Continuing Education

In the Minds of Mavericks

These aren't your average inspirational quotes

By Lisa Szabo, '16 BA

November 17, 2021 •

Land, labour, capital. These three words are etched into the minds of former 11th-graders everywhere as the necessary ingredients to produce goods and services. If you have a building, some willing workers and a sack full of cash, you’re pretty much set to start creating your product or delivering your service.

Except there’s a fourth ingredient that falls off the end of the list: entrepreneurs. It takes someone with the spark of an idea to get the whole thing rolling. It takes someone — or a team of someones — who sees a problem or a need and comes up with a great new way to address it.

We wanted to know what makes people like this tick, so we asked entrepreneurs involved in the University of Alberta's ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service, or VMS. (You can find their business ventures below.) VMS matches U of A grads, faculty and staff who are starting a business with experienced mentors who can guide them on the often bumpy road from idea to market.

Mentors Ashlyn Bernier, ’06 BSc, ’11 PhD, ’13 MBA, Faaiza Ramji, ’05 BCom, and Ashley Janssen, ’06 BA, and mentees Brittany Anderson, ’12 BCom, Deanne Beis, ’03 BCom, and Rick Dowell, ’03 BSc(MechEng), ’09 MBA, tell us what it takes to innovate.

What does “innovative” mean to you?

Bernier: It’s a way of looking at the world; a mindset; a marriage of scientific method, creativity and humility.

Janssen: To me, innovative means constant forward movement, even when things are hard. It’s reflecting on the way things have been done in the past, picking out good parts, dropping things that didn’t work and trying again. It’s being creative when the next steps are unclear, trying something new or different and seeing what sticks.

What’s one essential ingredient for innovation?

Ramji: Curiosity. Without it, we can’t be critical of what currently exists.

Beis: Having an open mind and a thorough understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve.

Has innovation played a role in your venture?

Anderson: When COVID hit and our businesses were shut down, we thought about what we were good at and how we could serve our customers during this confusing time. Closed for the pandemic, we were able to develop an entirely new business. Without an innovative culture, we probably would have been another business lost to the pandemic.

Ramji: My venture came from wanting to see what we could create from peas and how we could use them differently in our everyday products. Our original path was to create a pea-based dairy alternative, which we did. But when COVID put our plans on hold, a new idea emerged: to create alcohol from peas.

Janssen: Innovation doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering discovery. It can be an aha moment that changes the way you do things. In both my past and current ventures, innovation has allowed us to weather the storms of my husband’s (also my business partner) cancer diagnosis and treatment, my own MS diagnosis, the ups and downs of the economy over the last 15 years, COVID and other things life has thrown at us.

How has failure contributed to your experience?

Anderson: We’ve tried a lot of things that we discontinued. One year, I ran Zombie Hunt, where players shoot paintballs at real, “undead” zombies. It was well received and sold out quickly, but it took a lot of work and didn’t make any money. You have to try new things. Sooner or later one of them will hit.

Dowell: Failure is a great teacher and forces you to examine how a different outcome could have been achieved. The next time a similar opportunity arises, you are going to look at things differently and try something new, which is the core of innovative approaches.

How do you come up with your best ideas?

Ramji: I find smart people and ask them a ton of questions. Generally, those questions start with “what if?” Then I go for a walk or do something to take my mind off the idea and things start to connect subconsciously. 

Janssen: I come up with my best ideas by reading, watching and listening to others, and exposing myself to content outside my usual interests. I pull different threads that can be woven into something new. 

Beis: I deliberately schedule windows of time to step out of the day-to-day and focus on the bigger picture.

What do you do when you hit a snag?

Beis: I’ll go for a walk and mull things over, chat with my partners or reach out to our ThresholdImpact VMS mentors to get another perspective.

Bernier: Question my assumptions.

Janssen: I switch to something else for a few days or weeks. I give my brain a chance to let it go, let whatever the problem is sit for a while. Then I come back to it when I am fresh and give it another go.

What would you tell someone toying with an idea they think is important? 

Bernier: Get the idea out into the wild and test it.

Anderson: Research, research, research. When my partner and I were in the discovery phase of starting Edmonton Paintball Centre, we spent every waking minute that we weren’t at our day jobs researching paintball facilities.

Ramji: Pull at the thread; don’t let it go. Think about it, write down thoughts or parts of thoughts, and then start communicating it with people who can give you quick and critical feedback.

What’s your advice on how to become innovative in business and everyday life?

Ramji: If you want to be innovative, don’t try to innovate. Just be curious, ask a lot of questions and don’t be discouraged if you don’t find an obvious new idea.

Bernier: Accept that being wrong, changing your mind and allowing for iteration are not only part of innovation, but necessary for it. 

Dowell: Ask clear questions about what needs to change and don’t assume an approach that worked in the past is the best one now.

Beis: When day-to-day frustrations present themselves, remember to consider them as opportunities for innovation. 

Any final thoughts or advice?

Beis: While innovation and change can be exciting, be sure to keep a focus on the core needs of the user. It’s essential that new methodologies or technology actually solve a problem or increase efficiency and are thoroughly tested before they’re rolled out.

Janssen: Innovation is a combination of reflection, resilience and a bit of luck. Keep going.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Brittany Anderson, co-founder of Laser City and Codo

Anderson is the co-founder of Laser City, a laser tag and mini-paintball facility, and Codo, a digital platform she developed during the pandemic that runs online camps for kids. Brittany is receiving mentorship from VMS.

Deanne Beis, founding partner of Tenfold HR Solutions

Beis leveraged a history of working for her family business with 15 years of HR experience into her company, Tenfold HR Solutions. She’s now partnered with a mentor from VMS.

Ashlyn Bernier, chief operating officer of Samdesk

Bernier is chief operating officer at Samdesk, an AI-powered platform monitoring global disruptions and providing real-time crisis alerts. She also supports businesses as a mentor for VMS.

Rick Dowell, president and co-founder of Pontem Innovations

Dowell is receiving VMS mentorship for his company, Pontem Innovations, which provides customized analytics to businesses.

Ashley Janssen, founder of Ashley Janssen Consulting

Janssen is a consultant and the co-founder and CEO of software company Code and Effect, and co-founder of Tadum, an app that helps businesses organize meetings, agendas and minutes. She is both a VMS mentor and mentee.

Faaiza Ramji, co-founder of Field Notes

In addition to mentoring VMS entrepreneurs, Ramji runs OnPurpose, a marketing strategy firm in Edmonton, and founded Field Notes, the first company in North America that makes herbal liqueurs using peas.

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