STARTUP SUCCESS: FEATURING THOSE WHO DO GOOD WHILE DOING WELL A series of interviews featuring Upside Foundation Donors, Board Members, Advisors, and Partners.
Janet Bannister is one of the few female Venture Capitalists in Canada. A Partner at Real Ventures, Janet has a reputation as a tough, driven, analytical, empathetic, caring internet pioneer, trailblazer and mentor. Currently on the Boards of 12 different companies, Janet launched her entrepreneurial career at the age of 15 with a muffin business run out of her family’s home. Since then she has a long string of career successes, but is perhaps most well-known for launching Kijiji Canada. Anyone who has been to a few start-up conferences in the Toronto / Waterloo corridor has likely seen Janet speak, as she is highly committed to supporting the entrepreneur community. Anyone who has had the chance to sit down with Janet is immediately drawn to her warmth, joyful energy, genuine nature, humility, and obvious desire to be of service to others.
Janet took the time to sit down with me to talk about her work at Real Ventures, her career path, and her thoughts on giving back to the community.
Real Ventures is committed to building a strong startup community and making values-based decisions
Real Ventures was created in 2007 by Alan Macintosh, John Stokes and JS Cournoyer out of a desire to foster a more entrepreneurial ecosystem in Montreal. It is currently Canada’s largest and most active seed venture fund, investing in 150 companies over a period of 9 years.
Real Ventures’ mission: We are focused on serving entrepreneurs and nurturing the communities in which they thrive.
Real brings this commitment to community to life through Notman House, an event and office space for the startup community in Montreal, as well as the accelerator Founder Fuel. Personally, Janet is a mentor with Next 36, member of the IAF Investment Committee, speaker at MaRS’ Entrepreneurship 101 courses, and an active participant at many other community events.
“We are committed to making Canada a great place to start and grow a company. I’m a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats; I want every company in Toronto to be successful – the more great companies we have in Canada, the better this country is going to be.”
Real Ventures has incorporated this commitment to the community into the essence of its brand – a great example of a company that “walks the talk” on its values.
“The best is when your business strategy intersects with doing what is right and making a contribution; we want everyone who interacts with Real to feel that we truly care about entrepreneurs.”
Real Ventures considers itself to be a values-based company, and incorporates this into its investment criteria.
“We invest in a lot of first time entrepreneurs, often very young, recent grads. We’ve consistently found those who have strong values are more successful. We are looking for people who have a strong work ethic, are honest, and have an ability to attract great people who want to work with them.”
Janet stressed the importance of the fundamental business model being intact; a principle that seems simple enough, but is rare to see well understood and articulated.
“Entrepreneurs need to very clearly understand the problem they are solving – what is their value proposition, who does it resonate with, what is their differentiation.”
On the importance of having distinct phases in your career – and loving what you do
Janet spoke of the importance of having distinct phases in your career. Whether that be switching between operating and consulting roles, or between working 100-hour work weeks at times and stepping back to focus on a triathlon career or children at others.
“When I was at Proctor & Gamble, I was training for the Canadian national triathlon championship*. This meant that I was training in the morning and after work. I consciously made the trade-off that I was not going to be the first person into the office nor the last one to leave; I accepted that I might not be the first person in my peer group to get promoted, and I would be okay with that.”
*which, by the way, Janet won twice
Many entrepreneurs, both male and female, struggle to balance their responsibilities and desire to excel both at home and at work. Through Janet’s experience, she has learned that it is important to recognize that it’s okay to give yourself permission to operate in different modes for different phases of your career.
“After my son was born, I spent a long time trying to be the best in both worlds. At work, I tried to pretend that I was a single woman with no kids who could work all hours of the day; and then I would try to pretend that I was a stay-at-home mom who was organizing school fundraisers and attending every school event. It was unsustainable, and I knew it wasn’t working for me. Then one day I realized that you don’t have to pretend to be anything you’re not – it’s okay to say no.”
Janet has found that the secret to being able to say ‘yes’ to the right things is to love what you are doing – whether that be at home, in your hobbies, or at work.
“What makes that trade-off a lot easier is that I feel so good about the mission of Real Ventures and the work we do. I feel okay saying to my son, ‘I’m not going to be there because I’m going to work with some entrepreneurs and try to help them be successful’. I believe in what I’m doing. To me, my work is meaningful, I feel that I am adding value.”
On being a woman in a male-dominated industry
When I asked Janet about her role as a rare female in a male-dominated industry, she made it clear that it is not something she focuses on.
“When I took a first aid training course, they shared with us the concept of the ‘bystander effect’, whereby most people who witness an incident will stand-back because they are self-conscious about how they will be perceived and whether they will do everything right. If you want to be successful, you have to let that go of that and focus on the problem being addressed and how you can help.”
Women often comment on the ratio of men to women at industry events. Janet says she is often oblivious to this – she’s too busy having interesting conversations with interesting people to notice she’s one of only women in the room.
“I grew up with older brothers and trained with the boys when I ran competitively from the age of 10. From a very young age, I was often the only girl in the group. I remember always running really hard – I wasn’t going to let myself fall behind because I was the only girl. Just be yourself and focus on doing a great job and making a contribution.”
Today, Real Ventures announced its partnership with the Upside Foundation, and its plans to officially embed the concept of giving back within the portfolio of opportunities it offers to its companies.
“We support the Upside Foundation because we see consistency with our values. We believe in selflessness and see collaboration and generosity in the community as a way to achieve a shared success. Some of our founders are involved in the Upside Foundation. For instance, Ben Zifkin, CEO of Hubba, has been actively involved with the Upside Foundation and is on its Board of Directors. We are very keen to be able to support the Upside Foundation’s mission and will help communicate the value to our community of founders.”
Real Ventures is committed to ensuring that founders of its portfolio companies and the founders in FounderFuel are aware of the opportunity to give back through the Upside Foundation, and will be supported if they decide to do so.
“A lot of entrepreneurs want to give back but are not sure exactly how to do so given the constraints on their time and money. The Upside Foundation provides a very easy way for entrepreneurs to give back. Entrepreneurs can support whatever causes they care most about without writing a cheque today. At a time when they can’t give back in traditional ways, this is a way that it can be done.”
Janet Bannister lives a life in line with her values. We look forward to having her participate in Upside Foundation events and working with her to ‘raise the tide’ for Canadian start-ups and the communities in which they operate.
Written by Jen Couldrey, Foundation Manager of the Upside Foundation
ABOUT REAL VENTURES
Real Ventures is Canada’s largest and most active seed venture fund. They invest in ambitious entrepreneurs of pre-traction companies that are creating the Internet experiences of the future, or embracing the power of the Internet to disrupt existing industries or business models. They have launched three funds, investing in over 150 companies since 2007. Their team consists of ex-founders and entrepreneurs who are focused on serving entrepreneurs and nurturing the communities in which they thrive.
In addition, Real Ventures launched Founder Fuel, an accelerator in Montreal, in 2011. FounderFuel accelerates companies in the pre-seed to seed stage, and has so far accelerated 73 companies.
ABOUT THE UPSIDE FOUNDATION
The Upside Foundation of Canada is a registered charity. The Foundation provides an innovative corporate philanthropy platform to help Canadian startups and high-growth companies “Share the Upside”. Since startups’ cash is scarce, as is time, the Foundation makes charitable giving quick, easy and cash-free.
The model is powerful: Earlier-stage and high growth private companies pledge stock options or warrants to the Upside Foundation. When the company has a liquidity event (e.g., IPO, acquisition), the Foundation monetizes the options and donates the proceeds to registered Canadian charities selected by the donors (and approved by the Foundation).