“Dad, are you proud of me?”
It was the question I remember asking after every report card, piano exam, anything that felt like a “win.” The answer from my dad was always the same. “Michele, of course we’re proud, but you have to be doing this for yourself. We are very happy for you, not proud of you.” My 8-year-old self was unimpressed. My 31-year-old self can see the wisdom in his words now.
My parents did not give me their dreams; they fostered an environment for me to create my own from our bungalow in Regina, Sask. My father, Marvin Romanow, grew up in a tiny farmhouse in Canora, a town of 2,200 people in eastern Saskatchewan. He was an engineer who had worked his way up to become the CEO of a $20-billion oil company by 50—so I always felt I had big shoes to fill, but I wanted to step out and make it on my own.
I’m the eldest child, followed by two sisters and a brother. In our house, there were never any “boy” jobs or “girl” jobs, there was only work to be done. Looking back, I realize that I did lots of “boy” tasks: changing tires every season, helping change oil for the lawn mower—then mowing the lawn—and shovelling the driveway every day in the winter (and it snows a lot in Saskatchewan!). That said, I also helped my mom cook dinners, learned to do my own laundry at 12 and babysat my younger siblings often.
Working with my dad taught me that no task was beneath me. Throughout my entrepreneurial career I’ve had so many unglamorous moments from catching fish in New Brunswick to packaging thousands of items during our first Buytopia Christmas season. I just rolled up my sleeves and did what needed to be done because my dad taught me that successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do.
Growing up, I remember when I wanted more things from my parents, I had to learn the art of negotiation. Like that I time in grade six when I wanted to push my bedtime past 9 p.m. Before my parents would agree to it, they had me do a survey to get the average bedtime of my classmates. My dad gave me a cue card to track my classmates’ names and corresponding bedtimes, and I filled it in with information from 10 of my fellow students. Much to my dismay, all of my friends had earlier bedtimes than I did. Despite the evidence, I still argued I should go to bed later. This was one of the countless negotiations I had with my dad. I didn’t win, but I now see what I gained. In that exchange, he taught me a strategy for negotiation: collect data, create arguments, and fiercely defend my position—skills that later came in handy as I learned to grow and scale companies.
Not only did my dad make me business savvy before I could even ride a bike, he also helped me understand the value of a dollar before I had any money to my name. Instead of an allowance where I received $1 per week in cash, my father created an allowance book (i.e. my first “savings” account). We would add my weekly allowance to the balance in this ledger, and subtract anything I bought that week. He would record everything from a toy to candy or a movie ticket. The numbers I was playing with back then were much smaller, but the lessons he taught me with that allowance book still add up—like when I catch entrepreneurs on CBC’s Dragons’ Den spouting numbers that just don’t work, or when I now make solid investment decisions.
My dad worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot for our family. For most of his 30+ year career, my dad’s work schedule was unforgiving: he was out of the house by 6 a.m. and home by 9:55 p.m. for the evening news at 10 p.m. Sometimes he missed a volleyball game, or came in late to a piano recital, but my incredible mother stepped in and gave us that extra love and support.
As an entrepreneur, I finally understood the struggle of my dad’s sacrifice. Starting and building a company came with many sacrifices—I missed birthday parties, disregarded my health, neglected my friends and was constantly 10 minutes behind (I’m usually still late). I talked to my dad about this, especially when times got tough, and he always encouraged me to sneak in a little extra sleep and reminded me that stressful periods would ebb and flow. He showed me that building a big dream sometimes takes sacrifice, but also helped me make sure I wasn’t sacrificing too much along the way.
My dad is happily retired now. He still maintains his pace mentoring students at the University of Saskatchewan, serving on boards and playing all the golf he missed out on in his working days—and now mostly passes on advice on how to not work too hard!
I asked my dad the other day if he was proud of me (old habits die hard), and he said the same thing he said to me 25 years ago, “Michele, you achieved your success on your own. I am very happy for you, not proud of you.”