Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Hard Knocks and Spare Change: Arlene Dickinson on Financial Literacy

Part 2 of my interview with Arlene Dickinson, Dragons' Den Star

Watch Arlene on Dragons' Den
Wednesdays at 8pm on CBC
When you watch her on Dragons' Den, you make all kinds of assumptions. She must have come from a rich family. She must have grown up surrounded by entrepreneurs. She must have an MBA. Indeed she is a smart, powerful woman with a talent for communication, building connections and negotiating a good deal, but the truth is Arlene's roots are far more humble. Maybe that is one of the secrets of her success.

Hard Knocks Graduate
Arlene grew up in a relatively poor home. She never felt entitled to money and understood that if she wanted it she would have to earn it. She learned about money "through the school of hard knocks." There was no one to turn to when things were tight because no one in the family had any money. There were times when she had money and times when she didn't. She had to figure out how to manage it through the ups and downs on her own. And she did.

I was surprised to learn that Arlene didn't get to go to university. She's entirely self-taught. And if that's not impressive enough, she did a lot of this self-educating while raising four kids as a single mom. That led me to ask her what she does when she's in a business meeting and a money-word comes up that she might not know. Arlene's strategy is very practical: if it's appropriate she will interject with a question; if it's not a good time to interject she will make a note of it on her Blackberry and research the word later.

Spare Change Matters
Arlene seemed to enjoy telling me about a financial education ritual that she started with her nine-year-old grandson a few years ago. When he comes to visit she lets him go through her purse and collect all the spare change that is rolling around at the bottom. As he's happily rooting around, Arlene examines the change and tries to recall the purchases associated with it and then tells those stories to her grandson.

Once he has found every last penny they put the money in a decorate vase and keep it there. At the end of the year, Arlene and her grandson do a tally, roll it up and deposit it into his bank account. According to Arlene he is learning a lot about the value of money, especially about the power of small amounts adding up over time. "He is learning that spare change adds up to significant dollars," said Arlene, after admitting that last year her purse produced $700-worth of spare change.

Aside from helping him get a head start on the habit of saving, Arlene explained that this ritual has created a context in which she can talk to her grandson, and the rest of the family, about how money needs to be treated with respect. Over the years she has encouraged her now-adult children to start an RRSP early and put money in it regularly, even small amounts, so that it can compound over time. In fact, when I asked Arlene what money-word she wishes every Canadian understood, she said "interest."

The Bigger Picture
Our conversation then turned to financial literacy education and business culture in Canada. I asked her who she thinks is ultimately responsible for making sure that every high-school graduate is financially literate: families or schools? Even though she wanted to say "both" I made her choose one and she picked "families." Arlene said, "Economies are driven by individuals not governments. Financial literacy needs to start with understanding how to take care of yourself."

Arlene on the Cover of Alberta Venture's
Women and Power Issue in 2009
Given that Arlene is the only female Dragon, I had to ask her about gender in business. Does it still matter? Arlene's answer was insightful and challenging.

She believes that men and women have different approaches in business. We notice this more now, she said, because more women are running small businesses and looking after themselves financially. She thinks we need to accept that there is a gender difference that will always be there and she takes issue with the bad rap that emotion gets in the business world.

Arlene told me that emotion matters because without it you cannot create passion for your product or service. "Emotions belong in business because we collaborate better with others when we are emotionally connected," she said.

Speaking of passion and connection, before I hung up the phone, I told Arlene about the Federal Government's mandate to appoint a national leader in financial literacy and asked her if she might apply. Her answer was, "That's a role that I would love to do because I think the whole idea of finances and how we think about money needs to be simplified."

She went on to say that we need to stop perpetuating the myth that you need to be a highly educated and highly informed individual to be able to manage your own money. "That's not true," she said. "You don't have to hand your money over to someone else to be successful."

Wow. Great answer and a potent reminder that to be successful in life and in finances you don't have to come from a rich family.

Here is part one of my interview with Arlene: "Ordinary People, Fundraising and the Art of Persuasion."

Copyright 2011. Laura Thomas. All Rights Reserved.
For reprint permission contact moneyme at telus dot net.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! We can track back most of society's ills to the educational process. Parents are typically children's primary instructor for financial literacy but how many of them ever had formal education? Surely we can all advocate a more intelligent and proactive process. I included finances as one of the subjects on the Life Skills Report Card I created for parents. We share that and sensational tips for teaching children financial literacy in our top ranked parenting group on LinkedIn, Parenting 2.0.