravagance. I have always loved them, and when I first became successful, I started buying flowers every week for my home. It was something that illustrated to me my success.
But after a while, I asked myself: Why are you doing this every week? The proof of your success should not be in the things you acquire. It should be that your success gives you the ability to do what you want.
So I stopped buying them every week. Flowers are wonderful and I still buy them, but because I love them, not because they prove something.
What is your biggest lesson?
When I was younger, I thought success showed up in certain ways — the home you had, the car you drove, the jewelry you wore, etc. The lesson as I have gotten older — and hopefully wiser — is that material trappings are just that. They trap some of your money and are not what’s important.
My grandma taught me to love people and like things. She’s right. It’s not about accumulating things with your money, but accumulating memories. That doesn’t mean you can’t have nice stuff, you just don’t need a lot of it.
What common mistakes do you see?
People start out with good intentions to save, but get distracted and spend money on the wrong things. Then they get discouraged. It’s like weight loss. You just have to keep at it.
What else do you see?
Many people are afraid to seek advice. They’re afraid to admit they don’t have all the answers and so they end up spending money on the wrong things. A good place to start is your bank.
What advice do you give to your grandchildren?
Take 10 per cent of your allowance, or birthday money, and put it away. As you get older, give another 10 per cent of what you make to charity. Live on the rest.
My oldest grandson is 14 and he learned a good lesson recently. He’s just finished Grade 8 and received some money as gifts. He told me he really wanted an Apple Watch and if he saved 10 per cent of the money he had been given he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
He bought the watch. Two weeks later he told me he regretted it. It was cool, but not really worth the big price tag. He said he’d be more careful next time. It was a good lesson.
The other lesson he’s learned is about how small things add up. We have a deal that he can have all the change he can find in the bottom of my purse. We put it away. At the end of the year he had $600. Even I thought: Holy Cow!
Any concluding thoughts?
Good money management starts with education. You can’t manage what you don’t understand, so become literate about financial matters. Learning the language of money management is a critical lesson for all ages. Ask questions, read a lot, get advice. Study money the same way you study anything you are passionate about. Take control and remember to save. That 10 per cent adds up in a meaningful way.