Startup to Startup: A Conversation with Vicki Bradley

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.

Vicki Bradley, Bradley & Co, Founder WILEmpowered

 First job:                        Working in Tobacco at an early age

Favorite quote:             Feel the fear and do it anyway

Hobby:                              Golf, paddle boarding, travel

Business Hero:             Bill and Melinda Gates, Jack Welch, Robin Sharma

Guilty Pleasure:            Bubbles on a beach or sitting in a cafe

Mentor(s):                       David Stewart, My mom

Best advice for female entrepreneurs for managing global pandemic: When you are so busy with everyone else, it’s also essential to take care of yourself first. Stay connected —  out of sight out of mind. Reach out, join or create a group that you meet with regularly to share, learn and  grow with.

Jackie: Why did you take the leap into becoming an entrepreneur?

Vicki:  I grew up in retail in the US, and that’s how I came to Canada. I spent 30 years in very senior roles — President Bombay Furniture Company, Senior Vice President at Marks and Spencer’s, and Vice President Holt Renfrew. I had an incredible career. I thrived on what I did. Then I got really sick with an autoimmune disease when I was 40.  I couldn’t walk. At times, I couldn’t use my hands. With the particular disease, the biggest trigger is stress. Stress comes in lots of packages: emotional, mental, and physical, in all aspects.

I realized I had to make a change for my own well-being and for my family. I traveled all the time and my daughter was a baby. Not only was I President of Bombay in Canada, I was also the Vice President of Stores and Sales in the US.  I needed to take a big pause and step back and ask myself: “What else can I do that will fulfill me?” I’m an A type personality — an overachiever, and highly results oriented. What I realized is my driving force has always been to help others reach their full potential. I did that throughout my career. Some people liked the feedback I gave them, some didn’t. Some would say, “I hate you for this. But years later, they’ve come back to tell me, ‘Wow, some of the stuff you taught me and pushed me to do helped me be where I am today.’” That was validation that what I was doing was a good thing — and what I wanted to keep doing!

I went back to school. I didn’t have to, because I have the credentials.  I studied coaching. One thing I’ve learned is you need to have credibility. I have a business background, but certification was key. I have several coaching certifications – I’m a certified coach, a master practitioner with a leadership assessment and certified in conversational intelligence. I took all of that and rolled it into a business doing one-on-one executive coaching with females.  I focus on women because of what I went through. I can help them navigate the male-dominated world and help them deal with the challenges they face.  I met your digital PR Consultant Alix Edmiston and she introduced me to Luc Villeneuve, the former Country Leader of Red Hat Canada. He invited me to come to Red Hat Canada to build a program for his high potential women. We had 12 women in the program. That experience was the impetus for launching Women in Leadership Empowered (WIL Empowered). I recognized the power of helping women develop their leadership skills but it was more than just that. It was about building community, about building a strong network, about peer-to-peer mentoring. I can teach a lot. And I can share hours and hours of information. But you also learn from your peers as well. It’s relatable because you realize you’re not alone in what you are experiencing.

Jackie: How is your stress level now?

Vicki:  It’s totally turned around.  I don’t have to travel for businesses all the time, which has really helped reduce my stress level. It’s been two years now. WILEmpowered is completely virtually.  I wanted to reach a global audience. No matter where you are, you’ll have access to a community and the opportunity to learn, grow and share professionally. What you’re learning helps you as a whole person, not just one aspect of your life. And when you get that collective wisdom of other voices, it opens your mind to thinking different. The other thing I’ve done with my business is I have created a virtual world. Not just my program, but even the people that work with me are virtual. My assistant lives in Ottawa and my business partner in Calgary.  Once a quarter we come together in person so that we can strategize and team build.

Jackie: What mistakes did you make that you would like others to avoid?

Vicki: A great example is bookkeeping. It’s never been my thing. I thought, I want to watch my money, so I’m going do it myself. Well, big mistake. I had to hire a bookkeeper to go back and do a ton of work to clean everything up.  So I invested in bookkeeping and now I’m back on track. The other big one is keeping the focus on business development. There’s this place of desperation you go to as an entrepreneur when your business lacks clients! I started out thinking that they would just arrive to take advantage of my great service. Coming from a branded retail environment where I didn’t have to work too hard to attract customers, this required a bit of an adjustment.  As well, once you have them, you need to work really hard to retain them.

 Jackie: So that’ll segue nicely into the next question. What do you do when a customer isn’t happy?

Vicki: I am very customer centric. In everything I do. All of my services, policies and processes are built around providing the best customer experience I can. There will be people who try to take advantage of you and your business but they’re the minority.  You should always manage based on the needs of the majority of your clients. Not the exceptions. So I think that’s a big thing. That stems way back to when I was 14 and started working at Tom McCann Shoes. We were taught that even if you’re putting shoes on stinky feet, your clients are your bread and butter.  Without them there is no you.

Jackie: Nobody’s feet smell like rose petals!


Exactly. I remember my first team meeting at Bombay. I said to my team: “Without those stores there is no you.” In the corporate environment, people sometimes have that ivory tower syndrome. We’re in charge and we don’t care about what anybody else thinks. We are the big guys. My DNA is based on the customer and how to make sure what you do is all about them.

Jackie: Very valuable advice. It seems so intuitively obvious but not everyone in business these days gets it.

Vicki: I could give you countless examples, actually. After 9-11 the US team came to me and said, “You’ve got to cut 16 people out of your corporate office.”  And I said, “That’s not happening. I can’t cut 16 people out. That will impact my team and my customers.” So my comment back to corporate was, “How much money do I need to take out of my budget?” The person that I reported to said: “We need $300,000.” And I said, “Okay, I’m not cutting any staff. But I will cut the $300,000.” I looked for efficiencies.  Where are we wasting money?  So we created a whole new communication stream and cut $300,000 out without having to lay off anybody. Today, if you’re not customer centric, you are not going to be around for long. When you’re an entrepreneur, YOU are the brand. So if you piss off one customer that will have a X10 negative ripple effect. Unfortunately, if you make someone happy you typically don’t get the same return!

Jackie: Is your business experiencing any impact as a result of the pandemic?

Vicki: Well knock on wood so far, no, I’ve been busy.  I think because we had a WILEmpowered cohort join in January. Our next one is at the end of May. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of a financial impact that will have.

Jackie: How are you supporting other female startups during these challenging times?

Vicki: I host a virtual social every week with my network to check in with everyone to make sure they’re doing okay.  We have great conversations and share resources, but it’s also about connecting with those you know and making new connections.

Jackie: You have already mastered the virtual business model. That might be a growth area for you as companies examine how they will do their business differently when we transition to the ‘new normal’.

 Vicki: It’s interesting you say that, Jackie, because I was on a call the other day with a woman. Her company is struggling to make this transition. When they on-board new people, the first thing they do is send them to a boot camp in the U.S.  I asked how she was doing that now, and she said: “We have to do it virtually.” I asked if I could give her a couple tips. I said: “How are you going to get people to sit for eight hours in front of a PC? You’re going to lose them; they’re going to disengage after few hours.” I shared with her some ideas to make sure they’re engaged, keep them excited, make sure she’s successful in getting them the information they need to do their job by breaking it up in a way that is easy to digest.

Jackie: Over the past two years, how have you changed as a leader?

Vicki:  I would have considered myself very much having a fixed mindset. So, you know, I had my system or my way of doing things as a leader. I didn’t deviate because it worked.  I am now much more agile, much more adaptable, and definitely more engaged with my customers. I really like being curious and asking questions and not feeling like I have to have the answers. When we are put into leadership roles — traditional boardroom roles — people look at you and expect you to have all those answers. These are behaviors that are not easy to change.

Jackie: I agree, that wouldn’t have been easy for you to turn off. Sounds like it was something you needed to force yourself to do.

Vicki: Part of it was getting sick. As hard as it was, it helped me to realize I didn’t have to be – I couldn’t be – that person anymore. I could sit in that boardroom today and have a very different conversation and still get the same results! And I would also say, Jackie, I am a more confident person. And I always have been very confident. In the corporate world, if you don’t have a big ego, you’re going to get chewed up.  Now, the confidence is still there, but not the ego. I am more grounded and more authentic.  If someone doesn’t like what I’m saying, I don’t own that. It doesn’t bother me. You don’t have to listen to what I’m saying. I have moved from worrying about that. I think we get so caught up in how people perceive us that it can actually paralyze us from not doing the right thing.

Jackie: Thanks Vicki, love that! Great words of wisdom we can all benefit from!

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

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