McGill Dobson Chronicles

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Inspiring Entrepreneurs in the McGill Community
Updated: 15 min 19 sec ago

McGill Lean Startup applications now open!

Mon, 08/20/2018 - 15:04

Apply here:

Tabulit (MTL-based Art Collective) launches Kickstarter for 2nd Anthology

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 12:45

Editor’s Note: If you want to learn more about Tabulit, check out this article where our contributor Kymberly Reid interviewed Tabulit’s founder Alex Park – just click here. 

To skip to Tabulit’s new kickstarter for its 2nd anthology, click here.

Tabulit, the Montreal based digital publisher and art collective, has launched its second print anthology project.

November last year, Tabulit launched its first print anthology project based on the theme of “cats”. Over 20 artists came together on this special book, including the graphic novel sensation, Tillie Walden. The project was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, and was released in print April 2018.

Last week, on July 22nd, Tabulit launched its second anthology, Afar. Unlike the more lighter toned theme of its former project, Furr, which was about cats, Tabulit’s artists will be exploring the theme of ‘Distance’ in the new anthology.

“Distance is something that is all around us, especially now that we live in such a mobile world brought together by technology,” said Alex Park, founder of Tabulit. “But how does that physical sense of distance shape the nature of relationships, whether it’s romance, friendship, or family? We tend to believe that we can cover that distance with all sorts of gadgets and apps, but how much do we really think about how being apart from each other affects us? This book intends to explore that in all aspects.”

The anthology also marks Tabulit’s new beginning as an art collective. Until April, Tabulit had branded itself as a digital publishing startup focusing on comics. However, when Alex’s cofounder Ed had left the company, Alex decided for a radical change.

“What do the artists actually want? Forget making money. Why should Tabulit exist and what does it stand for? After much conversation I realized that Tabulit’s value was offering new artists an avenue to jumpstart their careers and curating exciting new art from around the world. So here we are, starting all over again with that in mind.”

Tabulit’s focus as a collective is now to publish anthology volumes that will involve new and incumbent member artists of the collective, with various themes.

Afar’s funding goal is $6500 CAD, same as its first book, Furr. Afar is currently going through its crowdfunding phase on Kickstarter. For more information, visit Afar’s Kickstarter page.


Just evil enough to scale: How to capture attention

Tue, 07/17/2018 - 13:02

Editor’s Note: Startupfest 2018 had plenty of world-class content, but this talk was my favorite. Alistair is the co-author of Lean Analytics, along with Ben Yoskovitz who we interviewed here.

This article is a teaser of Alistair’s “Just Evil Enough” talk. To get the full experience, hire him to speak at your next event: click here.

A common mistake among entrepreneurs is that building a good product is good enough. They think that if you build it, customers will come knocking at their door. Even perfect product-market fit isn’t enough. The truth is, sometimes it’s more about making people care about your product than how good it is. You can have the most sophisticated product in the world that meets people’s exact needs, but if you don’t have their attention, you don’t have a customer. And this is doubly true in our attention economy.

To get people’s attention in 2018, most people pull from the Growth Hacking bible of disjointed tactics found all over the internet. The problem with using “tried and tested hacks” is that by the time they’re published, they don’t work anymore. There is a negative feedback loop. When a tactic works well, other people find out about it and use it. Eventually, the tactic stops working. Either because the channel (e.g. facebook) updated its algorithm so as not to be vulnerable to the tactic. Or because people have adapted to it and it doesn’t grab their attention anymore. (e.g. clickbaity headlines like “You won’t believe how well these 9 shocking clickbaits work! (number 8 is a killer!)”)

This is very similar to how the natural resource discovery cycle works. You discover a new deposit of oil, you exploit it until it’s all gone, and then you have to look for another deposit or find a substitute for oil. Rinse, repeat.

If you want growth, your job is to systematically discover new deposits of oil.

Alistair Croll proposes that every platform intends you to use it a certain way. Every social media channel benefits when you use it the way it intends you to.

But if you want to capture disproportionate amounts of people’s attention, you need to subvert the channel. Hack the market. Seek and exploit weaknesses in the system that afford you borderline unreasonable amounts of attention.


Guiding principle: Look for zero-day growth exploits

Alistair calls these kinks in the system zero-day growth exploits. It is the fundamental principle that guides the following tactic. (Editor’s Note: Alistair shared many more tactics including: creating a product that aligns with your sales funnel, making your product mandatory, and making the future happen sooner. But you’ll have to get him in-person for that: click here to make that happen)


Tactic: Position right

Many use an orthogonal chart to show people how their startup is different. Your job is to ensure that the dimension on which you’re different from your competitors actually matters to your customers. If no one cares, you’ll go extinct. A great side-effect of positioning yourself correctly is that it re-positions your competitors.

It’s also important that you take firm control of your positioning from the start. If your startup seems vaguely positioned, the market will do it for you and that rarely ends well. If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.

One of the reasons for Tesla’s success is that it didn’t focus its efforts on positioning itself as an environmentally friendly car. The customers that Elon Musk wanted as first adopters were not the types that resonate with the messaging that a Prius has. So he zagged where others zigged. He positioned Tesla as a PERFORMANCE car company. It turns out that the people that can afford a Model S prefer that. Because that positioning is aligned with the story that they tell themselves about who they are.

Imagine an alternate universe where the Model S was positioned as a family-friendly, earth-friendly car for tree-huggers.

How far would Tesla have gotten? How many people that could afford a Model S would get one?

And yet in this universe, they sold like hotcakes. Same product, different story. And what is a story?

It’s a shared illusion that subverts human rationality, influencing people much more powerfully than a set of facts and logic.

Is that evil?


But you can slide around on the spectrum of the moral means-to-ends ratio without having to sell your whole soul.

Alistair proposes the questions:

Do you care too much about what others think?

Is that getting in the way of your startup’s success?

Have you considered becoming a little more evil in order to grow?

For more evil tactics, hire Alistair Croll to speak at your next event – just click here.

Introducing the 2018 McGill X-1 Accelerator Cohort

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 15:47
1. HavenHub

A social enterprise that reimagines primary healthcare to curb the overuse of emergency services by offering home care therapies. (Faculties represented: Desautels)

2. Keenoa

AI-powered app built as a platform to connect dieticians and patients. Patients can simply take a photo of their meal, and Keenoa will identify the nutrients. (Faculties represented: Agricultural & Environmental Sciences)

3. CURA Therapeutics

Developing innovative immunotherapies to cure pancreatic cancer and other solid malignancies with their patented technology and PhD expertise. (Faculties represented: Medicine, Engineering)

4. Kiran

Using cellular agriculture to create completely new meat products (clean meat) to target the issue of feeding the population in 2050. (Faculties represented: Science)

5. Nimbus Tutoring

Education platform that connects students with tutors for in-person, course-specific tutoring lessons at the university level. (Faculties represented: Science, Arts)

6. Canadian Students Nightline Association

National organization focused on implementing local support services for students at night and in-depth training sessions across Canada. It is currently looking at global expansion. (Faculties represented: Arts)


Revolutionizing supply chain management as a unique collaborative Supply Chain Management platform automating informational and transactional flow throughout the external supply chain. (Faculties represented: Engineering)

8. SMS Jobs

Targets the blue collar industry’s hiring process with its unique platform connecting employers and employees to communicate job offers and make appropriate matches. (Faculties represented: Arts)

9. Krypto

Monitors & analyzes blockchain transaction to help financial institutions. (Faculties represented: Desautels, Arts, Science)

McGill X-1 Accelerator recap series: Week 3 (2018)

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 15:40

Here’s the 10-second, week 3 flipbook of this summer’s X-1 Accelerator.

This week we covered the business model canvas, startup lifecycles, and how to network.

The startups were also grilled by an entire board of advisors this week to prepare for life with a board of directors.

Special thanks to Alex King (Director of Advancement at Desautels Faculty of Management), Ned Taleb (Founder & CEO at AI-enabled telecom company B.Yond), and Jiro Kondo. (Assistant Professor of Finance)

McGill X-1 Accelerator recap series: Week 2 (2018)

Sun, 06/17/2018 - 11:14

Here’s the week 2 flipbook of this summer’s X-1 accelerator. This week we covered legals, organizational culture, and public speaking.

Special thanks to our long-time supporters: serial entrepreneur & investor Rubin Gruber, Jean-Nicolas Delage of Fasken Martineau, and Jay Olson who researches persuasion at McGill’s Raz Lab.

The CEO who grilled our startups this week was Pascale Audette of Carebook Technologies Inc.



Mentor Spotlight: Jill Selick – Rubix Marketing

Sat, 06/16/2018 - 21:19

Editor’s Note: Jill Selick is the founder of Rubix Marketing. After 15+ years in brand management and communications, she has acquired extensive and broad-based experience in consumer marketing, which allows for the development of winning strategies that meet client objectives. She has worked in both Canada and the US on some of the world’s top brands such as Tylenol, Band-Aid, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Elastoplast, Nivea and Penningtons. Over the years, she has set the strategic framework for dozens of different brands with a clear roadmap to achieving long-term success, and has been the champion in delivering the action plan to get there.

Jill was a McGill Dobson Cup judge in 2018, in the semi-finals of the SME track.

Her path after college

My first job after my BCom at McGill was at Johnson & Johnson. I got the job through Desautel’s Career Centre. At the time I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do and when I had met with them, they told me about this great opportunity there. I wasn’t even sure this was the job I wanted – I thought maybe I wanted to travel, but once I met the team and understood what the job entailed, I fell in love and spent 8 years there. It was the breeding ground and foundation for my marketing career-  I worked with really smart people and learned a lot. I had the chance to work on 8 different businesses in the 8 years, and I have McGill to thank for that.

One thing lead to another, and after deciding to build my life in Montreal I ended up at Beiersdorf, which owns brands like Nivea. I was there for 5 years, and shortly after that, I decided that I wanted to help smaller companies who didn’t have large marketing teams. So a year ago, I founded my consultancy: Rubix Marketing. We deliver marketing plans, business plans, brand DNAs & architectures for small-to-medium businesses (and sometimes big ones) who don’t have the in-house resources to optimize their marketing.

A typical consultancy would just deliver the plan and walk away. We actually like to talk about strategy and action. So we build a plan and then make sure that all the right tools are in place for the implementation.

Marketing is more about the consumer and moving the needle forward on the business than the tools.”

How she approaches marketing

There are so many different tools that exist today that didn’t exist when I started. But the guiding focus for the plans we build are the business’ objectives and what their consumers want. And we make sure to set objectives with clear KPIs. If we don’t reach those, we didn’t do our job properly. So for us, marketing is more about the consumer and moving the needle forward on the business than the tools, which change constantly depending on the time and the goals.

Jill was a semi-final judge in the SME track of the McGill Dobson Cup 2018. How she learned what she knows

I was given a lot of opportunities to learn during my time at Johnson & Johnson which allowed me to work on projects that startups wouldn’t necessarily work on. Keep in mind that I knew very little when I started: I was 22, just finished school, and good grades don’t mean anything in the real world, so I was lucky to learn from all the people around me. Working in a big organization helped because I was able to absorb everything from people who were really smart. If I had started in a smaller company, I don’t know if it would have been the same.

Diversity in my learning experiences has really important for me. In a short period of time, I worked on a lot of businesses. At Johnson, we had a philosophy thatyou couldn’t work on a business for more than a year – they’d move you over to a different thing. They always challenged us with new projects because once you get to year 2, you sometimes become a little more complacent. I strongly believe it’s important to work on different things instead of doing the same thing over and over again.

I’ve worked on CPG, health, and skincare for a long time  Now, I touch a million different industries: restaurants, tech space, finance, retail fashion. Every time I enter a new industry, I’m learning and challenging myself. And then sometimes I’m able to apply something I learned in one industry, to another. For instance I may learn a tactic that works in the restaurant industry and be able to apply it to a fashion company I’m working on. At the end of the day, the consumer-focus is still there so the principles still apply, but I’m learning through different filters. You get to learn about the industries as well. So my advice is: touch a lot of different things and take every opportunity to learn.

Take on different responsibilities at work besides your primary focus because then you can learn all the other facets of the business”

Advice she’d give to a fresh graduate entering the real world

This may not be advice you want to hear, but there can’t be the expectation that you’ll have all the answers with just textbook knowledge and zero experience. Things don’t come easy – you have to work really hard. Take every opportunity you have to learn and keep in mind that you have to work harder than everybody else, and seize every moment. Take on different responsibilities at work besides your primary focus because then you can learn all the other facets of the business. Never stop learning.


Marketing book recommendations


How to scale a mental health startup and get your face on a billboard

Fri, 06/15/2018 - 13:00

Editor’s Note: Vent Over Tea is a social enterprise founded at McGill that offers a free active listening service in Montreal (and recently, Calgary) to anybody who wants to talk through their struggles. They won 1st place in the Social Enterprise Track in the McGill Dobson Cup 2016, and have been featured in the Montreal Gazette as well as Bell Media.

The 3 founders: Chloe Chow, Sarah Fennessey, and Nimra Khan took the time to walk us through their journey and how they’re scaling their service.

They operate in Montreal and since a few weeks ago, Calgary. If you want to be listened to, or have a friend who does, book a session today at

Spotting the problem & scratching their own itch

Chloe: There’s a lot of stress and expectations from McGill, which is hard to balance with a social life and all the other things you have on your plate as a student. When I was at McGill, I struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety.

Sarah: I’m from Calgary so when I got to Montreal, I needed to find a new therapist. And this was back in 2011 when all the strikes were going on. So McGill Mental Health was actually on strike at the time, which meant I was literally in a situation where McGill had no mental health resources available and had to find one off-campus. I eventually got fed up with what was available on campus, and decided to do something about it.

Just the act of talking to someone made a difference – it didn’t need to be the world’s best therapist.”

The steps that took them from idea to prototype

Sarah: I had been going to therapy for a couple of years and eventually was able to overcome the PTSD I had been struggling with. Then I was in this situation where I didn’t need professional help anymore since I didn’t have a diagnosable disorder, but I still really loved talking to my therapist. It’s nice to have an uncensored, judgment-free conversation and some time to just unwind and talk through your struggles and anxieties. Even if you don’t have a disorder, there’s just so much shit going on in your life.  

I was taking a course with Richard Koestner and he showed us this fascinating study about therapists’ effectiveness that made things click for me. Basically, it looked at 3 test groups of patients, where each one went to get therapy from one of the following groups:

  1. A group that had appointments with an experienced therapist
  2. A group that had appointments with an empathetic professor
  3. A control group who received no treatment

What they found was that there was no difference between the 2 treatment groups in terms of the mental health improvements made by the patients, who were men with mild depression. And of course, they both made significant improvements compared to the control group who didn’t get any therapy. Just the act of talking to someone made a difference – it didn’t need to be the world’s best therapist.

So I thought: “Wait, what if we get a group of really good listeners together willing to volunteer their time and then make it free so you don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to get the ‘best’ therapist who might get you the same results that an empathetic person could?”

Vent Over Tea won 1st prize in the Social Enterprise track of the McGill Dobson Cup 2016. How the founding team was built

Sarah: So I had this idea brewing but I didn’t know how to bring it to life. Then one day I was browsing Spotted McGill around exam time and noticed that everybody was opening up about their mental health struggles with exams. So I anonymously wrote a post asking, “Does anyone wanna help me make this service to help students who are struggling with mental health issues at McGill? Email me if you’re interested, and I’ll set up a meeting in the New Year.”  And Chloe was one of the responders – she came to every single meeting. And another one of the students introduced us to Nimra.

Nimra: I met up with Sarah, and actually just wanted to be a listener at first. The interview went well, and since it was the beginning of the organization, I got involved on the organizational side as well. I had been in other McGill clubs before and knew how they were structured, so I was able to bring some of that knowledge to our little initiative.

We want to simulate 2 friends having an open and honest conversation.”

How they scaled their training process for their volunteer listeners

Chloe: Obviously we needed to train our listeners to make sure they were high quality. In the early phases, we’d outsource the training to McGill where there was a great active listening workshop and we had all our volunteers do that.

But that’s not scalable – it’s hard to get all our listeners take that workshop, especially if they’re not McGill students.

So we worked with a psychologist – the director of the clinic where I was interning at the time, to structure and build our own active listening training program for our volunteer listeners.

Although we don’t work with them anymore, it was nice to get advice from a professional with a clinical background even though our approach to Vent Over Tea is the complete opposite: we want to simulate 2 friends having an open and honest conversation.

How Chloe’s face ended up on billboards everywhere (photo above)

Chloe: Bell Let’s Talk is a Canadian nationwide campaign that raised $6.9 million for mental health initiatives across the country. This year, they decided to shine the spotlight on everyday people instead of just celebrities.

We were in a Gazette article last summer and this woman who was working on the campaign sent me a message on facebook saying she had a proposition for me from Bell. I was skeptical, so I stalked her on LinkedIn and realized it was for real. So we had a conversation on the phone, and all the ambassadors met up this January and talked openly about our experiences.

The whole thing was super weird, because they used my photo on a lot of billboards. And that was definitely a moment of vulnerability for me because I don’t talk openly about my mental health struggles to everyone – just a few close people. So having my experience published across the country was super strange, but also very empowering. Random people who I haven’t spoken to in years would send me messages saying, “Awesome that you’re taking part in this!”

The Calgary chapter launched just a few weeks ago and it’s growing faster than it did in Montreal because now we know what we’re doing.”

How they’re expanding to a 2nd city: Calgary

Sarah: I grew up in Calgary and have a network there already, so it just happened naturally. All my friends and family over there knew about Vent Over Tea and were super excited about what we’ve been building. And they all really wanted to be involved and start it in Calgary.

My mom is spearheading the project: holding meetings and training sessions, and she’s loving it! The Calgary chapter launched just a few weeks ago and it’s growing faster than it did in Montreal because now we know what we’re doing.

The Vent Over Tea team in Calgary. The struggles they face as they scale

Sarah: It takes a while for people to decide that they want to talk to someone. And even after they’ve decided, it takes time for them to build up the confidence to make the first appointment.

Chloe: And then they have to take a leap of faith and try Vent Over Tea! It takes a while for people to trust a brand. The fact that we’ve been around for several years in Montreal has helped there because we’ve got some recognition at this point. So when people think, “Should I meet up and talk about my problems to stranger?”, they’re more okay with the idea. Now we’re figuring out how to bring that trust to Calgary.

Pause before you give advice. Then don’t give the advice.”

One thing you can do to become a better listener

Chloe: Pause before you give advice. Then don’t give the advice. When people come to you with an issue looking for a solution, if you can pause and just let them think out loud, they usually figure out solutions to their own problems, which is really empowering.


Advice for startup founders on maintaining their mental health

Sarah: Don’t spread yourself too thin or try to do everything in one day. Not only is it hard on you, but the work you deliver isn’t at its full potential. I know what it’s like to try to do everything at once and burn out. Instead, prioritize your work, break it up into chunks and just take it one step at a time with your full attention.

If you’re reading this and feeling even a little bit interested in what the Vent Over Tea experience is like, book a session right now. It’s free, you can select the cafe of your preference, and you don’t need to have a “problem” in order to book. It’s a liberating, uncensored, and fleeting conversation shared between two people with no follow up or strings attached.

To book a vent session, click here.

McGill X-1 Accelerator recap series: Week 1 (2018)

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 20:13

Last Monday we stealth-launched the 4th edition of the McGill X-1 Accelerator…here’s a flipbook micro-recap of week 1.

(The infographic at the end will give you a glimpse into our programming)

The 1st workshop was lead by Miriam Bekkouche (The Brain Spa), who provided the entrepreneurs with a foundational mental health toolkit to prepare them for the journey ahead.

We also saw the return of Mike Ross (Juniper, Vocaprep) to teach them a method to their madness when it comes to creative problem-solving.

And of course, they were grilled by a CEO – Eduardo Mandri of Tuango fame, to finish off week 1.

You’re probably curious about who the startups are – stay tuned.

Startup Spotlight: Insiders-Anticafe LocaL

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 15:45

Editor’s Note: Boris Leifer is a political science undergrad at McGill who, after working at an Anticafe, decided to start his own: Insiders – Anticafe LocaL. His mission is to bring people from different backgrounds together in a community that allows for multidisciplinary conversation and for big ideas to flourish. All this while sipping on fairtrade coffee and munching on local pastries.

B21 research fellow Damian Arteca sat down with Boris to chat about his journey and his business.

Next time you’re looking for somewhere to study and the library is full, head over to Insiders.

If you’re a student or an entrepreneur, you’re likely spending dozens of hours in coffee shops. You grab coffees to fuel early mornings, you spend late nights capitalizing on public wi-fi, and you may even work at one to help fund your education or startup. It’s safe to say that the coffee shop is a staple of McGill life. But if you swing by the Insiders-Anticafe LocaL on Crescent, you’ll find that the concept of “coffee shop” is being disrupted in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Insiders does away with the basic elements of the coffee-shop customer experience: you’ll find no uniforms, no customer service counter, and most importantly, you’ll notice that you won’t be paying for your drinks and snacks, but rather for the time you spend there. Each hour costs a few dollars, and if you’re a student a whole day of studying will run you about 13 bucks- whether you’ve had one cup of tea or twenty. The innovative idea of an “Anti-Cafe” was invented in Russia by the writer Ivan Mitin, an intellectual and entrepreneur who revolutionized the idea of a coffee shop by monetizing time in the place of products.

An inside look at Insiders.

While this model may be viewed as a clever way to spice up the marketplace, it’s also in service of a wider ideal. The owner of Insiders is Boris Leifer, a 20-year old McGill student in the political science stream. Boris was born in Russia but has lived all over the globe, where he’s picked up several languages and an appreciation for the diversity of human interaction.

“It gives me an interesting outlook on life in general…it helps me connect with people”, Boris states, reflecting on his international upbringing. In Insiders, he hopes to create an open social space that will breed the kinds of connections he’s experienced himself. Insiders is more about space and feeling than it is about marketability and efficiency, which is reflected in its interior design.

Boris (right) and Mario Cabrera (left) entered the “Portes ouvertes sur Saint-Denis” competition, where they won $15 000 towards funding their next location, which will be on St Denis.

Boris’ ethic of openness is tangible upon first entering Insiders. When opening his own Anticafe, Boris took the opportunity to design and build the interior from scratch. The traditional customer-service counter is nowhere to be seen, which leaves one feeling more like a guest at a friend’s house than a customer in a store. Several study spaces are divided by beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors, which reminded me of Google’s open-office concept, or the glass conference rooms in McGill’s cybertheque, allowing privacy without sacrificing room for play.

The space has attracted a plethora of artistic and cultural events: you’ll see paintings by local artists on the walls, and you’ll find a vast menu of stand-up, music, philosophy nights, or lectures being hosted on a weekly basis. You’ll also find people from all over the world- in my most recent visit, I encountered 2 gentlemen who’d only arrived in Canada a few weeks past, one from Pakistan and one from Argentina.

Boris describes Insiders as a “literary and cultural cafe”, and so far it looks like it’s well on its course to succeed in being conducive to openness, uniqueness and originality. This is where the “Anti-cafe” works. It removes the “shop” from “coffee shop” and replaces it with a liminal space. Not quite cafe, not quite arthouse, not quite workspace, but somehow all of them at once. It’s the sort of space that seems to represent the city it’s housed in, catering to culture, work, and learning among global peers.

Insiders attracts students, entrepreneurs, and people just seeking out interesting conversations.

Despite being a relatively young family business, Boris is planning on opening a second location on St. Denis after winning the “Concours Portes ouvertes sur Saint-Denis” award earlier this year.

If you want to learn more, head over to their facebook page (hint: liking the page gets you a discount) or walk over to 2067 Crescent.

Executive Spotlight: Debra Margles (President of Michael Kors Canada)

Tue, 06/12/2018 - 15:13

Editor’s Note: Debra Margles has served as the President of Michael Kors Canada since 2004. A Montreal native, she relocated to New York City in her teens to pursue an education at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), a move that she claims changed her life. There, she landed her first job working for designer Perry Ellis. In 2001, she became President of Kasper and Anne Klein Canada, a position she resigned from when she accepted her current position. 2018 marks her thirty-fifth year working in the fashion industry.

This past winter, Debra was a judge in the Small&Medium Enterprise Track in the final round of the McGill Dobson Cup. 

How did you start up Michael Kors in Canada?

I’ve been doing this for a long time. We first started in Canada thirteen years ago, with maybe three to five people. Today, we have over a thousand employees. We started very, very small with the idea that we would perhaps own a few stores in Canada; we now have forty stores in Canada. We never thought we would grow the company this big.

We started off as a luxury brand. I’ve been in the fashion industry for thirty-five years. I’m fifty-six. I live in Montreal and I was born in Montreal, but I left to go to FIT in New York City for four years, where I stayed to work for a luxury brand called Perry Ellis. My whole career, I’ve worked for real designers and that’s why I love what I do. Michael [Kors] is a real designer who’s very involved, very passionate, very in love with what he does, and it’s contagious. So, I consider myself a very fortunate leader because I absolutely love what I do.


What does your day-to-day look like as President of Michael Kors Canada?

Day-to-day, we have a certain routine.

We review the numbers of all of our stores on Monday. We get all the planners, the allocators, and the buyers together and look over what happened last week. What were our best-sellers? Our slow-sellers? What is our action plan? What is our competition doing? What are on the sale banners? We’re learning so much because the pace of the fashion industry, of retail in general, has changed tremendously with e-commerce. More and more, we’re studying the data, the analytics, and the statistic of who our consumer is. When is she shopping? What percentage of customers are coming from Alberta, from British Columbia, from Toronto, from Montreal? If we have a spike in sales, where are we getting it from? We have certain stores that have more of a certain population, so that is how we feed the inventory during certain times. If we’re going to celebrate Chinese New Year in January, where does that affect us most?

Tuesday, we talk about what we can do to affect change for the week. All the leaders of the company get together as a group and talk about what we’re doing for direct marketing, e-mails, e-commerce, transfers, allocations, and such. So, a lot of Mondays and Tuesdays is strategy.

Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, depending on our markets, I’m looking at real estate or having meetings with people outside the company. That’s when I usually plan things.

The company is a lifestyle brand, so there’s a lot of things we’re constantly doing. Menswear, ladies’ wear, handbags, footwear, eyewear, fragrance, jewellery, and the list goes on. My day is never the same. Ever, ever, ever.

Debra, alongside the rest of the McGill Dobson Cup judges from the finals of the Small & Medium Enterprise, joined by Dean Isabelle Bajeux from the Desautels Faculty of Management.

When you took the helm of the company, how were you able to look forward and project what consumers would want and how the climate would change?

We made a lot of mistakes. We thought the world needed another apparel company, but it didn’t. There were so many strong players thirteen years ago: Jones, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and all those Tommy Hilfiger brands were known for apparel. What we realized was that there was a void for great, accessible luxury handbags. The only real player in the market was Coach. Michael loves beautiful leathers, so we did things a little bit more upscale, a little more fashion. That’s what happened to us. Michael said, “I want to build lifestyle stores. I don’t want it to be just handbags. I want a woman to walk in and be able to buy shoes and a bag and a sweater and a watch” and that’s what he created.

There were not a lot of places like that that were for really sexy women, with powerful looking clothes, great price points, and high fashion. When you think about that today, you think Zara, Michael Kors, and only a handful of others who do it really well. But we do it with a brand.


How do you keep your employees empowered?

I give them clear, defined goals so that they know what the result will be if they put in the extra hours, work really hard, and do what they need to do. Some people can run a marathon not knowing where they are going and still be motivated, but most people need to know that at the end of the marathon, for example, we’ll go to Starbucks and have a coffee. I could run knowing I’m going to get to Starbucks, but if someone tells me to just run until they say it’s over, I can’t do it. People today generally want goals. Younger people especially want to know, “what’s in it for me? If I do this, what will my results be? How will I advance?” I think my generation didn’t grow up thinking like that. My generation grew up thinking, “if I come in early, stay late, and work really hard, that would be enough.”

We’re very clear that we bring people into this organization that want a career and not a job. We want to motivate people to rise to the highest level that they can rise to.

Today, however, people want work-life balance. In this organization, we are working harder at being in the moment when we’re in the moment and being able to turn off when we’re not, because in fashion, it never ends. There’s always another story you could add and another magazine to read. There’s always something happening out there that influences fashion. Look at Gucci, look what happened to them overnight. Lululemon was, at one point, the only place to buy active wear. Now look at how many new Lululemon stores are out there. So, you can’t just sit back in fashion, you have to always be looking forward because there’s a lot of innovation everywhere and because of e-commerce, there’s a lot more competition and opportunity from the world. Before, you couldn’t buy Fiorucci if you didn’t fly to New York. Today, you could buy Fiorucci online and you could buy Vetements online. You could buy anything in essence. You could get on Net-a-Porter and go shopping internationally. Amazon is changing the scene too. All of a sudden, the competition has free delivery, even same-day delivery. What do you do with all that information?

Today, our team needs to be able to turn off and on. Otherwise, we’re on all the time.

I believe that as a leader, my job is to be a good coach. I have to motivate the team and cheer them on, on the sidelines. If they make a mistake, miss the ball, and strike out, I make sure that they regain the confidence to get back out on the field again. Some people in this organization have been with us for a long time and they’re great players. Now, they’re teaching their skills to another round of players. We’re very clear that we bring people into this organization that want a career and not a job. We want to motivate people to rise to the highest level that they can rise to.

What is the biggest challenge that you have faced, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge for the company would be e-commerce, and I didn’t overcome it. I’m learning it. We’re embracing it. It is a work in progress that all of us around the world are embracing at a fast page: how to do it efficiently, how to do it while making money, and how to do it so that’s it’s adaptable.

Some stores, like Holt Renfrew, don’t even have e-commerce yet. The Bay is okay at it, but there are certain stores that are doing really well. Aritzia’s great at it, and Sephora, with their loyalty program, is fabulous at it. My greatest challenge right now is becoming very well-verse in e-commerce. Now more than ever, it’s incredibly important because of the number of American retailers, like Uniqlo, Zadig & Voltaire, and Maje, coming to Canada. There’s simply more competition.


How do you stay on top of the competition?

I’m frequently online seeing what they’re doing. I subscribe to all of my competition and I have people within the organization that do the same so we’re all on the same page. One person went out on Black Friday to shop the competition. I also read a lot. I read a lot of trade magazine, I subscribe to many footwear magazines, I stay up to date on different materials that teach me what different designers and stores are doing. You have to stay on top of the trends, so you have to do your due diligence. You also have to network. Networking is extremely important.

If you’re going to spend a fortune on beautiful marketing and beautiful stores, you better have the right product in those stores.

When you first started out, your area of expertise was merchandising and marketing. What is most important aspect of that department?

Product, product, product. No matter what.

You can go into the best, most beautiful store or you can go into a shitty store and buy the best running stores. You can have the best sales associates, the best loyalty program, and the best packaging, but if you go into Sephora and they don’t carry the brand you want, you’re going to go anywhere else to get it because if you love AMOREPACIFIC or a certain Stila, you’re going to go find it no matter what, even if it’s at a pharmacy. Today, it’s all about underground places, so you better have product. People can use e-commerce to buy whatever they want. If you’re going to spend a fortune on beautiful marketing and beautiful stores, you better have the right product in those stores. A really great marketing campaign is very important, but at the end of the day, if your pant doesn’t fit right, customers aren’t going to buy it even if you have all the rest around it. Product always comes first.

From over thirty years working in the fashion industry, what is your best advice for entrepreneurs looking to start their own fashion label?

It’s okay to take risks, but definitely go work for somebody for a few years. Make mistakes on their behalf. There’s a lot to learn every single day and it could cost you a lot of money.

I believe that internships are essential. It’s a great way to see different companies without making long term commitments, almost like dating. You can meet different people and see what fits for you. From that, as a leader later in life, you can reflect back and think about what companies you want to be like and which companies you don’t. I think bigger companies are great at the beginning of your career because there are certain disciplines that you learn. If you want to break into cosmetics, go work for L’Oréal. Structure is very important.

Some people argue that when you work for a smaller company, you get to do many things. I like that idea too. When you work for a big shoe company like Aldo, you’re going to learn a lot about one thing because they have a lot of people. If you go work for a smaller company, you might be doing forty tasks instead of ten. It just depends on the type of person you are, but going to work for a company before opening your own is very good advice. I would never tell my kids to do something until they’ve worked in the field.


What’s a company that you look up to today? If you weren’t going to be the President of Michael Kors Canada, which company would you want to lead?

If it doesn’t have to be a fashion company, I would tell you right now that I would like to be more involved, after this, in cosmetics or health and wellness. I think it would be exciting, at my age, to change and do what I don’t know. I love fashion and if I had to stay in fashion and pick another company that I would love to work for, it would definitely be a company that is up-and-coming and not established already, because that’s what’s fun about it. I could go work for another brand that I could watch grow and evolve as opposed to going to work for Burberry or Gucci or Valentino, which is established. I wouldn’t think of that as much fun.

I’ve been offered to lead companies, but I haven’t accepted any of the jobs. Why? Because this is a great company and I haven’t finished what I’m here to do.

My ultimate goal is to feel that I could take a two-week vacation and this place would run smoothly.”

When will you have finished? What is your ultimate goal for Michael Kors?

My ultimate goal is to feel that I could take a two-week vacation and this place would run smoothly. We’re almost there in the sense that a lot more people are rising up in the ranks. We have more managers and more leaders. There’s a lot of strength in the organization. The organizational chart is very healthy and the people leading their terms are very, very good. Very strong. That’s when you know that you’ve done a good job.

As parents, when your kids are off to college, they’re happy, maybe married, you can relax a little. It never ends as parents and it never ends as leaders either, but there’s a time where you reflect back and know that your daughter is in a good place. She’s happy at school, she has nice friends, and she’s doing well. Then I can go to sleep. I feel good.

For me, running a company is the same. I think I’ll know when my time is over, when I don’t wake up as passionate and motivated. But until that day comes, I’m still running around doing Black Friday, visiting my stores, and being a cheerleader. As much as I’m a coach, I’m also the cheerleader on the side and I have a lot of fun. I love to make everybody in this organization feel as passionate as I do. I think it becomes contagious as a leader, so my goal ultimately is to see other people being the cheerleaders now. When the team knows the cheer, that’s when you know you’ve done a good job as a coach. When you don’t have to get on the field and yell at everybody, you can sit down at the game and watch the game.