Stepping into the Spotlight: Alumni Couple Find Successful Landing After Leaps of Faith
Farah Perelmuter can still hear the silence on the other end of the line.
She had just called her mother to break the news: Farah and her husband, Martin, were preparing to quit their jobs and start their own speakers’ bureau, an industry the young couple knew nothing about until a few months before that telephone call. The silence that followed lasted quite a while.
“Then, just as I pictured my mother trying to be patient and keep her cool, she replied, ‘Well Farah you know you can’t live on love alone.’ Then she asked, ‘And what exactly is a speakers’ bureau, anyway?’”
June 1995. Within a single month, Farah and Martin Perelmuter married, moved into a new home, quit their jobs and launched a new business. The then-25-year-olds went from two solid incomes – Farah was in advertising, Martin in corporate law – to zero. Farah’s mom was correct – they could not live on love. Instead, they made huge lifestyle changes, cutting out extras and going back to living like students.
But they believed. They ran the business out of a spare room in their Toronto apartment, with a shared phone and a two-drawer filing cabinet. Between the two of them, they did everything. They stayed in that apartment for four years. And then slowly grew.
Today, the alumni couple credit that leap of faith – or, actually, that series of leaps – for landing them in the Spotlight.
That backroom business eventually blossomed into Speaker’s Spotlight, one of the largest speakers’ agencies in the world with offices in Toronto and Calgary, booking more than 20,000 speaking events in more than 30 countries. The company was selected by Profit Magazine as one of the 100 Fastest-growing Companies in Canada, and co-founders Farah and Martin have twice been named finalists for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of The Year Award.
Profit Magazine ranked Farah as one of Canada’s Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs for seven consecutive years. She was also selected as one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 through the Women’s Executive Network, and named among Canada’s Top 20 Women of the Year by The Women’s Post.
Farah, BA’91 (Psychology), serves as CEO; Martin, BA’90 (Economics), serves as President.
Still, all these years later, they remember well the early days of the company, when drumming up business was no small feat. “We’d make 50 or 75 cold calls a day. We’d try to get out and network, meet speakers, attend events and meet with potential clients,” Martin said. “I was doing sales, accounting, sent out invoices. I was even the company courier, getting on my bike at the end of the day and riding around the city dropping off packages.”
In its first year, the company booked 40 speaking engagements – a few “out of sheer hustle.”
“In the early days, we managed to find 18 speakers who sort of felt sorry enough for us to let us represent them,” Martin said. “It was pretty slow growth for the first five years, but then we hit a tipping point where, all of a sudden, things really started to snowball.”
The couple credit a trio of early clients for accelerating the company’s success – Paul Henderson, the Canadian hockey player who scored the winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union; basketball coach Jack Donohue, who coached Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in high school and the Canadian men’s national team from 1972-88; and the late Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the boxer wrongfully convicted of triple homicide who spent nearly 20 years in prison and whose life story was portrayed in the 1999 movie ‘The Hurricane,’ starring Denzel Washington.
That trio was having their moment in the spotlight – all at the right time for Spotlight.
Whether a speech motivates, inspires, or expands people’s knowledge in particular subject areas, the Perelmuters believe a great speaker can be the spark needed to create change and cause people to take action in their lives. “Our speakers have some amazing messages to share,” Farah said. “It feels great to know that people all around the world are being affected and impacted by our speakers.
“A speech can change the world.”
The company grew quickly, adding staff each year, moving into larger office spaces in Toronto and expanding its roster of speakers. Today, Speakers’ Spotlight sets up hundreds of speaking engagements with clients all over the world each year, drawing from its roster of about 500 speakers.
“My initial goal was to fill one entire drawer with files of clients,” Farah said. “Now, we have a room full of filing cabinets, and every time I walk into that room I think about the drawer I was so determined to fill. I can’t believe this is our life now. It’s mind-blowing.”
Over the years, the company has represented politicians (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) and power players (environmentalists David Suzuki), astronauts (Chris Hadfield) and starship captains (William Shatner), those who play (Olympians Clara Hughes and Silken Laumann, BA’88, LLD’13) and those who pretend (actors Michael J. Fox and Martin Short), as well as Dragons (Kevin O’Leary, MBA’80, and Arlene Dickinson) and those who Do The Right Thing (director Spike Lee).
The company is approached by more than 1,000 speakers annually, but only takes only a handful of new clients each year. They will also reach out to non-clients, if the fit works.
“We can book virtually anyone,” Farah said. “The value we bring to clients is we narrow it down and provide the right speaker for their audience. That’s where our wisdom comes into play.”
The biggest test for speakers, the couple stressed, is not the ovation at the beginning of the speech, it’s the ovation – or lack thereof – at the end. “People like Chris Hadfield and Clara Hughes routinely get a standing ovation at the beginning just because of who they are,” Martin said. “But they’ll get an even bigger ovation at the end because they’re really phenomenal speakers.”
Though Farah and Martin both attended Western, and lived in the same three-bedroom apartment on Proudfoot Lane, they never met. When Martin and his roommates graduated and moved out of their apartment, three girls moved in. On the night those girls came by to look at the place, only two showed up. The third – Farah – had a night class. The couple found this out during a conversation when they met at a mutual friend’s cottage a year and a half later.
Today, the couple are the parents of two teenaged children. And though they didn’t cross paths at Western, both have fond memories of the university.
“Everyone I associated with worked hard; the professors I had were fantastic at inspiring me to want to work hard,” Farah said. “I remember studying at the library with friends. I remember it closed at 11 p.m., so then we’d all switch over to the Medical Sciences Building and study there.
“Then we’d all go to The Spoke and go dancing. It was so much fun. We talk about Western all the time with our kids. It really was the perfect combination of fantastic education and great friends.”