Michele Romanow had barely cracked the books for her civil engineering degree at Queen’s University when the path toward entrepreneurialism became clear.
“I figured out by first year I would be better at building businesses than bridges,” quips the 31-year-old entrepreneur and investor, who is best known today for her role as a “dragon” on the hit CBC show Dragons’ Den.
She didn’t waste any time, either. In 2006, she launched a no-consumer-waste, carbon-neutral café on her campus called the Tea Room, which still operates today. Then, in 2008, she started a caviar company, which ultimately didn’t survive the financial crisis.
Romanow and her two business partners then hit it big with Buytopia.ca, a popular deal-of-the-day website, and SnapSaves, a grocery couponing app where people could take a picture of a grocery receipt and receive money back on certain items. The latter company was bought by Groupon in 2014. She’s now back running Clearbanc, a financial services start-up for business owners.
Many thirtysomethings are just trying to move up the corporate ladder and can only dream of having Romanow’s success. So what’s her secret? Tenacity and an open mind.
Many thirtysomethings are just trying to move up the corporate ladder and can only dream of having Romanow’s success. So what’s her secret? Tenacity and an open mind, she says. “That’s proven to be one of my best traits – there’s no industry that’s off-limits – and the belief that you can figure anything out,” says the Calgary-born deal-making dynamo, who now splits her time between Toronto and San Francisco.
Romanow brings the same go-getter attitude to her role on Dragons’ Den. She chose to do the show because it gives her more exposure as an entrepreneur and investor, but it also allows her to help others with ambition and grit reach their business-owning dreams.
“The more time I spend on the show, the more I think I can be helpful,” says Romanow. “I remember how difficult it can be. You’re never going to get it right the first time. It’s going to feel incredibly messy and like you’re failing all of the time, but it’s amid that messiness and constant iteration that you come up with innovative ideas.”
Romanow believes being an entrepreneur today is easier than ever thanks to a burgeoning start-up ecosystem in Canada, including mentors and investors willing to back a big idea that other people might think is crazy.
“Rational people will tell you you’re being ridiculous all day long – and they’re right,” Romanow says. “You should never ask your smartest doctor friends or dad’s lawyer about your business idea – because they’ll tell you everything will go wrong. Part of being an entrepreneur is knowing that everything will go wrong, but you’ll constantly find something little that’s working in that pile of wrong – and that will be the idea that works.”
Despite being so young, Romanow will be an entrepreneur for life. It’s a calling, she says, not a career choice. And, in a way, entrepreneurship is not unlike the civil engineering degree she once pursued. “I love the process,” she says, “of building something from nothing.”