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New blood: Calgary natives Manjit Minhas and Michele Romanow become CBC Dragons

New blood: Calgary natives Manjit Minhas and Michele Romanow become CBC Dragons
 newdragons | Photograph by: Courtesy CBC , Calgary Herald

Manjit Minhas has a general tip for Canadian entrepreneurs looking to pitch ideas on future seasons of Dragons’ Den.

Enough already with the toilets.

“I’ve discovered through the show that a lot of Canadians want to fix the toilet, which I don’t think has a problem,” says Minhas, on the phone from her home in Calgary. “A lot of people come to the Den, and I’ve heard this has happened in the past too, that want to fix the toilet. They think Canadian toilets need help. I really ended up telling a lot of people ‘The toilets are fine the way they work.'”

When it comes to specifics about her first season as a CBC Dragon, this revelation is the closest we’ll get to a spoiler from the 34-year-old co-founder of Calgary’s Minhas Breweries and Distillery. Shooting has wrapped on Season 10 of the series, which begins airing on Wednesday. So the businesswoman already knows what pitches were successful and which were not. In fact, at the time of this interview she was in the midst of “due diligence” for the investments she had agreed too, embarking on what she calls “the fun part” of the venture-capitalist process. Presumably, none of these new investments deal with improving toilets.

Minhas is one of three new Dragons, and one of two Calgary women, who have joined the show this year. Internet entrepreneur Michele Romanow, a Cowtown native who now lives in Chicago, is a fellow newbie, as is former Club Monaco fashion retailer Joe Mimran. They join original Dragon Jim Treliving, co-owner of Boston Pizza, and banker Michael Wekerle, who joined last year.

For five weeks this summer, the five Dragons heard at least 200 pitches from entrepreneurs, carefully chosen by producers for TV-friendliness, that came to CBC’s Toronto studio from across Canada looking for advice and, more importantly, money from this fresh panel of investors.

At least one of the vacancies was due to the departure of Calgary businesswoman Arlene Dickinson, who announced in February that she would be leaving the series after eight seasons. When the Herald asked back then what she would like to see in a replacement, she said “I’m hoping they will get a couple of women on, who knows?”

It’s true, the Canadian “Den” has been a bit of a boys’ club over the years. Until now, Dickinson and Edmonton cattle executive Jennifer Wood, who joined in the first season and was gone by the second, were the only women to have a chair at the table during the show’s first nine years.

But Minhas and Romanow have more in common than just gender and hometown. Both studied engineering in university. Both found success while still students and both have been touted as part of a new wave of young and powerful women entrepreneurs in this country. Chatelaine Magazine named Minhas “Top Entrepreneur of the Year 2011” while the Women’s Executive Network listed Romanow as one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women in 2014.

But the type of businesses they have succeeded in are very different. Romanow, 30, says she sees herself as the “Tech Dragon.” While her first business, launched in 2006 while studying engineering at Queen’s University, was a coffee shop and her second distributed high-end caviar to hotels and restaurants, her current interests are in technology. She co-founded, a daily-deal site, and created Snapsaves, a mobile savings platform that was eventually sold to Groupon.

Minhas sees herself as having more old-school concerns, referring to herself as a “bricks and mortar and beers and spirits and TV productions and marketing” businesswoman.

At 19, she joined brother Ravinder in launching their first beer in Calgary. They bought a U.S. brewery in 2006 and rechristened it Minhas Craft Brewery. They eventually formed a group of companies, including a TV-production subsidiary called Spotlight Productions, that now generates more than $155-million in revenue. She admits that at least part of the reason she agreed to become a Dragon was to further promote her products. It doesn’t take long into a conversation to discover how easily she can slip into marketing mode, casually sliding the fact that their brewery is the “10th largest in North America” into the conversation and sounding a bit like a commercial when discussing her passion to make “affordable, great-tasting beer with real products but not at an outrageous price.”

Early reports suggest that Minhas may be filling the shoes of former Dragon Kevin O’Leary, the arch-capitalist who had a reputation for being tough and abrupt in the first eight seasons of the series. A recent profile in Canadian Business magazine about Minhas and her new Dragon duties reported “as the tapings progress, a consensus emerges that she’s the tough one,” suggesting that Season 10’s toilet-obsessed entrepreneurs may not be the only ones on the receiving end of her blunt appraisals.

“I don’t think I agree with the word tough,” Minhas says. “I am an honest entrepreneur and I was an honest Dragon, which can mean telling people what they don’t want to hear. But at the end of the day, the show is somebody standing in front of me and asking for my money — my hard-earned money! It’s not CBC’s money, it’s not some other venture capitalist’s money, this is real money we’re talking about. So I treated it, from pitch No. 1 to pitch No. 200, as if you were sitting in my boardroom and we are having a conversation. And sometimes that means drilling down, getting into numbers and getting into facts that sometimes people don’t want to get into. Sometimes that means being told the hard truth.”

Still, both Minhas and Romanow said they can empathize with younger entrepreneurs, seeing the same sort of energy and, in some cases, naiveté that they themselves brought to pitches early on.

At 30, Romanow is the youngest Dragon in the history of the show. She is also a part of Next Gen Den, CBC’s online series designed specifically for young entrepreneurs.

“The earlier you start in business the easier it is in life,” she says. “It hard to start a business (later) because there’s more responsibilities. There’s mortgage and children and all these things that make it very difficult to take a risk. But the second thing about starting early is that you get used to some of the feelings that never go away as an entrepreneur. These feelings are being lonely, being pretty scared most of the time. You are generally in a pretty high-risk place for long period of time. You get yourself used to living on a certain risk threshold. And I think that is very important.”

As for the gender issue, Romanow says she doesn’t necessarily see herself as a role model specifically for female entrepreneurs.

“I’ve seen a lot of awesome women entrepreneurs and a lot of awesome male entrepreneurs,” she says. “It’s fun, but I don’t think being a great entrepreneur is restricted to gender at all.”

Minhas, on the other hand, says it’s nice to have some “girl power” and a panel that reflects the real world of business, which is no longer male dominated. She said the new male-to-female ratio among the Dragons has created a different dynamic for the series.

“When a man says something and a woman says something, it’s construed very differently just based on our gender and we can be getting to the same point,” she says. “So I think if Kevin or (Michael Wekerle) or Jim said something and I said the same thing in the same tone it will be construed differently. So, yes, I think that will be a little new for audiences.”

Season 10 of Dragons’ Den premières Oct. 7 on CBC.

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