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Should Susan Chalmers-Gauvin be in the JA Business Hall of Fame?
In my Brunswick News column this week, I make the case that on its 20th anniversary the Atlantic Ballet is not just a performing arts success it is a case study in entrepreneurship. If you don’t have a subscription, I will repost the original column on these pages in the near future.
I have studied entrepreneurship for nearly 30 years and if you study the elements of the Atlantic Ballet story they come together as a very interesting example of successful entrepreneurship. And the entrepreneur at the core of this is Susan Chalmers-Gauvin (SCG).
First, she had a crazy idea, no money and no initial capacity to implement. That sounds like the story line for many successful entrepreneurs.
She went out and found a partner with the subject matter needed to advance the crazy idea (Igor).
She went out and hustled initial investors (business leaders, philanthropists, etc.) and got them to be ‘early-stage’ investors. Sure, this is not ‘investment’ in the balance sheet sense of that term but it is ‘investment’ in the idea.
She was told by many the idea would never work. “You cannot build a professional ballet company in a backwater”.
She did it anyway.
She went through many business and financial valleys along the way - how many successful entrepreneurs have not? The Company was at death’s door - and rose again.
She was innovative. She had to pivot the business plan on multiple occasions. They build an export-focused model and then moved into social impact focusing the lens within the province to expand New Brunswickers’ interest and appreciation of the performing arts. The Company deliberately expanded the audience by performing in schools, on the street and, check YouTube if you don’t believe me, at the Hopewell Rocks.
Of course, the most significant pivot of all came from the COVID-19 pandemic. When almost all other performing arts companies in Canada hunkered down, the ever-restless Susan rolled up her sleeves. Atlantic Ballet created an innovative outdoor performance series called “Ballet by the Ocean” allowing a few moments of joy during a troubled time that has now become a tourism pillar for the Company. They also expanded into the online realm and innovative tech tools to support the performing arts sector across the country.
Sure, she raised funds from government cultural funding sources. Good on her. Most of that funding would have never found its way into New Brunswick or the arts here without the tenacity and determination of SCG.
Finally, if you actually look at the results, the case is sealed. According to Statistics Canada’s Business Counts, as of June 2021, there are only seven cities in Canada with a professional dance company that have as many employees as the Atlantic Ballet: Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie and Moncton, New Brunswick. How many other NB Hall of Fame inductees built a firm/organization that was among the top in their industry across the entire country? Some yes, many no.
Should we exclude SCG because her company is in the performing arts? Why? Is manufacturing more legitimate? I would argue that arts and culture matter a lot to the quality of life of a local community and I would also argue that culture is particularly important in the rise of Atlantic Canada’s urban centres as they compete for talent with other cities across the world
Should we exclude SCG because her company is a not-for-profit? You could argue the opposite. She took on substantial personal and financial risk and faced many of the same hurdles as other entrepreneurs without the potential monetary payoff of a successful exit. She and Igor weren’t in it for the money - just for the satisfaction of building something of value.
After 20 years of success, I think the case for a JA NB Hall of Fame induction is strong.