Startup to Startup: A Conversation with Pamela Shainhouse

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.

Pamela Shainhouse, Founder and President, The Shainhouse Group

First job: My first paid job in business was at the Heart and Stroke Foundation Toronto Office as their media and public relations officer. This literally was my first job ever and I was in my 30’s
Favourite Quote:  It is what a man thinks of himself that really determines his fate (Henry David Thoreau)  I can add “woman” in the quote in the same manner
Hobby:  I play the piano, or should I say used to play it very well. Now I am starting from the beginning once again, hoping that I will remember. I also love to knit and needlepoint. Can I call going up to my cottage my most favourite hobby?
Business Hero: I would say that Emme would be one of my business heroines. She literally started the world of plus-size market as the first plus-size model. She is a remarkable woman who I am so happy can call a friend.
Guilty Pleasure: Do I really have to answer this question? I really do not have one because if I want something, I do not feel any guilt.
Mentors: Mary Lou Luther ( famous fashion journalist, just entered her 90th year) Lesley Parrott (mentors me through living with the loss of a child) Emme, Lauren Chan (Founder of Clothing company Henning), Vicki Bradley (who we both know well)


Jackie: What can entrepreneurs and small business owners do to support their networks during this time?

Pamela: It’s important for entrepreneurs and business owners to remember where they came from and the support they received from their networks when they were first starting out. I have an open door when it comes to helping others with questions or in need of other types of support.  I believe it’s important to be a mentor to others – especially now living with this pandemic. We have no idea what’s going to happen as we move forward. None. It’s going to be a new normal for all of us. So if you can be out there to mentor one or two people, I think  that is so important. I’ve been running my own businesses for 35 years.  I’m aging myself here, but during those years, I’ve picked up a lot of experience. I’ve fallen flat on my face, and I’ve gotten back up. And a lot of people are falling down right now. But they’re going to come back up. We all need to give as much encouragement as we can to help them get back up. I think that’s vital.

Jackie: That’s great Pamela. So, do you actually have a formal process in place to provide mentoring or is it basically anyone who reaches out, gets your time.

Pamela: First of all, I have to be careful to manage my time. I need to be able to sleep and eat – although eating is never something I’ve had trouble finding time for!

Jackie: Hah! Join the club!

Pamela: I don’t have a formal process when it comes to mentoring or coaching. If people reach out – and I can help them – I will try to find time to make it happen. If someone is starting out in fashion or launching a brand and wants to understand more about the work I do in an inclusive fashion then I’m very happy to talk to them. On the other hand, I am very clear with people if I don’t feel I’m the right person to help with their particular issue. I don’t want to waste their time or mine. Regardless, one very important thing I always do is respond back to people who reach out on the phone, social media or email. I don’t ghost anyone – ever. To me, this is not an acceptable way of conducting business. I assess whether I can help. It takes 10 seconds to write an email to let them know  I’m not the right person to help them. But I wish them well. Or, I direct them to someone else who can. And then people at least feel they’ve been heard and are not isolated and invisible. I have to keep myself on track most of all. I am only one person, and my business is paramount. People understand that I have to pick and choose who I can help.

Jackie: Why did you take the leap to become an entrepreneur? Tell us a little about your background.

Pamela: I have a very unusual background. I was brought up to believe that you get married and have children. Then you volunteer, you go out for lunch, and then you take your grandchildren out for lunch. But I was never that person. I needed more. I did volunteer.  I became a very high-profile volunteer in the Jewish community. And I was the youngest woman to chair the Hadassah Bazaar, which back then was the largest bazaar in the world. My fundraising experience got my foot in the door of the business world. I was in my mid 30s before I had my first “paid” job. The woman who interviewed me – of course, my first interview ever with this brilliant woman — says, “Okay, the interview is over. Do you want me to tell you what you did right and what you did wrong?”  What a gift! I went from a media and public relations person at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario in Toronto for $10 an hour to being hired as a director of development and public relations in a hospital. I remember the gorgeous office they set up for me. I walked in, closed the door, sat down in my chair and started to cry.  I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do. But I figured it out. I was one of the first to start professional philanthropy in Canada in the late 80s with seven other people. I remember when I got my first half-million donation. It was like I had just got the money in my own bank account. Oh my goodness, what an adrenaline rush – nothing like it. The hospital was able to fund a reno in the emergency room with that money. After that job at the hospital, I set out on my own. I always say that the reason I’m an entrepreneur is I get along with my boss extremely well.

Jackie: Hello, I’m gonna use that.

Pamela: I was born with a bone disease. I’ve had about 20 operations. And because of that, there are times that I have to lie down and there are times that I need to sleep in. When you’re an employee that doesn’t work too well. When you run your own business, it works better. I still fundraise – I have a charity for young adults with cancer called Alli’s Journey, named after my daughter who at the age of 19 was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and passed away in 2006. It’s still running after all these years. We provide comfort bags for young adults (18-35) going through cancer treatments. The bags contain items that we know they will need even before they do. Please see for details and please help if you can!

During the time Alli was ill, I stopped working to take care of her. We talked about starting a fashion line for curvy ladies using sustainable comfy fabrics. Alli laid down the framework for our company called Allistyle. We became known as one of the top specialty fashion lines in Toronto until the public started to demand great quality for Walmart prices. Hard to compete.

So I took some time to figure out what I was really good at. And that is developing a proper fashion strategy for brands and retailers that is inclusive – not only just plus size but all the various ways you can bring the consumer into your world. That became my specialty and that’s what I’m doing now.

Jackie: How does your network of friends and peers help guide you in running a successful business?

Pamela: I would not be where I am today without my network of friends and peers. When I was first starting out in fundraising at the hospital — besides from crying —  the one thing I knew was how to grow my network. I knew how to find people who could help me. And I guess you can tell from my personality – I love people. People like to be around me because I’m funny and welcoming and I was able to turn these fundraising professionals into friends. And they showed me everything – all the ropes. I went out and did some professional development on top of that and I learned how to turn my fundraising experience into a really successful career. So if it wasn’t for those people helping me out, there’s no way that I could have raised the $35 million that I did. I did it because I was taught how by the people who were really good at it. That’s the key. Turn your peers into your supporters and allies. And if you’re lucky, your peers will turn into your friends.

Jackie: Switching gears a bit, what mistakes did you make that you wouldn’t want others to replicate?

Pamela: Yeah, how much time have you got? I would say that I’ve made two mistakes. One could be you could see it as a mistake, or you can see it as something that helped me. When it comes to building a business, you’ve got to separate your heart from your brain. And my heart was with my daughter. It was important, it still is important for me to keep her legacy alive. Looking back I would have handled the business setup in a different way. I should have looked a little more critically at the capital outlay requirement, branding, and other important aspects of the startup. Take the emotion out of it.

My second mistake was probably one of the biggest mistakes that there is – I used my own money. And it was a lot. Now a lot of people do it that way and are successful. Today it makes more sense to seek investors – not your family and friends – who are willing to share the financial risk with you. That’s the biggest lesson I could possibly teach to every entrepreneur out there.

Jackie: A very good lesson and one we’re heard over and over again from other entrepreneurs. Moving on, how have you changed as a leader? You’ve had so many milestones in your career and in your life, how has it changed you?

Pamela: I don’t think I would be where I am today personally and professionally if not for all the ups and downs I’ve had to face. Going through what I went through from a horrific divorce, being the single parent of three children, losing my parents and my daughter all within 7 years, and my own chronic illness, forced me to draw from reserves I never knew I had. Resilience is what keeps me going. And it’s not been all bad. My eldest son Jordan (Shapiro) is a consultant who advises corporate leaders on their issues/needs relating to strategy and transformational performance. My youngest son Shain is an entrepreneur in the world of music with his company Sound Diplomacy (always a mother’s duty to blast their accomplishments). I have a lovely daiughter-in-law Lisa, and to round out my perfect joy are my grandchildren, Isla and Andrew. I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been in the way I’m feeling now. And I have a great business. I tell everyone, never take what you have for granted because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

When I lost Alli a close friend of mine said when you’re ready to talk to somebody I’m going to put you together with Lesley Parrot.  Without Lesley, I wouldn’t be who I am as a mother who’s gone through the loss of a child. I’m available to talk to people who have lost children. Because I’m the first person to say that you need to talk to people who have gone through the same thing.

Jackie: Pamela it’s been an amazing experience talking to you. You have a lot of great advice on many different fronts. Thanks so much for sharing your incredible story with us today.


Photo Credit: George Pimentel Studio


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

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