3 Inspirational Canadian Entrepreneurs

What do a school, a safety kit and a health food company all have in common? They were all the creations of Canadians who dared to dream. 

3 Inspirational Canadian Entrepreneurs

Dream School

One day in 1981, Ontario teachers Joanne McLean and Wendy Derrick (who were 35 and 41 at the time), began sharing stories and discovered that they had similar notions of what the ideal school would be.

/“If I ever had my own school,” McLean said, “it would have only small classes, so every child could get all the attention he or she needs.”

“If we could have teachers who were specialists in their subjects,” said Derrick, “a math teacher who is passionate about math, or an art teacher, or a science teacher…”

“And drama classes for even the very youngest students,” McLean finished her friend’s sentence.

Their wish list gave them a blueprint to get started. A year later they rented a church basement in Port Credit, Ont., across the street from a library and next to a park. With help from relatives and friends, they built and painted room dividers, bought second-hand desks and haunted garage sales for good used books. To finance the project, they pooled $12,000 from their own savings.

Finally, in the fall of 1982, the two women stood before a class of 15 students, aged six to 12. Fern Hill School was officially open.

Fast forward to September 13, 1999-17 years to the day from the opening of the first school. The two campuses have approximately 60 staff members, 550 students and an annual tuition fee ranging from $8500-$17,500. Parents wait eagerly for openings, hoping to put their children into a learning environment where excellence is the standard.

Putting It All on the Line

In 1991, 33-year-old Michael Joyce of Markham, Ont., felt like celebrating. He had just received his first big order for the auto safety kit with which he hoped to build a business. He had spent two years and $15,000 developing and marketing the kits and Kraft General Foods had just ordered 650 of them for their travelling sales representatives.

Sure that his business was about to take off, Joyce went to see his banker. “I need financing to buy supplies to fill the order,” he said. “Can you help me?”/

“What can you offer as collateral?” the banker asked. Joyce had no collateral-only the purchase order. The banker turned him down.

With no other options, Joyce withdrew his savings, liquidated everything he could and took out a second mortgage on the family home. Flush enough to buy supplies, he put the kits together in his garage, backed a five-ton truck up to the door and made the delivery.

The idea for the kit had come to Joyce at Christmas in 1989, when he walked into a store looking for a gift for his father-in-law. He thought of an auto safety kit, but nothing he saw impressed him.

What do people really need if they are in a road emergency, he wondered. He thought of the kit as having four categories and developed pieces for each first-aid supply:

  • Visibility aids-flashlights, signal cones and flares;
  • Warmth and safety items-blankets and rain ponchos;
  • Auto-breakdown equipment-tow-ropes, booster cables and water for an overheated radiator.

Creating a high-quality auto safety kit became Joyce’s mission.

In 1994, Joyce faced another crisis. He needed a major retail customer. Within 24 hours a kit was on the buyer’s desk and two Canadian Tire would place a large order for the Justin Case auto safety kit.

Fifteen years later Joyce is still in business producing kits under the Trek Safe brand, with Costco, Sears and Kmart among his accounts. He sold his original company to Bag Designs Inc., which continues to manufacture and sell over 100 Justin Case products.

A Values-Based Business

One day in the early 1980s, Rick Kulow, 57, was driving home from his job in the inventory department of a Massachusetts company that manufactured missiles. He thought: ‘This job just doesn’t feel right. I’d rather be doing something to help people.’

Kulow began by searching for the right product, one that led him to Saskatchewan-and to borage oil. Borage oil comes from the seeds of the borage or starflower plant and contains a fatty acid called gamma linolenic acid (GLA). Research indicates that GLA reduces blood pressure, corrects high cholesterol levels, reduces stiffness and joint pain, and prevents nerve damage in diabetics.

/As Kulow learned more about GLA, he thought about harvesting and producing borage oil himself. One night he broached the subject with his wife, Jane. “Borage oil is the richest known source of GLA in the world,” he told her, “and one of the best places to grow the starflower is the Canadian Prairie. How would you like to move there?”

Jane liked the idea, and in January 1993 the couple moved to Saskatoon. Kulow started Bioriginal Food & Science Corp. in a business community where his name was unknown.

Today, Bioriginal is a multimillion-dollar industry leader, chosen for numerous business, entrepreneurial and innovation awards. In response to the growing demand for natural-plant products, it processes oils high in essential fatty acids from a variety of sources, including borage, evening primrose, black currant, flax and pumpkin, supplied by more than 300 growers. People on six continents use his natural-plant products.