As I was thinking about my journey as an entrepreneur, I realized I had never actually thought of starting my own business. I wish I could tell you that I had followed my dreams and through hard work and determination had achieved by goals. It just wasn’t like that at all. The path to where I am now is a very winding one indeed.
I was supposed to go to university after high school, but instead, I got a job with a national department store chain and moved along the ranks from cashier to department manager and was working towards getting my own store. It was a tough struggle. First, I wanted to be the checkout supervisor, but they told me I was too young. I told them I could do the job and eventually they let me give it a try. Then I wanted to be a manager, but they told me that women could not hold management positions. But eventually they had to let us in, and I was first in line. And time ticked away – each year rolling into another until eighteen years had passed.
And I loved my job. I often was going to work at 6:00 in the morning and frequently left at 11:00 at night, sometimes I did this 7 days a week. And then the inevitable happened. I started to hate my job. And I became a miserable person.
One night I came home, and my husband met me at the door. I was surprised because he was usually in bed when I got home late. He told me that he had been thinking and if this is what he had to look forward to forever he wasn’t interested. Of course, I was instantly angry. I was working hard, bringing in money, isn’t that what I was supposed to be doing?
Wanting to avoid a pointless argument to defend the work I had grown to hate, I asked, “So what do you want me to do?” “Quit,” he said. Quit and do what? Go back to school. You always wanted to do that. Oh right, and take what? I don’t know…computing science. Good answer, he is a programmer. It is probably the only thing he could think of at the time.
Perfect, now I had a plan…It didn’t really occur to me that it wasn’t my plan, but more his. So, in July I went right down to the university and applied to begin full-time study in September. I had forgotten most of the math I had learned in high school, had never studied for an exam in my life, had never written a research paper, can get lost in a phone booth and was going to be alone on the giant University of Alberta campus, and I didn’t know a single soul.
Oh yeah, and I was going to be a programmer and had no idea about how to use a computer. I was terrified. Be afraid do it anyway. Be afraid do it anyway. It became my mantra and one that I have chanted many times over the past 17 years.
So, in September I went to my first university class. The real shock came when I realized that almost everyone in first year was still a teenager. I was 35. And in my computing classes there was no one like me. In some of my classes there were only one or two other women, and they were half my age. They were smarter and knew much more about computers than I did. At the end of second year, I felt isolated and frustrated. I had pretty much decided to transfer to the business school. At least that was something I understood. Dr. Randy Goebel, who was the chair of the computing science department at the time, convinced me to continue and I am very grateful for his kind words and his advice.
It was a tough 4 years. I never felt like my classmates took me seriously. I was odd to them. They wore jeans and t-shirts, I wore suits. They had questionable grooming habits – I wore makeup. They chewed their nails and I had painted, super-long ones. I read Harvard business review and bought fashion magazines. They talked about computer hardware, watched Star Trek re-runs, and critiqued the last episode of Babylon 5. And at the end of the 4 years, I had no idea what I was going to do. I didn’t see myself as a programmer, writing code alone in a little cubicle for hours on end, which is what my colleagues seemed to be after.
At the time there were emerging careers in Management Information Systems where specialists bridged the gap between the business and computing domains to develop business tools. This seemed like a perfect fit for me. I loved designing software, hated writing code, loved working in teams, and adored sharing idea. So off to the business school to do my MBA.
My first days in the MBA program were a bit daunting. Like the computing science students, the MBAs were young, but they were also highly competitive, self-assured, cocky, and knew exactly what they wanted. I was afraid of them. So, I started having closer relationships with some of my professors, who were much closer to my age. Several of them asked me why I wasn’t doing a PhD?
It was a good question. I went to the chair and explained that I would like to transfer into the PhD program. He told me I was too old. Too old? When had that happened? I didn’t feel old. Was it that long ago that I was restricted from certain positions because I was too young? I never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Okay, no PhD. I entered the final year of my MBA.
And then something very strange happened. One of my professors asked me if I was interested in working on a project for the Canadian Securities Institute to write 60 cases for their new curriculum. They are in charge of training and licensing stockbrokers.
I didn’t really seem like the perfect choice. I knew nothing about finance, wasn’t a writer, didn’t know anything about how people learn, and I wasn’t even sure what a curriculum was. My mantra echoed in my ears. Be afraid, do it anyway. I said I would love the job. I regretted that decision almost immediately. Finance was mind-numbingly boring.
Now at the time my husband was making video games for a company called Bioware. And I started thinking, instead of writing cases to bind in another boring book, perhaps I could put the cases into an interactive role-playing game instead. I was just trying to do what I liked, designing software.
I pitched the idea to my professor, and he said that I should give it a try. This was way before the idea of serious games had risen in popularity. I made a little demo and my professor started showing it around to various people. A businessman from Hong Kong asked me if I would like to start a company. Did I know anything about starting and running a company? No really. Be afraid, do it anyway.
In the end, I, along with two professors, another student, and the businessman from Hong Kong, formed a company, with me as CEO. In short order the two professors had left the partnership. The other student left after a short time. The businessman from Hong Kong was the initial investor but never wanted to be involved in the business. I was alone. And I wasn’t even sure what business I was in. Was I in education? Consulting? Software development? And I had employees and an office and one client. Be afraid, do it anyway.
Eight years later, we were busy. We consulted with our clients to make custom educational software. And as for my PhD? Nothing formal, but I am an expert in adult education, financial planning, occupational therapy, disability management, Dene culture, land use planning, music theory, and systematic reviews. Thanks to our wonderful clients that I had the privilege and honour of working with everyday, I learned so much.
I had the greatest job in the world, and I worked with some of the best computing scientists, engineers, graphic artists and researchers Edmonton has to offer. And once again I loved my job.
I would like to leave you with two final thoughts.
The first is that women have a role to play in science and technology and perhaps the most effective way for us to have a significant impact is to leave the traditional scientific environments, become entrepreneurs and change the ways in which the world conceptualizes and uses technology.
And lastly, being an entrepreneur has been at once the most rewarding and the most terrifying experience of my life. If I can give you one word of advice, take opportunities that arise. You never know the wonderful things that can happen if you are afraid, but you do it anyway.
We believe in you. Gung Ho Friends!