Women Being Bold: A Conversation With Michele Romanow – a Forbes ‘Millennial on a Mission’.

It’s 8:45pm Eastern time and Michele Romanow, founder of Buytopia, and the only Canadian to be featured on the Forbes ‘Millennials on a Mission’ list, still has people coming into her office. We’re on the phone, having a wonderful conversation about all the incredible things Michele has managed to pack into her 20’s!

Her first business venture, which she established while studying engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, was ‘The Tea Room’, a zero-consumer-waste coffee shop, the place for exotic teas and cappuccinos on campus that pioneered new environmentally friendly technologies and practices. Her second venture was Evandale Caviar.  She built a vertically integrated fishery that distributed high-end sturgeon caviar to luxury hotels and restaurants. They grew a profitable business before two disasters struck: the 2008 recession that drastically affected luxury purchasing and new federal legislation that effectively put an end to their ability to export their product. Without access to the lucrative US and Asian markets, the business faltered.

Her third and current venture, Buytopia (www.buytopia.ca), provides a win-win for both merchants and consumers. Local merchants get to connect with consumers at lower costs than through other channels. Consumers get to purchase deals on all kinds of experiences, saving 50-90% off the standard retail prices. Buytopia also offers charities the opportunity to introduce their members and stakeholders to these online offerings and take a percentage of the value of purchases generated through their referrals. In two years the company has grown to 50 employees, 2 million subscribers, and they have saved their subscribers over $100M. In addition, Buytopia has been able to incubate two other companies – Cleverfox and SnapSaves. Cleverfox is a scheduling software company. Buytopia often runs deals with merchants that become inundated with requests to schedule in all the customers that have purchased the deal…voila Cleverfox. SnapSaves is a mobile couponing app. Instead of having to download digital coupons for the store, you buy groceries on the published list, take a picture of your receipt, email it in, and they give you cash back.

Wow! Three business ventures in play, all by the time she was twenty-five, and now two more within a couple of years!  And along the way, between Evandale Caviar and Buytopia, she also threw in a stint for Sears Canada as Director of Corporate Strategy and Business Improvement in Toronto. She switched gears and went into a corporate leadership role, developing growth strategies for the company, looking at how to take a department store, one of the oldest models in retail, and update it.

I was interested in her take on her entrepreneurial versus corporate experiences. I asked her what are the three biggest ‘wows’ she has gotten so far from her entrepreneurial experiences, and what corporations need to do so they are not losing the Michele’s of the world to entrepreneurial ventures every time. She took her time, and was thoughtful about her responses, writing down her thoughts before articulating them.

[text_box class=”blue”] Affecting change, persistence, confidence, providing value, and a constant focus on what drives the needle most. Those are her biggest learnings so far on the entrepreneurial front. [/text_box]

  • Michele is a change agent. I could hear the excitement in her voice as she spoke about how you can affect an enormous amount of change when leading a project, so by default how fantastic entrepreneurship is for those wanting to see an action or a change really get done. More power, a greater ability to exert control, high efficiency, less waste, less politics all translates to getting more done faster and affecting change sooner as compared to a corporate environment. This is why she feels everyone should have a bit of entrepreneurship in their life.
  • Michele is persistent. She’s all about finding a way and having a ‘get it done’ attitude. In all of her ventures she has done things that many people would say she wasn’t ‘entitled’ to do. When she started the Tea Room she was really determined to create the first zero waste coffee shop. She wanted biodegradable coffee cups, even though they were more expensive. She persisted, and in doing so she had to develop excellent negotiation skills to get a better price. Six months after Buytopia was established, they signed Cirque du Soleil as a client. They could deliver value that no one else could. She feels it’s harder to see that amount of persistence yield that amount of results in a corporation, because so much gets in the way. Her perspective is that successful entrepreneurs embody persistence. They keep pressing and find more and more ways to get it done.
  • Michele is confident. In a startup, the only person you can rely on is yourself. You have to look in the mirror at some point and know that ultimately you are responsible. Taking that responsibility gives you a much better way to work. Taking responsibility builds your confidence in yourself. In a corporate environment, it’s easier to get lost in the crowd and to some extent dilute the contribution of the individual.
  • Michele is 100% focused on what drives the value needle most. Value-based prioritization is key in her mind. She can only do five things well at any point in time. The rest she has to pass off or delegate. In a corporate world a requirement for breadth as well as depth sometimes detracts from that laser focus.  She is always trying to be the most valuable person on the team.

[text_box class=”blue”] Positioning change agents as leaders, removing barriers to change, making a social impact, creating something from nothing and being able to make it their own, and letting projects take on the brand of the individual as well as the organization. Those are the things corporations have to figure out in order to appeal to the Michele’s of the world. [/text_box]

  • Michele wants to get things done, without delay. Whether in a start-up as an entrepreneur, or inside a corporation as an intrapreneur, she doesn’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the experience she is seeking. Corporations need to find a way to identify change agents within their organizations, propel them to positions of leadership and opportunity, and eliminate barriers that slow down the pace of change and the ability to get things done if they want to have any chance of recruiting and holding on to the Michele’s of the world!
  • Michele wants to make an impact. Like many women, across all generations, across all personality types, Michele is looking to have a positive impact on the world. Corporations have to re-visit their mission, branding, messaging and communications to ensure that what they have to offer the world and those amazing talented women out there comes across loud and clear, otherwise it will continue to be tough to even get them in the door. They should want to come and work for you because in doing so they believe they can contribute to a greater good.
  • Michele wants to build things and be able to call them her own. She called herself a builder, achieving high levels of satisfaction when challenged with how to create something from nothing. Corporations need to figure out how they can mimic those types of opportunities for talented individuals. In Michele’s words: ‘Can you put me in a role in a corporation where I can create something from nothing and it can become my thing?’
  • Michele wants her personal brand to count along with the corporate brand. The internet has given us all a platform to build a name for ourselves on a personal level. Whereas in the past the corporation almost defined us, now the internet and a whole slew of social media means the way we have defined personal brands has really changed. Corporations need to find ways to allow the individual to really shine through? How can they let projects take on the brand of the person as well as the organization? How can they create the opportunity for a personal brand as well as the corporate brand?

Clearly Michele loves trying new things, is a huge fan of technology and how it enriches our lives, and cares about making a social impact with what she does. In prior interviews she has also described herself as fun, hardworking and bold. I asked her about being ‘bold’, and what that means for her specifically.

She shared with me that for her boldness is never going in the right order. It’s about seeing what can we go after now and how can we get as big as possible as quickly as possible. It’s about taking calculated risks and seeing what works. The interesting thing is that she doesn’t think she was born a risk taker. She commented how sometimes the best entrepreneur is the cheeky one in grade 5, the one who isn’t afraid to break rules, who is always thinking two steps ahead, who is questioning the status quo. It wasn’t the questioning she had to learn, it was the boldness and risk taking she had to learn. In terms of risk taking behavior for her specifically it meant not being afraid to go after big fish early on. For example, two months after launching Buytopia, they were pitching to a national newspaper company about why they should a deal with them. She had a great opportunity at Sears leading big projects, along with the access to capital that a large company provides. But she felt you only get to really throw big darts in your twenties, so she should do the things she dreamt about doing now as an entrepreneur.

[text_box class=”blue”] ‘Boldness is never going in the right order.’ [/text_box]

She emphasized that all women need to take risks, and to do that they need to establish a support network. We spoke about two of her mentors. The first was a woman named Marjorie Benson. Marjorie grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan, but never let the world she came from limit her ability. She worked for government, she went to complete a law degree and a PhD at Harvard, and her entire life was devoted to the Native American Aboriginal population in Canada. As a law professor, she won teaching awards and wrote a number of books on agricultural law, property law, First Nations Law and dispute resolutions. She taught Michele that she didn’t need to think small. While Marjorie died two years ago, Michele still remembers a lot of her lessons. The second is a close friend of hers – Nicole Verkindt – who runs OMX, a company in the technology defense space. Michele sees Nicole’s perspective in how she takes on some of her challenges, and Nicole constantly inspires Michele to do more.

She also credits her family and friends for supporting her the whole way. They encouraged her to do it. The encouraged her to not let greatest fear hold her back. I asked her what her greatest fear is. Her response: ‘I am perpetually afraid of failure, which is likely what drives my performance at times. It’s not a crippling fear, because I know I will always figure out a way to get things done. Entrepreneurship is like a roller coaster, sometimes up and sometimes falling. I genuinely believe that your fear tolerance can be reset. People who have been through terrible life circumstances have confidence they can get through anything else. Early on we had a problem and we could have lost a lot of revenue. It was really scary, but we got through it and we figured out solutions along the way. What’s really important about this is that anytime something happened after that it wasn’t as bad as what we had dealt with before. You have to have the confidence to figure it out. Take risks, figure it out, grow from there.’

[text_box class=”blue”] ‘I am perpetually afraid of failure, which is what in fact drives so much good performance in some ways. Not a crippling fear, but just that it won’t happen like this…but I also believe we will figure out a way to get it done.’ [/text_box]

Her message to women of a younger generation is to incorporate this theme of risk: ‘Your twenties is for taking risks. There has been too much emphasis placed on excessive education, or going into corporate. If you have a chance to experiment with great business ideas in your twenties, do it. Before you have a mortgage, before you have kids. This is especially timely given high youth unemployment – if you don’t have a job go out and create yourself one!’

Michele is creating jobs herself for employees right out of college. Her priority is to try to hire people with talent and develop a culture that is biased for action. She emphasizes less strategizing, less thinking about what can go wrong, instead emphasizing execution to her employees. She wants them to try things and see what’s working versus theorizing about what may work.  She doesn’t care when you come to work or where you do the work, she just cares that you are delivering great value and that you care about driving the business forward. Some of her most rewarding moments are when an employee comes into her office with a great idea and the focus then becomes how to do it. She really believes in a performance based culture, working hard and playing hard.

She lives her life too on the work-hard, play-hard philosophy. When not building new businesses, you can find Michele out training for long distance races, enjoying wine, and giving back to her favorite charity. She’s come close to breaking two hours in a half-marathon, and her favorite one to date is the Oakville half-marathon because of how it winds along the water. She will be running her first marathon in October – the Scotiabank marathon. She really loves California Cabernets – Cakebread immediately came to mind for her. She is a director of Shad Valley, a transformational program to develop the entrepreneurial potential of exceptional Canadian youth. In the 30 years Shad Valley has been around they have produced 23 Rhodes scholars. They select kids from Grades 10 and 11 and put them through enrichment programs at colleges, and they also provide them with scholarships and internships.

As our time started to come to a close, I didn’t want to forget about something that was unique to Michele in being selected for the Forbes ‘Millennials on a Mission’ list. She was the only Canadian to be selected. So I asked her to share some thoughts with me on being Canadian, and how she thinks that might give her a different perspective from some of her peers on that list.

She commented on how she thinks Americans are just so bold, how when they start a business they think they can grow extraordinarily quickly. She admires that so much. On the flip side, Americans have many great success stories but they also have better access to capital than Canadians. So it forces Canadian startups to be very lean. In her case, they invested $45,000 and got to $10 million in sales in their 2nd year. It taught them an incredible amount of discipline. They had to negotiate for every contract harder, they could only hire when they could really afford it. She also feels that Canadians are a bit too humble and don’t share their stories as much as they should. On a lighter note, she also shared with me that her favorite Canadian foods are Peameal bacon and maple syrup – but not together!

On that delicious note, it was time to let Michele move on to her next thing. After all, twenty-seven years just isn’t enough time for Michele to even start to take a bite out of life. Luckily for her, the very next day she was going to be celebrating her 28th birthday. A whole new year, a whole new set of opportunities. Happy birthday Michele! I can’t wait to see what 28 holds in store for you!

  • Traci S. Campbell

    Hurray for boldness in women entrepreneurship! Many congrats to Michelle Romanow for believing in and following her dream at the ripe old age of 27!!! LOL. Amazing! Daniella, a great article and thank you for bringing Michelle’s great accomplishment with Buytopia into our field of vision! Very inspiring.

    • Daniella Levitt

      So glad that you found this inspiring!