April 5, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight
“Dragon” Michele Romanow in Kingston
Tech titan Michele Romanow is an engineer and a serial entrepreneur who started three companies before her 28th birthday. The newest (and youngest ever) entrepreneur to join CBC’s hit show Dragons’ Den, Michele is the co-founder of e-commerce platforms Buytopia.ca and Snap By Groupon, which have saved millions of users hundreds of millions of dollars. Ranked in WXN’s “100 Most Powerful in Canada” and listed as the only Canadian onForbes’ “Millennial on a Mission” list, Michele brings her youthful energy and incredible entrepreneurial savvy to every stage. Michele recently spoke at Queen’s University in Kingston and the school’s paper was there to see her:
One of Canadian entrepreneurship’s rising stars told an audience at Queen’s University on Saturday that to be successful in business you have to have a scrappy attitude and to never give up when trying to start a business.
“It’s so important to get there and never stop trying. All those nos you’re going to hear and turn them into yeses,” said Queen’s University graduate Michele Romanow, who sat in a large, antique wooden chair — which she referred to as a throne — as she delivered a 25-minute speech that was followed by a question-and-answer period.
The Calgary nativewas furnished with the chair as she was recovering from a calf muscle injury.
She and her partners have started some successful Canadian businesses since graduating from Queen’s.
“For every one business of mine that’s been successful, there’s five that failed,” said Romanow, who appears on CBC television’s entrepreneurship show Dragons’ Den and is a 2007 engineering graduate of Queen’s. She also holds a 2008 master of business administration degree from Queen’s.
“It’s important to remember that you have to try and you have to try lots and lots of things.”
She spoke in front of about 250 Queen’s students, staff, alumni and members of the public on Saturday afternoon at the Queen’s Biosciences Centre.
“I don’t believe in planning but I do believe in curiosity and iteration,” said Romanow as she spoke about her successful and failed business ventures. “I also believe you don’t tell people you’re starting a company, you’re starting a project.”
Romanow, 30, has launched four companies, including the Tea Room, a zero consumer waste coffee shop, in 2006 while she was a student at Queen’s.
After graduating she partnered with two engineering classmates, Anatoliy Melnichuk and Ryan Marien, and founded Evandale Caviar, Buytopia.ca, a Canadian Deal site that was third on Canada’s list of fastest-growing companies, as well as SnapSaves without raising any external capital.
SnapSaves was acquired by Groupon in June 2014.
She is on the Women’s Executive Network list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada and was named as one of the Forbes Top 20 Most Disruptive “Millennials on a Mission.”
In 2007 she was the sole winner of the highest tribute at Queen’s — the Agnes Benedickson Tricolour award — and Saturday night recieved the Queen’s University Alumni Association One to Watch award.
Romanow is a director for Whistler Blackcomb ski and snowboard resort in British Columbia and Shad Valley International, a Waterloo, Ont.-based charity that empowers high school students to reach their full potiential. In her speech Romanow talked about some of the challenges she and her fellow entrepreneurs had along the way.
When she opened the Tea Room, Romanow was told she wasn’t allowed to open the business on campus because other food suppliers were given exclusive rights but she was able to find a way to open anyway.
“That’s the first thing you learn is to try to be scrappy,” she said.
She and her schoolmates and future partners spent hours discussing business ideas and qualifying for student startup money.
“The game we played every day is ‘What’s the next million-dollar idea?'”
They ended up winning $120,000 in business startup money.
They tried all kinds of ideas and some worked but more didn’t, Romanow said.
“After looking at all these businesses we landed on fish farming.”
They developed a caviar business by renting a sturgeon fishing licence from an oldtime New Brunswick fisherman for a summer and were able to sell the caviar to high-end Canadian restaurants.
Romanow said the group did hour of research and found experts in the industry to talk to. They found out the natural supply of sturgeon that hadn’t been fished for a long time in New Brunswick.
She said it’s great to start a business while at school because you have access to experts in the professors and a support network.
As well, experts in a particular field or someone who may one day become a competitor will provide you information about the business if you say you’re just a university student looking for information.
“Hey, I’m a student doing a research project and I have some questions,” she said. “Still to this day I use that line.”
The best information always comes out of people’s mouths, she said.
“It never happens online. You can do all the Google research in the world and you’ll call one person that runs a similar style business and they’ll be the one to call.”
In an interview before her speech, Romanow said starting her first-ever business, the Tea Room, helped her to get to where she is today.
“It was from there that I became the entrepreneur that I did and I don’t think if I had that early success that I had at Queen’s with people giving me the autonomy to start a business, I don’t think I would be here where I am today.”
She said she has many warm memories of Queen’s
“Starting my first business here, I met my two business partners, Ryan Marien and Anatoliy Melnichuk, and that we met on campus here so it brings back a lot of memories.”
As for Kingston she was happy to hear that Bubba’s restaurant on King Street was still operating but was upset to hear the Sleepless Goat cafe had recently closed.
“I did my very first research for The Tea Room there and going to the Starbucks up the street and the Goat and a bunch of other places.”
In her speech she said it’s worth taking the risk and not to be scared when opening your own business.
“I think entrepreneurship has always been worth it because it has afforded me opportunities that I don’t think anyone else in any other career path would ever have,” she said.
“My story wasn’t very glamorous for most of it. It was very messy along the way and it was just a lot of scrappiness that got me through it.
“Successful people do what unsuccessful people weren’t willing to do.”