Diana Olsen, founder, president, and chief design officer of Balzac’s Coffee Roasters’, hosted 50 of Waterloo region’s most successful women for a unique celebration of women empowering women. The event was moderated by Melissa Durrell, president of Durrell Communications, and eventually opened up to an Q&A with the audience of entrepreneurs.
As the founder of one of Canada’s top growing companies, Olsen started her business in 1996 to empower other women entrepreneurs, visionaries and business owners.
Olsen said she had an early appreciation for coffee and where it came from.
“I was one of the few people that actually knew where coffee came from because nobody really knew that coffee came from a tree and that it’s the seed of a cherry and it gets roasted,” Olsen said.
“People didn’t ask those questions back then. So I just had a keen interest in it.”
Olsen explained that when she first started her company, her gender didn’t discourage her from entering a male-dominated industry.
“When I first started Balzac’s, gender didn’t really cross my mind,” she said. “It wasn’t until later in my career that I felt somehow my gender did affect some of the things that were going on in my business life.”
Olsen described how navigating a business presented unique challenges as a woman, including banks hesitating to give her loans, and being excluded from coffee events. She explained that she had organized the night as a space to share their individual journeys they had faced in their professional lives as women.
“I think we should be allowed to do this; you know, we need this time. There’s something going on here and we need to be able to speak openly and not feel like we’re going to be judged, sometimes you need your sisters to support you.”
Mara Ashby, veterinarian and owner of Carriage Crossing Animal Hospital, was in attendance and echoed Olsen’s message.
“I think there’s a lot to be learned from [gatherings like these] it’s always great to see other women succeed in business,” she said.
Olsen went on to encourage women to wear their titles proudly.
“Really, I was the first CEO [of Balzac’s], I just never called myself a CEO. All of you women who own your own business should call yourself a CEO, because you know, you are. Don’t be afraid to call yourself a CEO because it means the person who’s basically running the company.”
Annmarie Bordin-Kuch, Sweetwater Property real estate coach and real estate investor, enjoyed hearing about women’s business experiences similar to hers.
“Having my own business for eight years definitely it has a lot of challenges, and to learn all of the things you need to learn can be very challenging, so to hear her story and how she’s been so successful. I really find it inspiring to hear challenges and how she works through them, it’s very helpful,” she said. “I thought [the night] was fantastic. It’s really nice to see Diana so down to earth and approachable and so calm, and I love how integral she is and how true to her company and how personally attached she is.”
Olsen is also partnered with Arlene Dickinson, who invested in Balzac’s when Olsen went on Dragon’s Den in 2012. With a team comprised of 70 per cent women, Olsen said a key to being a good leader is to work with the right people.
“The secret to good leadership is to surround yourself with good people that really do your job for you,” she said. “When I opened the second cafe, I realized right away, I can’t be both places at once. They need to survive without you and you need to empower your team.”
After Olsen discussed her journey in growing a thriving business, the floor opened up for an Q&A.
Asked by a guest, ‘how do you go as a woman keeping your brand true?’ Olsen emphasized the importance of maintaining a work-life balance.
“I feel it’s really important – I know when you first start out you have to pull those long hours, but it’s really important to have a life outside of work, you’re not doing your company any favours if you’re not taking care of yourself healthwise.” Olsen said.
Near the end of the Q&A, “It can be hard to speak with a voice of authority as a woman, dealing with male landlords and business partners.” one guest commented.
“Wear your bitch proudly — it’s actually called being assertive. For some reason in women, when we’re assertive, it’s considered aggressive. It’s not ladylike, “I’ve been for sure called a bitch, many times. But, whatever, I’m just doing what I need to do to protect my turf, my business, and hey, men do it all the time, they don’t get the same treatment. What’s the male version of a bitch? Just a man. That’s a word I think women need to appropriate and make it a compliment.”
Olsen ended the night by congratulating the attendees on their accomplishments that had brought them there, and sent each guest home with a gift bag of Balzac’s merchandise, elaborating on the beautiful pattern that adorned the mug and tea towel.
“You’ll see there’s a coffee plant, there’s a french pot, there’s a quill pen with a little ink bottle. Balzac himself wrote with quill pens, referencing the name, and there’s the espresso portafilter, and a little terra cotta plant,” Olsen described of the pattern. “[The woman who designed it] went to the Kingston cafe, sat there, and came up with this pattern. I didn’t say anything about the company. I didn’t say any of the things that represent us. She nailed it.”
Olsen enjoys her time outside of her business visiting antique markets and spending time in her refurbished dream home with her husband.
Next year, Balzac’s has plans to open four new cafes.