Startup to Startup: A Conversation with Mary Aitken

As the principal partner of Solutia SDO, Jackie Clark has had a front seat watching tech transform business in Canada and is proud to have managed the people behind the technology that’s transformed businesses across Canada. This seasoned leader has been leaping in for over 20 years with teams at Solutia SDO to break down the barriers standing in the way of success. She’s now using these talents to give back to the tech industry that’s offered her so many opportunities by helping to attract more talented next generation female entrepreneurs to tech.  In this regular column called Startup to Startup she showcases female innovators who are leading startups and the impact they are making in opening doors for other women in the tech sector.  Jackie enjoys hearing from readers. Please leave a comment or suggest a female entrepreneur to profile.  Tweet Jackie @sdosolutia.

Mary Aitken, CEO Verity Club

First job: Trainee investment analyst

Favourite quote: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

Hobby: Boating in Greece

Guilty Pleasure: Pre-dinner champagne or anytime

Jackie: Mary, if we can just start by asking why you became an entrepreneur?

Mary: Well, I wish I could say it was more of a thoughtful course of action but I had just come back from the UK and found myself going through a divorce with two small children, and a house that I needed to rent out to generate income. One of my tenants worked for a national courier company. Since my own work experience was in finance, I said, ”Well, why don’t we do something together?  I’ll raise the money and we’ll start an in-town courier operation.” Canada Post was on strike at that time. The runway was clear for new courier services. So we did it and sold it four years later, I’m happy to say.  That was my first entrepreneurial venture – I’m now up to six altogether!

Jackie: Okay, so you’re an old hand at this.

Mary: Definitely old. But still lots to learn.

Jackie: No not old – experienced and mature! So you saw an opportunity you grabbed it and I assume that your next five ventures were similar? You identified a need and filled it. You took it on.

Mary: That’s correct. In the courier company, I hired mostly men. We had 120 cars in Toronto, and then we expanded to Ottawa and Montreal, and it again was mostly male couriers. Our client list was focused on the courier needs of large companies.  The work was delivering to large companies. So we would pre-sell the service in bulk booklets and it was doing well …..okay, I’ll tell you what really made us successful – we hired really attractive looking men in uniforms who wore short pants. They’d deliver around the downtown area often to the receptionists (virtually all were young women then) at large investment banks and so forth. The receptionists liked what they saw and would always call us back again. They would often lose the prepaid package of waybills and have to reorder which was a bit of a bonus for us!

Jackie: Great marketing strategy – know your audience and hire good looking men!

Mary: There were a few other ventures along the way. And then when I was still in the financial business, I started my current company which manages the Verity Club, which is private. Along with Verity, are three other separate businesses: a restaurant, George; a hotel, The Ivy at Verity; and a women’s spa, Sweetgrass Spa which are also open to the public for business. The Verity Club is a social enterprise and is at the heart of the whole thing. It’s a turnabout because I’m now running something that is all about women. And it was something that was really, really important to me. This is the biggest of my ventures and it’ll be the last.

Jackie: That’s amazing. Tell us about the network of friends and peers you were able to draw on for support and encouragement.

Mary:  My network was fundamental in setting up this business. I wanted to do something really substantial. I wanted to give back. I wanted to create something of real social value.   And I thought of all my years in the financial business, how difficult it was being a woman, shut out of a lot of meetings and deals. And I thought, there needs to be a women’s club so other women will have an easier time of it than I had. So that’s when I decided to leave the financial business. I had made some money so I started to look for the kind of space I needed.  I needed a large building but I needed to use my capital to furnish and open the place. So I decided to rent the premises on a long term basis rather than buy a building  And I also needed members to sign on before anything could begin because no way a landlord would ever turn over 50,000+ square feet on a long lease for such a new venture without having great confidence in its success.  So I called up women that I knew in the financial business, in fact in every industry, and every woman I knew that I thought would be a great addition to the club.  And 150 women joined – sight unseen.  There was a building I was negotiating on but essentially only a business plan and an idea. And I was asking them for $6,500 to go into a blind trust, of which I would be the sole trustee. And 150 women did that. And they are the Founding Members of Verity.  We started to build and six months later, the club opened.  So did my friends, acquaintances, and peers help me establish this business? In essence my network?  Absolutely!

Jackie: Wow. That’s amazing. You really sold it. I mean, your passion and the trust and respect they had for you in particular made it happen. And that happens to women all the time right now at Verity.

Mary: I think it was mostly about a real need, Jackie. I think that women really felt that Verity would provide them with the network they very badly needed.  They needed a club, a place to broaden their lives, a place for mentoring or helping each other, for exchanging business information, providing support, solving family challenges, all of that. So I guess they trusted me, but all along, they knew deep down that this was the right thing for women at that time.

Jackie: That’s amazing Mary. So at that point, then there were no other women’s clubs in Toronto. Is that correct?

Mary: That’s correct. So it was definitely an opportunity to provide something just for women. There are lots of men’s clubs – I used to work across the street from one and I watched the fellows piling in there and doing a ton of business. That’s where the deals were put together. And now deals are put together by women at Verity. Amazing things happen within Verity’s walls.

Jackie: Tell us about how that worked. You were basically creating an opportunity for other women to get together, network and conduct business. As a female, how did you approach building your brand?

Mary: Well, I never really thought about building a brand. It was always about building a community. I don’t come from a marketing background. But what I did do was to spend time considering the needs of the market I was serving. And I guess they were based on a lot on the needs that I’ve had personally over the years in a number of businesses in a number of industries.  Plus, I had the good fortune of these 150 founding members who would help steer me through the process of building Verity’s network. That was 17 years ago.  But since then the initial goals and ideas have become a brand of sorts. Our target has been to provide excellence in the services we offer and I hope that this is what the brand now stands for. But what I had determined, rightly or wrongly, and I guess time will tell, was that we weren’t going to advertise, we were going to build this club in the old fashioned way, by word of mouth. Women would invite their friends and business associates and there would be a common purpose. It wasn’t about some socially pretentious idea, and indeed, the goal from the start was to bring together a highly diversified group of Canadian women leaders or women destined to be. All with the emphasis on diversity. It was about women who wanted to give back and share information and be out there in a way that was constructive. And in a way that that both promoted women but also dealt with the challenges women face running between work and home juggling the sharp demands of work and family.   I worried at the start that the membership, or the brand if you will, might not be sufficiently diversified. But that has worked out well. We have women who work in large organizations like banks and hospitals, women in most of the professions, in not for profit cultural and charitable organizations, in government, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, and university professors.

Jackie: Mary you are an extremely successful businesswoman. What advice do you have for other women who might be also considering taking on an entrepreneurial venture?

Mary: Well, in starting up a business, I believe, and I feel pretty strongly about this, you must have enough capital.  And even if you think you have enough, you’re most likely going to need two or three times more. Over the years I’ve met over coffee with many people who want to start a business. And I always tell them, go back at your financial model and raise way more money than you think you need.  Assume that pretty well everything will go wrong with your incoming assumptions.  And if you can’t raise it, have a backstop, have someone who you can go to because running out of capital is how businesses fail.  Another important thing, your business will need is a workforce. It’s tough to hire the right people for the right position. I found that challenging. The people you choose are going to be responsible for helping you build your business so take your time to get it right. HR mistakes are costly in more than just financial outcomes.

Jackie: You have alluded to the fact that that you want to help others achieve the same success you have. How are you going about that? What are you doing personally through your businesses, to help others who want to move in a different direction, who want to, overlook some of the problems that you had and be as successful as possible as quickly?

Mary: Well, that’s really what the club is designed to do, Jackie. It’s designed to help women through their careers to find their way and most importantly, to have access to the kind of network we have here. Mastermind, which is our formal mentoring program, is a good example of what we do.  It’s the backbone. Some people are here for the social aspects of the club – using the facilities and meeting rooms and attending the various special interest clubs within the Club, and so forth. But to have the ability to be part of a mentoring network – to speak candidly and in a trusting environment about what’s on your mind – that’s rare! But just as important, as a member, you can informally talk to other members. This way, you get experienced advice on virtually any business problem from people from every industry, every background, every age.  This informal process produces epiphanies of understanding where lives are changed, challenges met, and seemingly insurmountable problems clarified. And this happens every day at Verity. Networking is critically important for women particularly because it’s not always easy to receive assistance in the workplace. And this just naturally happens here when members get together. Because, I think that as women, we’re just naturally helpful. We want to help each other. We want to provide advice. So it’s our pleasure to help someone who’s kind of stuck in a position or not sure what to do, how to expand, how to wind down, whatever advice is needed.

Jackie: Thanks Mary I really enjoyed our discussion. We’ll look forward to talking with you more about how to connect with the women that we are talking to over the course of these conversations in Startup to Startup.






Jackie Clark
Jackie Clark
Program and change management expert in digital and data transformation, and technology system reengineering.

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