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How You See the World is Your Competitive Edge

Apr 8, 2024

A text based logo for International Women's Month - written in black over a white background. This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa, with critical support from BDC Capital’s Thrive Venture Fund, the Title Sponsor of International Women’s Month 2024.

We teamed up to produce this special series to celebrate women leading in Ottawa for International Women’s Month and shine the spotlight on our IWW 2024 featured leaders to unpack their passion and purpose.

Each year, five inspirational leaders are selected to represent International Women’s Month. They are role models who significantly impact our economy, community and society and embody the spirit, goals and values of IWM.  

I’m curious: do your passions and hobbies — seemingly unconnected to your career — give you an unexpected professional edge? 

Growing up, Mona loved nothing more than donning her dad’s old headphones and immersing herself in his record collection for hours. She had a deep affection for the arts, theatre, and the craft of writing. 

Nevertheless, she decided to pursue a career as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). 

Fortunately, for the business world, she infuses her creative gifts in every room she enters, whether it be… 

  • Negotiating multi-million dollar merger and acquisition (M&A) deals. 
  • Serving as CFO and COO for Knix Wear — an incredible Canadian success story. 

And today, as a Partner with the Thrive Venture Fund at BDC, she plays a vital role in the $300M Fund, which invests in women-led technology companies tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues. 

Learn how your creative edge and unique skills can help you approach problems differently and offer new perspectives. 

This episode is for you if: 

  • You’re bringing business ideas to fruition with limited time and capital. 
  • You want to leverage your creative skills to diversify your income streams. 
  • You’re eager to learn fresh and abundance-focused negotiation approaches that result in win-win. 

Looking for a specific gem? 

[3:12] Mona’s origin story. 

[4:06] Learning to co-exist as a non-conformist. 

[5:20] How art has refined Mona’s creative perspectives.  

[10:13] How Mona brings various perspectives from her disciplines to every room she is in. 

[12:14] Negotiated in her own fresh way (in corporate mergers and acquisitions).  

[13:30] Mona’s value-add and what she believes helped her accelerate her career. 

[14:15] We make too many assumptions about people. How asking questions has allowed her to foster beautiful relationships. 

[15:21] What is the very first question Mona asks founders when she starts working with them? 

[19:20] CFO and COO of Knix Wear – incredible Canadian success story 

[20:40] Being multidisciplinary – I can talk to people across engineering, sales, product, and marketing. 

[27:13] How working with creative people in the media industry changed her life. 

[28:15] Bringing business ideas to life with limited time and capital. 

[32:26] Storytime: Juice bar nutrition-lover with video production side-hustle. 

[34:15] What challenges startup founders face building their businesses. 

[37:31] Being resourceful, nimble – because failure is not an option when you’re an entrepreneur. 

[38:55] Being an entrepreneur is so tough. If you don’t know your ‘why’, you don’t stand a fighting chance. 

People and Resources Mentioned in This Episode 

Connect with Mona 

LinkedIn – Mona Minhas 

Connect with BDC 

LinkedIn – BDC Capital (Canada) 

Twitter – @bdc_capital  

Naomi Haile: Mona, can you tell us how you grew up? What did you love doing as a kid? 

Mona Minhas: The humble beginnings. It’s no secret I’m a first-generation Canadian. I was born to immigrant parents. I was an only child for a long time, almost ten years. And in those early years, I began to recognize the complexity of my identity, especially in school. I was that kid who got packed fragrant lunches. And everyone snarled at them, but it comforted me. I wore my hair in braids– it was very familiar at home and in my culture and almost ritual, but not familiar at school and made me stick out. 

Reflecting, I had to learn to coexist as a nonconformist, if you will. We typically think about nonconformists as being deliberately rebellious, but I’ve always been a nonconformist, one that can also coexist with everyone else. And I think what is inherent in South Asian culture is ensuring you blend in and not cause too much disruption. That’s been a part of my DNA growing up, and we talked a little bit about this before, but creativity has always been a massive part of who I am. They’re partially born out of passion and your environment. I love music. I love art. Growing up, I could listen to music on my dad’s record player as a track machine with his old giant headphones for hours and hours. I could tell you about every single line drawn on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. And today, many years later, you can still find me doing that in my happy place. I still own a record player, and I collect vinyl. 

“Stemming from my origins, when you think about creativity and the arts, the one word that keeps coming up is possibility. Anything is possible if you imagine it. You can imagine it in your mind, on paper, in song– in so many different ways.” 

That idea of possibility always inspired me, and I was excited to imagine that things could be bigger than I had imagined. Creativity has always been a part of who I am. 

Naomi Haile: Wow, that’s probably one of the most beautiful origin stories I’ve ever heard. You’ve mentioned that maths and science were emphasised in your upbringing. How did you hold both as you went through school and ultimately decided what you wanted to study? 

Mona Minhas: One of the outcomes of being a child of immigrant parents is that they want you to be better off than they were. Moving to another country and leaving families behind is certainly not about becoming a musician or an actor or any of those things. Suppose I had a blank canvas; who knows what would have happened there? So, I was given those pathways of engineering and accounting, and what was interesting was that I wasn’t always good at school. Still, when I moved into adolescence, I started to take pride, and I talked about lifelong learning. And I was asking, “How does maths connect to English? How does English connect to science? How does science connect to world issues?” 

It was always about piecing those things together, making me enjoy almost every subject I studied. One thing I’ve maintained even to this day is when things get technical, I still stroke that creative side of me. So, even in my early days at university, I continued to take three English courses, and it wasn’t just about core English; it was about the Writer’s Craft and specific literature studies and art history. I studied many things that would stroke my imagination and help me excel in some of those other more technical studies. 

Thinking about my career path has helped me see perspectives that not everyone sees when I’m at a table. When I think about a problem, I don’t think about myself as a spectator. I often imagine myself in the arena, inside the eye of the hurricane of the problem, thinking about everything I need to think about here, stepping back out, and figuring out how to solve it. That’s been a unique way I’ve always thought about things. So, while I entered a very technical profession (and I’m super strong technically), I was thoughtful about the whole people equation.  

“When I worked in corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A), buying and selling companies, you get to walk in the room and negotiate these huge multimillion-dollar deals. One of the biggest pieces of feedback I would receive was about my unique and thoughtful negotiating strategy. 

And it was always outcome-based. I always asked, “How do we get the best deal on the table?” But my starting point was never about how we get everything we want. It was: How do we determine what the other side wants and marry it against what we want? And then create a scenario where the outcome is greater than we both want to end with.” 

And I credit that again, to some of my creative thinking and love of creativity. I loved those negotiations and deals; some of them went on for weeks and weeks and weeks. But it was always so fantastic to end that process and feel like the sum was more significant than the proverbial parts. 

The important thing is that I’ve never fit a mould, and I’ve never felt like I had to fit a mould. I’ve felt like I could sit in a chair and perform a role that (on paper) might seem really typical, but I could operate completely atypically. And that was the real value-add in terms of what helped me accelerate my career so quickly. 

Naomi Haile: Fascinating. Negotiation is about having conversations. What can we learn from your approach? Arguably, we’re negotiating daily, whether you realise it or not. And so, what have you learned about people and asking questions to get to the crux of what people really want?  

Mona Minhas: You just nailed it. When you said “asking questions”. I think you do this so well. At the heart of what you do is – you’re insightful, and you ask a lot of questions.  

As humans, we make a lot of assumptions. 

We assume that somebody wants X or Y or that since they came from a certain place, they will want to do something else next. We are guilty of making assumptions about what people want. I approach it with a lot of curiosity. 

When I talk to founders and entrepreneurs in my day job right now, one of my first questions is, “Why?”. Why did you start the business? And if they say, “The market for this product is amazing,” And “We’re solving big problems,” I say, “Hold on, hold on. No, I mean, why? Why in your heart and your mind? Was this the thing you wanted to put everything into your heart or soul? 

And what that one question unlocks is so insightful. When you ask questions, it’s amazing what people share with you because you care to ask and are curious enough to ask. Then, you think about how you can help each other. It’s an entirely different dimension around doing business that I’ve just inherently adopted. 

Naomi Haile: What was your first memory where you came into contact with business-building where you said “wow”? What was an experience when you took an idea and built it into something real? 

Mona Minhas: I would take it back to my humble beginnings. I was an articling student at PwC, a Big Four accounting firm, and it was articling to become a chartered accountant. It’s like an apprenticeship. I did everything from photocopying hundreds and hundreds of pages to two in the morning and getting the partners lunch at an Indian buffet across the street; I was doing everything. 

One day, I had my first epiphany. It was like 1:30 a.m., and I was photocopying reams and reams of paper, questioning my existence and wondering why I bothered to even go to school. I just stood there and decided to start reading the stuff I was photocopying. I asked myself “What is this stuff that I’m photocopying?” I realised it was a prospectus, which a company puts together when issuing shares on the stock exchange. 

And I asked: “What is this? How does this work?” Then I started reading everything top to bottom and began to understand how the company was telling its story to sell its shares on the public market, the journey it had undertaken, the price it was about to list its shares, the company’s value, all that stuff, which is interesting. 

As I was doing this, I realised that you can’t become a deep expert in everything in life, but you can learn a lot about different things just by making an effort to figure them out. 

“My attitude started to become, “How hard can this be to learn?” 

I won’t be a deep expert at it, but I can learn a thing or two. I went on to apply that mindset to so many of my different roles. What was interesting is that I was the CFO and COO for Knix Wear, which is a really incredible Canadian success story. When I joined Knix, you know, my job was very multifaceted. In addition to dealing with all the financial stuff, I had to help support the supply chain operations and import goods from China. 

Do you think I knew anything? Zero. I had no idea. I was out of my depth, but I looked around and realised everybody here was out of their depth too. 

And what was everyone doing? 

We’re all just like investing a ton of time to learn and figure it out. Even if it meant burning the candle at both ends, my commitment has always been to learn and figure it out and then apply it to a business context. 

To go back to your initial question, the first formative experience was about not assuming you’re not an expert in something and can’t learn something. It has allowed me to relate to different people in different functions. I can talk to people across engineering, sales, product, and marketing teams. While I don’t profess to be a niche expert, I can still talk to/understand them and hold a reasonable conversation. Coming back to that multidisciplinary thing. Anyone can do that. That’s been my biggest “aha.”  

Naomi Haile: For people who may not be in a position that demands they touch multiple functions, how can they integrate that type of thinking and approach if they’re working at a 10,000-strong organisation and are very much a cog in a company? 

Mona Minhas: Many, many years ago, I was a cog in a company, and most finance people never ventured past that area of cubicles. You just never did. And to be honest, I actually challenge that thinking. Even if you’re not on an engineering or marketing team, figure out how you can join one of their meetings once a month to learn what they’re talking about. 

Take advantage of the fact that you’re in such a large organisation and figure out whether you can join a weekly meeting, rotate through those different functional areas, absorb the strategy (i.e., when the CEO puts out strategic direction), and make it your mission to understand what these things mean, even though it’s outside of your comfort zone. You have to have a lot of initiative and an interest in self-learning. 

That’s one thing I suggest: defy the assumption that I must stay in my box. Of course, you have to keep in your box and be good at your role — no one is saying that you join another function with the intention of having five other jobs. That’s not what I’m saying, but do your job well and then figure out how you can start integrating yourself into different functions across the company if you so choose. 

If that doesn’t appeal to you, because everyone is different. Nothing is stopping you from becoming a deep domain expert at what you do if you’re passionate about it. You may be in growth marketing and love it with a passion, can’t stop thinking about it, and are results-driven. Figure out how you can become an even deeper domain expert at what you do — at your current company and across the industry– think big. That would be the other angle I would take on that question: you can be multidisciplinary or try to become a deep-domain expert in something you’re passionate about.  

Naomi Haile: Yes, it’s also exposing yourself to different arenas because, at the end of the day, whether you see the connection or not, they all connect. And it’s really powerful to take a bird’s-eye view while being in the thick of what you’re exceptional at. 

Mona Minhas: What you’re describing is like travel. It’s such a privilege to be able to travel. And many people choose not to, and they think there’s nothing for me to see. But what you’re talking about, Naomi, is a lot like learning a different language, thinking about a different culture, observing those things, and asking how I respect this. I liken a lot of what you’re saying to travel. 

Naomi Haile: I’ve been fascinated by what’s happening in the gig economy. I think we glossed over this in this interview, but you also spent some time in the media industry working in entertainment alongside content creators, producers, and actors. What did it mean to be in that space at that time? 

Mona Minhas: Creatives are a unique breed of people. And sometimes, part of you is extremely creative. And you want to feel like anything, and everything is possible. That’s a basic tenet of being in that industry. You want to be able to play and paint a clean canvas daily; you want to freelance, and only some business people can work effectively with that. Personally, I love that energy. Even if I can’t work like that all the time. I thrive being around that energy. 

Ironically, working with creative people meant being creative because it meant figuring out their visions and bringing them to life within business realities. That takes a lot of innovative thinking. Parameters like finances– you only have so much money to work with. It means supporting their journeys and figuring out how to develop flexible parameters. It means speaking their language. 

My superpower is identifying with them a lot. I think I was able to do that because I was inspired by them, inspired by their courage, and inspired by their vision. 

And today, as I work with all these amazing entrepreneurs, they’re also dreaming up incredible visions around how they can advance some of the world’s biggest problems. There’s a real parallel to what’s helped me effectively work with them because I continue to be inspired by them. In the last few years, I’ve been figuring out how to make their business realities come to life within these parameters. For instance, you only have so much money, and you only have so much cash, and you only have so much time. I think that was a really important part of my journey working with creatives– them resonating with me and me resonating with them. 

Naomi Haile: For the people who are not blessed to have you as an advisor and are dreaming up ideas, what are the important considerations for building a business around their skills?  

Mona Minhas: First of all, it takes courage to do that. It’s easy to be in a nine-to-five job with a lot of drudgery that’s paying you steadily where you might be doing reasonably well, but your heart is not on fire. You get up every morning and ask, “Is it Friday yet?” It’s easy, and many people need to do that for a bunch of practical reasons, and that’s fine. Not everyone can decide to venture off on their own.  

But just as you said, with the gig economy today, what’s super interesting is you can pursue multiple avenues and passions. And sometimes, it takes little capital. I brought up the example, which is purely illustrative of that growth marketing idea. Let’s say you’re a fantastic growth marketer. 

“Nothing is stopping you from going out and deciding to hang out your own shingle and start working with a bunch of companies on something you’re good at.” 

But simultaneously, you might be into baking. Maybe you want a baking business. And I think this idea of “I don’t know what I’m good at, but I know what I love” is stepping back and brainstorming all the things that make you passionate. You don’t have to immediately come up with a business idea around all of them; start with one thing. Start with one thing and do more of it; do a little more every day, and maybe it becomes a business idea, or it doesn’t. It could be something you pursue as a hobby.  

More and more, I’m meeting so many people who have three or four side hustles because they love doing it, as well as all the people they meet.  

There’s this incredible woman with amazing energy who works at a juice bar around the corner from me, and I see her early in the morning. And we have this incredible energy exchange at the beginning of the week. She told me the other day, “I started doing video production. I love producing videos. I never imagined I would do it, and it started as a hobby. And then someone asked me if I wanted to do an event. And now I’ve got three customers, and I’m up all night trying to figure out how to do this.” And I stood there, so filled with excitement and energy, that I could see that she was so stoked about it.  

And that’s a perfect example. She works at the juice bar during the day because she’s passionate about health and nutrition. And then, by night, she’s this video producer. Pursuing multiple avenues is important. Also, just because you decide to pursue a “gig” doesn’t mean you’re married to that idea for the next ten years. You can do it as long as it makes you excited and happy. And then maybe there’s another thing that happens after that, and we’re afraid of starting things on the gig economy because we feel there has to be a huge commitment that goes alongside that. And that’s not necessarily true. 

Naomi Haile: Yeah. And I can already hear the individuals saying that only some people are suited to start their own business and everything. And I understand and appreciate both sides. But now, it is a particularly challenging climate where even what we consider the most stable industries or sectors are also laying off many people – from government to tech. And so, I’m a proponent of “it’s just a practical thing to do” to have multiple sources of income and how you can be a little bit more creative in what you’re working on. 

Mona Minhas: And there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you have three gigs and love one and maybe not so much love for the other two, that’s okay. 

Naomi Haile: Today, as a partner of BDC Capital’s Thrive Venture Fund, you invest in companies solving significant challenges in the world. What are some of the biggest challenges you’re seeing founders grapple with, and what have been some of the most interesting problems you’ve helped them overcome? 

Mona Minhas: I feel privileged to have been doing this for several years and working with many founders. As you can imagine, these entrepreneurs are incredible visionaries; they’re scientists, engineers, business leaders… And they have so much courage and vision to be thinking about groundbreaking innovation, right? And I’m really, really humbled to work with them. There are a lot of complex aspects to the job, like helping founders figure out how to raise capital and what it means to raise capital, how to solve some pretty hairy problems in their businesses, and figuring out (sometimes) how to pivot. 

They might have been in the wrong space and need to figure out how to pivot and potentially start all over again, which is super scary. And so, figuring out how to hurdle all those things is super interesting. You know, not everyone does. 

With the Thrive venture fund, because we invest in women-led companies, knowing that less than 3% of all venture capital is going into women-led companies means understanding that the work I do every day is not like a light switch flips on and suddenly that 3% becomes 50%. 

The work we’re doing has a tiny, incremental impact, it’s not a big splash. And that can be discouraging sometimes. Knowing that it’s about every single day, teeny tiny steps, not one big thing. 

One of the biggest challenges I see is that founders have so much at stake. They’ve made so many sacrifices, some of them have taken loans out on their homes, they forgo income for several years to finance their businesses. And despite all those best intentions, their businesses don’t perform or survive. And that’s just the statistic when you’re in that early stage. And watching that happen is hard– sometimes you may have the most amazing product, but it’s not the right timing, not knowing how to get it to market effectively, not having the right team. Sometimes it’s the opposite. You can have all those things, but just don’t have a product that can do that. 

The hairiest situations I’ve been involved in are when companies are minutes away from running out of cash, and you look around the room… 

You realise you’re not even able to pay all these people in this room, and so many people depend on this company’s survival right now. And then you go into crazy high gear to figure out who can we start calling? 

Let’s get on the phone, start calling people to put some money into this business, let’s come up with a plan simultaneously on how to strip this product down to the bare bones so we can sell it to a single customer that’s going to help the company survive for another three months and then let’s come up with the next plan. 

“It’s being resourceful, thinking on your feet, being nimble, picking up the phone and calling people because failure is not an option.” 

When you’re a founder and entrepreneur, you don’t go into it to fail, but you must maintain that “failure is not an option” mindset throughout. 

As a partner to these businesses. I sort of feel like we need to mirror that same mindset. 

Naomi Haile: You just took us on a roller coaster. I think having a strong why is so important. 

Mona Minhas: I can tell you that if you don’t attach yourself to a bigger “why”… because 90% of the days suck. It’s so glamorised. The narrative is: “I’m a startup founder, oh my it’s amazing! I’m on a conference panel. And I’m in this article” but most days are so hard – so, so, so, so hard. 

If you don’t attach yourself to a bigger “why”, for instance, because you love the customer you’re aiming to serve, love the market you’re in, or leave a huge social impact, you don’t stand a fighting chance. 

“I couldn’t agree more, attaching yourself to a bigger “why” imperative.” 

Naomi Haile: Mona, you’re also a mother of two, and I’m sure with the founders that you partner with and advise, everything that’s encompassed in somebody’s life is not just cast aside. I’m curious to know what you’ve navigated personally and what conversations have been in your circle around parenthood and managing this incredible career that you’ve built. 

Mona Minhas: I feel like I can’t espouse a lot of wisdom here because I don’t think I’ve figured it out yet. 

It’s a long game. I can say there’s no such thing as a perfect balance. 

I used to tell myself, maybe I can carve out a certain schedule and certain hours every day. For a portion of my time, I focus on motherhood and a portion of my time, I focus on work. I’ve tried everything, but inevitably, it never works consistently, especially when you’re someone where your career is really important, and you have lots of pulls on you. I realised that the best word for me was not balance but the word harmony. 

And harmony happens over a long period, not in a given day or week. Sometimes work fully takes the front seat, and that’s okay. And then sometimes my family takes the full front seat, and that’s okay. I guess I’ve learned to step back and say overall over the last one month, two months, three months, am I feeling that word harmony? If yes, great. If not, okay, what isn’t working here. That’s been my approach. 

There are some days when I constantly feel guilty about prioritising one thing over the other, which is a no-win situation. So, I’ve learned to step back and evaluate how I feel over time. 

Naomi Haile: I’m curious: what is people’s biggest misconception about you? 

Mona Minhas: I’m going to go back to what I said earlier because of my pedigree and background in business and finance. When people meet me, they think she’s going to be a hard ass and very serious, very technical, cold and robotic. When people meet or get to know me, they realise the opposite couldn’t be more accurate. I bring a lot of empathy into what I do.  

I bring the word human into the equation around what I do. 

Naomi Haile: What is something happening across the industry or in your industry that you are keeping your eye on right now? 

Mona Minhas: One thing that is right in our backyard is how generative AI will radically transform how we live. It’s been incredible how much it’s changed in just the last 12 to 18 months. 

The idea that filmmakers can make short movies now with a single prompt really blows my mind. Authors can write an entire novel with a single command. We’ve talked about music and art and all those things that will dramatically change as we know it. And in the industry I’m in, as we think about innovation and transformation and big changes in the world, we can keep our eye on that. And we’re talking in a few years, not dozens and dozens of years away. 

Naomi Haile: Every time I ask that question, AI comes up. What is the best place for people to connect with you online? 

Mona Minhas: Oh, super. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It was a great conversation. Folks can reach out to me on LinkedIn if they would like to. I’m happy to respond there. 

Naomi Haile: Thank you for listening. We will catch you in the next episode. 

A profile picture of smiling Naomi Haile, Talent Strategy Consultant & Podcast Host - who's standing in front of a light blue background.

Naomi Haile, Talent Strategy Consultant & Podcast Host

A human capital professional and inclusion strategy expert, Naomi Haile understands people. With 7+ years of experience spanning international tax compliance at the Canadian federal government and consulting at specialized boutique firms, Naomi leverages data about how people interact with systems and filters them through her unique lens to build responsible organizations. Using innovative design thinking strategies, she works with executives and their high-performing teams to co-create sustainable solutions for even the most complex of human capital challenges.

Currently, she is a Senior Talent Strategist, Office of the CEO, at WritersBlok, a white-glove ghostwriting agency that helps business leaders, celebrities, executives, politicians, and athletes turn their personal stories into brand assets. In addition to her consulting work, Naomi is the producer and host of the rising Power of Why Podcast (which boasts over 30K downloads and 200 active monthly listeners), where she interviews top global and local industry leaders. Most notably, her recent interview with Netflix’s Chief of Human Resources Officer was featured on Business Insider.

An avid traveler, Naomi has explored over 25 cities and 11 countries, and loves to connect with new cultures through her passion for food. When she’s not monitoring her investment watchlists, she is boxing or enjoying a Broadway show.

Invest Ottawa
Invest Ottawa, is Ottawa’s leading economic development agency for fostering the advancement of the region's globally competitive knowledge-based institutions and industries. Invest Ottawa delivers its economic development services through a unique partnership with the City of Ottawa, where the City and Invest Ottawa, through its members set the strategy and manage the programs that move Ottawa’s economy forward. Invest Ottawa is a non-profit, partnership organization that operates on an annual budget that comes from a variety of sources including: municipal, federal and provincial government; membership fees; professional development programs; and private sector contributions.

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