The Business of Making Puzzles: Nicole Benda ‘84 and her Entrepreneurial Journey

What did you do after graduating from YHS in 1984?  

I studied at UBC and obtained my BA in International Relations. After graduating from UBC, my first position was as a marketing assistant for a shopping centre management company and that is where I found my true career direction. I then enrolled at BCIT and studied part-time, while working full-time which made for some very long days, and obtained my Marketing Communications Certificate. From there I went on to work in a number of industries in various sales & marketing and human resources positions. In 2009, my husband and I adopted our son and I decided to stay home to raise him and became a domestic engineer ☺

What memories do you have of your time here?

I had a wonderful six years (Gr. 7 – 12) at YHS – it was an amazing learning environment which fostered great friendships, one really felt part of a close-knit community. Some of my favourite memories include the annual YHS Market, a trip to Seattle to visit the Tutankhamun exhibition, and playing centre for the basketball team. If memory serves me correctly, during our year we were only qualified as exhibition so it’s been great to see YHS become a powerhouse in basketball over the past couple of decades.

Describe your journey with Butzi Kids? What is Butzi Kids and how did it get its name?

In 2014, I wanted to buy a children’s puzzle of Vancouver and Whistler and yet I couldn’t find anything that I liked. This is what gave me the idea for Butzi Kids. As our son was about to start kindergarten, I knew this was the right time to venture off and create a business of my own – I decided that I was going to design and have manufactured children’s puzzles, placemats, and prints of Vancouver and Whistler. However, I had to learn everything from starting and running a business, manufacturing, freight forwarding to wholesaling, since I had no experience in any of these areas. I was very fortunate to have a collection of family, friends, and associates who had the relevant expertise who guided me along – it was a lengthy and challenging process but I was so motivated that it was all very exciting.

Butzi (pronounced boot-sy) is the German nickname we gave our son when he was a baby and since we made a lot of puzzles together while he was growing up, I thought it was fitting to name the company after him.

What are the most important life/business lessons you’ve learned along the way?  

A couple of key life/business lessons I have learned are attitude is everything and if you’re handed lemons, start making lemonade as there’s always a Plan B. It is important to realize that the challenges in front of one are surmountable with perseverance, and that one doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel – there are lots of people in one’s network who are more than happy to help and to share their experiences.

You attended an alumnae networking event last year. Was that your first time back at YHS since graduation?

Over the years, I had gone to the annual YHS market and it was always very nostalgic being back on the school grounds.

What challenges, if any, do you have with managing all aspects of your business?

As a one person operation, it can be very easy to procrastinate getting to the ‘not so exciting’ tasks of the business, or the tasks that aren’t ones forté, which for me was the social media aspect of the business. I am an old-school marketer so I struggled with putting out posts via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. I considered myself very lucky when I was chosen for a Shopify podcast where I received a ‘social media makeover’ with the help of Vancouver’s social media expert, ‘Miss 604’ Rebecca Bollwitt. She was fantastic to work with and learn from – the crash course in social media helped me immensely.

  1. Do you have any advice for young alumnae staring down the entrepreneurial path?

As cliché as it sounds, if you set your mind to something and you have the passion and determination, run with it, anything is possible! Do your research, gather information, and talk with as many people who have the expertise or contacts to help you along. There are so many excellent resources out there. I made good use of the internet and the library for resource books and I found Small Business BC to be extremely helpful. I felt along my journey that I kept getting the green light during the different stages of my business idea, and before I knew it, it became a reality.

 

Fellow Yorkie Makes the Forbes Europe “Top 30 Under 30” List

 

Natasha Ratanshi Stein ’09

Natasha, what did you do after you graduated from York House School?

I moved to London after graduating York House in pursuit of a BSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics (LSE). I graduated from the LSE in 2012 and then immediately started working in the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) division at Goldman Sachs in London, where I had interned during university. After spending two years at Goldman, I moved to venture capital to work for Piton Capital, a small fund where I was the third member of the investment team and I am still there.

What kind of student were you at YHS?

To be honest, I can’t say I was the greatest student for a while. I know my mom still keeps my report cards somewhere, and I think up until around the 10th grade I had pretty average grades (I even remember something in the 50s for band when I had too much trouble waking up for morning rehearsals and never handed in my practice sheets). The great thing about York House is because of the small class sizes, it helps you find your passion, and for me that was the humanities subjects, which I realized in my last couple years at York House. Once I found that passion, and I was at a grade where there was more flexibility around picking subjects, I started to do much better as I was super excited about what I was learning about. This meant I started spending a lot of my spare time reading about the topics I was studying at school, which in turn made me a better student

How did you initially enter the investment banking field? [NOTE: I’m not in investment banking anymore, but was until 2014]

I entered finance completely by accident. My York House teachers might remember I was too much of a Marxist for Wall Street during my time there. I had gone to LSE hoping to pursue a career in international development and save the world. Suffice it to say, after attending a few career sessions in those fields I became somewhat disillusioned with the bureaucracy and I was worried about the unclear paths for progression in those fields. A friend of mine invited me to join her at a career evening hosted by Slaughter & May, a law firm, to see if law was something that interested me. What I had learned was that it wasn’t the documentation and drafting of contracts that interested me, but the financial aspects such as establishing the value of both businesses, determining the synergies, and exploring financing options. Both my parents are entrepreneurs, and being able to work with entrepreneurs and operators at a critical time for their business was something that really excited me about investment banking. Having said that, within the two years I was at Goldman, I realized my heart was with earlier stage businesses, like the ones I had been exposed to at the dinner table growing up. I had worked on some technology transactions at Goldman, which fuelled my interest in venture capital. Being closer to the operations whilst still being able to use the skills I had developed at Goldman and working in an increasingly exciting and fast-moving industry are all components in my current job in venture capital that keep me very excited.

Describe a typical day in your current position?

In venture capital, our role is to identify early stage businesses that we think are in an interesting market and at some point can provide us with attractive financial returns. Piton Capital, where I work now, is one of the few extremely specialized venture capital funds in the world. We only invest in online businesses that benefit from network effects, which means the product or service improves as more people use it. The job varies enormously day to day, so it’s very hard to describe a typical day. I would say if I had to crudely break it up, I spend about 30% of my time in meetings with entrepreneurs who are pitching their businesses, 40% of my time analyzing companies and conducting diligence and 30% of my time managing our existing portfolio, where I help them with strategic advice, sit on their boards and act as an advisor for decisions such as recruitment, new market expansion, pricing etc. I am usually travelling around once a week, mostly across Europe as we invest actively in markets such as Germany, France, Poland, and the Nordics. We’ve also done deals in Egypt and Pakistan.

Do you see yourself staying in London or moving back to North America?

It’s very hard to answer this one and attempting to answer will either anger my parents or my current employers so I’ll decline to comment.

You were recently listed in the 2018 30 under 30 Forbes Europe – Finance List.  Tell us more about that experience?

It’s humbling to be recognized in a list which also includes Kendrick Lamar, my favourite rapper. When I’m home, I frequently drive around Vancouver blasting his song “Humble”, and the Forbes inclusion has reminded me to take the (explicit) advice in that song seriously. Life can be so hectic that it can be hard to take a step back and reflect on your achievements so being part of this list was a good opportunity to do that. More than anything, the outpouring of good wishes it triggered was a reminder of how many people have supported me and how grateful I am to them.

Will Brexit have any impact on your career path?

Brexit is destabilizing for both the UK economy and its social fabric. My career, along with many others, benefit from the diversity and talent that Britain has embraced over the last fifty years. The Brexit vote has brought to the surface many divisions in British society and has taught us that unfortunately, many of the benefits of being an open and tolerant nation seem to be at risk. From a career perspective, many of the UK’s top entrepreneurs are migrants, from the EU and elsewhere, and many British businesses have been built by the hard work of migrants. My fund invests across Europe with our most active market being Germany, so we are not directly impacted by Brexit in any major way. We are already starting to see new hubs of activity emerge in more European cities and Europeans move back to their countries of origin. While I think this will be detrimental to the UK, our flexibility around investing across Europe will still enable us to continue to invest in the most promising companies and back the best entrepreneurs. The UK faces a lot of uncertainty in the coming years, and it’s my hope that the voices calling for a more tolerant and open society don’t lose out to those seeking to divide.

Did any one person or teacher influence you at YHS?

Absolutely. It would be impossible to pin it down to one person. York House is a place that really enables it’s students to find their passion. When I found my passion, there were countless teachers who were there to make sure I was achieving my potential. Mr Cropley, who would do weekend cram sessions with us ahead of our AP European History exam and who I am still in close contact with for when I need to ensure my career doesn’t pull me away from my socialist roots. Ms. Irani, who was extremely supportive in helping me navigate the nuances of applying to a UK university. When LSE required 5s on five AP exams despite the fact I was only doing four AP classes, I dropped math in order to teach myself AP World History. LSE didn’t like that and informed me only two months before the math provincial I had to complete math. Thankfully Mrs. Massel was there to rescue me and taught me the entire Math 12 curriculum in two months. I would say one of the best classes at York House was Mr P’s AP Human Geo class which really opened my eyes to the functioning of society and how rap music conveys societal workings (maybe this is what inspired me to start taking Kendrick Lamar so literally!)

 

Psychiatry and a new book about sleep: all in a day’s work for Dr. Smita (Reebye) Naidoo ‘99

Smita (R) pictured with her friend and business partner, Andrea Bell.

You graduated in 1999. In terms of further studies, where did you go after York House?

After graduating, I went across the pond to Dublin, Ireland. I was there for seven years completing my medical degrees and internship training. It was an incredible time to be there as Ireland had just switched to the Euro currency as a member of the EU. A true snapshot for me of living through political and historical change.

Describe a typical working day at BC Children’s Hospital?

That’s a tough one, because there is no “typical” day. This is what drives me to working in the emergency department. I start my day checking in on the admitted patients with our entire team. We problem shoot, review medication and treatment. Most importantly, we make sure the families of the children admitted are consistently involved in the “loop of communication.” That is the only hour in my day, set in stone. The rest is dependent on who presents to the Emergency Department. We get paged across the Province and the Yukon by family doctors and paediatricians asking us for educational support on ethical or high risk situations.

You kindly came back to York House to speak to our students during Career Day a few years ago. What was that experience like?

I was so nervous! The hardest thing to do, is to inspire a group of intelligent and driven young women despite their personal experiences, cultural background, and passions. For me, speaking in front of adults, and other clinicians is the easier part of my work. Being able to look an an audience, and see why they took their time to listen to me, is definitely an art I am continuously working on. There is nothing more that matters to me then the mental health, and overall wellness of our youth. One thing that is on my bucket list, is to craft and deliver a speech to the graduates. Even better, maybe address the year one of my Yorkie nieces graduates (2025!).

Your new publication for kids is about the importance of sleep. How did this collaboration come about and tell us more about Polly & Pickles

Believe it or not, I met my business partner, now dear friend Andrea Bell, on a plane ride from LAX to YVR 30,000 feet above ground! We instantly matched and had a shared vision of creating children’s books with a meaning.

Within less than three months, Paper Clouds Project Ltd was born. We self-published our first book on sleep, which was just released this January 2018. We chose sleep as our first book because clinically this is the simplest way of altering the behaviour of a child and the environment of a home. Andrea was personally adjusting to having three children of different developmental ages and found that in the working-mom world, the value of sleep is under prioritized.

 Did anyone or any one experience inspire you at YHS to follow your dreams of being a psychiatrist and author?

Yes. Absolutely. Mr. B! It’s amazing the impact a few comments, experiences can influence us to the core, to our gene expression. Mr. B was like a father to me, when he was training us for track meets, and inspiring us to do more. I still remember when he was discussing muscle physiology and used me as an example. It touched me, because that authentic validation in front of my peers, truly set further ground work to a healthy self-esteem. Alongside my parents, and two older brothers, Mr. B certainly made me feel I had gifts to share with the world.

For members of our community with young children, provide three tips on how to get our kids to sleep smarter/better?

I have one word for you R.E.D.!

  • Routine! If you can make one change, create a cheat sheet for sleep with your child. Make two copies, one in the washroom, one in the bedroom. From the moment your child/youth enters home after a busy day at YHS, their routine begins! The misnomer is that if you have a “good bedtime routine” things should work out. Not true! Transitioning from a structured environment (i.e. school) to a semi/non-structured environment, sends signals to their brains making it more scattered, unsure, and even anxious. Ground a few things: homework time, dinner time, fun/social media time. This is the most beneficial and most sustainable gift you can give your child. This level of routine, trains your body clock (i.e. circadian rhythm) on when to release melatonin and other hormones promoting good sleep and brain growth.

 

  • Environment: Make sure the child’s bedroom does NOT have a desk for study. Associating a child’s room with anything but calm, is never a good idea. A desk, if used for study, then sub-consciously associates the room of stress, deadlines and at times, poorer self esteem. Keep it minimalistic, filled with meaningful objects for your child (not your own aesthetic pleasure). By doing this, you are giving your child the autonomy to create their sanctuary with some guidance. Due to limited space, busier lifestyles, our rooms are now multi-purpose. This is one room, you want (for the entire family) to only serve for one purpose alone…sleep/relaxation.

 

  • Distraction Devices: aka iPads/mobile phones! There may be many changes with technology, but one thing which has stayed consistent over the years, are the guidelines of screen time. No screen time two hours before bedtime for the entire family. The way to avoid the “power struggle”, ALL family members, give up their devices with the EARLIEST bedtime in the home. This then creates a uniform expectation and the child/youth no longer views this as a punishment or that they are “missing out” on something.

Dianne Whelan ‘83: 2017 YHS Alumnae Special Achiever

This year’s Special Achiever, Dianne Whelan ‘83, made a special effort to be at York House to speak at both Founders’ Day and Alumnae Day to celebrate our 85th Anniversary. In fact, a bush pilot extracted her from a remote area along the Trans Canada trail where, since July 2015, she has hiked, biked, snowshoed, skied, and canoed across the country. As she passes through some 15,000 communities along the 24,000 kilometers of the trail, she’s filming her next adventure documentary, 500 Days in the Wild.

Former York House School Head Girl, Dianne Whelan ’83, an explorer, award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, author, and multimedia artist, is no stranger to extreme adventure. In 2007, Dianne was the first woman to travel as an embedded media person with a team of Canadian Rangers to a never patrolled route of the northwestern coast of Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. In the middle of winter, they traversed close to 2000 km in the Canadian High Arctic from Resolute to Alert, the most northerly human habitation in the world. Her film, This Land and first book, This Vanishing Land A Woman’s Journey to the Canadian Arctic, depicts her epic journey. In 2010, she filmed her award-winning film, 40 Days at Base Camp, which recounts her eye-opening experiences on the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest.

In support of her journey along the Trans Canada Trail, Dianne was recently honoured to receive an expedition grant from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for the 2,300-km paddle of Lake Superior. With North America’s largest lake behind her, Dianne is continuing along “The Path of the Paddle”, a water route in Northwestern Ontario, which follows centuries-old traditional First Nations and Metis trails. Dianne received another honour earlier this year when her film, This Land, a National Film Board documentary, made the Celebrate Canada 150 list.  

We were fortunate to be able to sit down with Dianne while she was here to talk about what her Trans Canada  journey has shown her so far.

Before setting out, Dianne had titled the trip and pending film, 500 Days in the Wild. This was when she thought she would be travelling the longest trail in the world at a pace of 70 km per day. She lets out a good natured laugh when she thinks back on her ambition. By Day 3, after leaving Newfoundland, Dianne soon came to the realization that it was going to take her considerably more time. In fact, it will likely take her four years, or 1,460 days, to complete but she is no longer in a hurry. But now, more important than how hard or fast she goes, is her interactions with people along the trail.

Now, at the halfway mark, she has been particularly impressed with the kindness that people have shown her along the way. Their generosity has confirmed for her that people truly are good in a way that we often forget.

When asked about how her expectations have changed from the start of the trip, Dianne comments, “It has definitely been harder physically than I had expected. But I haven’t been sick or hurt. I thought I would be more fearful being a woman on my own but that fear is gone. Of course, what I thought would be one film has now become a trilogy (I hope to release part one in the fall of 2018).”

“One thing I really didn’t expect is the exchanges that I have had with indigenous people, particularly the women,” she continues. “First Nations culture teaches us to honour the earth and to honour the women. A Cree grandmother shared with me their collective belief that no decision should be made without thinking of seven generations ahead, which is why I believe that the answers for sustainability are with the First Nations.

Her time with indigenous women across the country has also shown her the importance of humility and having an open heart.

“For me, my goal is to make sure that every day is a sincere expression of myself. When I filmed at Everest, I had lost my balance and went into my ego. Now I know that you need to hang onto a certain amount of humility and grace. I think I have learned from my past mistakes.”

With so much time in isolation in nature, Dianne has had much time to reflect on the importance of following her heart. While here celebrating Founders’ Day with us, she reminded us all of the importance of not forgetting where we come from and how empowering our motto, Not for Ourselves Alone, truly is.

Dianne had come to York House School in Grade 9 as a shy and quiet student, but by Grade 12 she was Head Girl. “When I graduated from York House, I had the confidence that I could do anything I wanted; I left believing in myself. For me, York House is the foundation upon which I built my dreams. We need places like York House to breed strong women,” says Dianne.

Thinking back on her path after York House that has led her to this point, Dianne recalls the eight years at McGill University where she studied philosophy, political science, and religious studies. She was on her way to law school at Dalhousie University when she had decided to take a break and work for her father’s fashion company in Vancouver, Marquis of London, where she learned multiple facets of the business ranging from marketing to production.

The realization that she needed to follow a different path led her to Langara College where she studied journalism and Emily Carr where she studied multimedia including photography and film.

She now recognizes that everything that she has learned, whether at school or in life, has led her to this journey she is on now. This journey to see and to know, that we are not alone.

To read more about Dianne’s adventures visit http://500daysinthewild.com.

Photography, a Food Blog and Two Weddings: Danielle Wong ’10

What did you do after graduation from York House?

After graduating, I went straight to the Ontario College of Art and Design University – where I first studied in the design program but then switched to fine arts and discovered my passion for photography.

Did you have a lot of exposure to photography at York House?
Not really, I didn’t discover photography until my graduating year at YHS – after our grad trip to NYC and visiting galleries and discovering photographers; that’s when I realized perhaps I wanted to make a different path for myself and the desire to be in design started to fade away.

Describe a typical day in the life of Danielle Wong Photography?

I started my company in 2014 after I came back from my post-graduate studies. It was a little slow at first, but thanks to my fantastic mentor who is also one of my closest friends today, she has guided me and taught me almost everything I know. Wedding season in the summers is always hectic but very rewarding. Taking pictures of families and actor portraits was how I first kickstarted my business in Vancouver, thanks to friends and a lot of networking! I love working with people and hearing the feedback (usually positive) afterwards is very humbling and I treat every opportunity I receive as an honour.

You’re a food blogger as well. Tell us about your blog?
I am! I LOVE food! I feel like my life revolves either around photography, fitness, wine and food. I live to eat. In my last year at university, I focused on food photography. Food doesn’t talk back – you’re basically in control all the time. Since graduating, I haven’t really touched food photography at all. It’s hard in a market like Vancouver with a saturation of photographers.

My dad is in the wine and sake importing business and to learn more about pairing wine with foods I took the WSET (Wine Sommelier Education Trust) Levels 1 & 2 courses.

Then, I started The Gourmoo – my food blog – about a year ago now. I had missed photographing food so much. I’m always looking for the opportunity to photograph new menus for chefs in town, or if your restaurant is just starting up and you need really delicious shots of your masterpieces – this is what I love doing most. I can’t deny my love for food.

I was featured in WestJet’s Magazine last year for a piece on Dublin, Ireland. I had visited the city that year and took a photo of a delicious dish of Vitello Tonnato – sliced veal served cold, covered with a creamy, tuna mayonnaise-like sauce.  I was honoured to have my photograph published in their magazine!

Are you a good cook or do you prefer to eat and photograph it?
I’m not a bad cook (so I keep telling myself) – my parents are the real cooks. I definitely prefer to photograph food rather than make it – however I love  marinating meat or making desserts. I love to cook, but I think I love photography a little more. I’m that person who takes photos of their dishes (and others) before eating.

You’re getting married soon and getting married twice!  How are the wedding plans going? 
I think I will need a long vacation after the two weddings… It’s been a lot of hard work, and the first one is less than a month away! My fiancé and I are very excited to have both our families gather to celebrate our marriage. We are eternally grateful for everyone being able to travel from all over the world to celebrate with us.

As a photographer, I know how much work goes into planning a wedding – let alone two! I not only photograph weddings, but I help the couples to plan out their day too. It is so important to keep the bride and groom relaxed on their big day – reminding them to enjoy it and just have fun. It is so easy to forget why you’re having a wedding in the first place – you are marrying the love of your life! You must cherish every moment. Being able to treasure those moments through photographs is something very special.  I cannot wait for what the future brings!

Not for Ourselves Alone: Skylar Gordon, Class of 2014

Continuing her commitment to community through University

Skylar (centre) with her friends in New Orleans

Skylar, community service is important to you. Was this from attending YHS?

One of the reasons I decided to attend YHS was because of the high value placed on community service.    As far back as I can recall I’ve always taken the time to volunteer, so attending YHS really instilled this emphasis on community engagement in me.  Community service has allowed me to take an active role in my community, and has given me the opportunity to acquire knowledge and life skills while providing service to those who need it most.

Please tell us about your involvement with Habitat for Humanity?

I joined Western University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program during my freshman year. The program is designed to provide students with “Community Engaged Learning” by holding workshops throughout the year on intercultural communication, persistent social issues, and what we as students at a Canadian university can do about it.  The program culminates into a both a local and global part of service learning.

For the global portion, I travelled to New Orleans, Louisiana during my Reading Week in 2015 to work with Habitat for Humanity on a few build sites.  I was drawn to Habitat for Humanity because their business model engages both volunteers and the people who benefit from the housing projects.  Volunteers are trained on how to work tools and residents of Habitat houses must dedicate hours of their own service into building the house.

I chose to work in New Orleans because I wanted to see the progress that the city had made in rebuilding itself during the ten years post Hurricane Katrina.  I was surprised when I arrived in New Orleans: some wards I visited only contained empty lots and unpaved streets where vibrant houses and communities used to be.  Districts that once were home to eight elementary schools now relied on only one because there weren’t enough funds to rebuild the rest.  I found my experience so impactful in first year that I decided I wanted to develop the ASB program further, so during my second year I became one of the team leaders of the program.  I helped to lead the workshops and organize the program, and in February of 2016 I led 40 students back to New Orleans to work on more house builds.  The year that I led the New Orleans program was especially rewarding because I was able to help other students enjoy the same positive experience that I had from the year before.

Here’s a video that my co-leader made of the trip (I think I have a short cameo at the 11 second mark and a couple other places).

How did you find out about it?

Shortly into my first year of university, I started to feel overwhelmed.  I was taking some lecture-based courses in which more than 550 students were enrolled and my university residence building housed over 1,000 students.  Combined with living across the country and away from my family, I was exhausted from trying to keep up in school and get enough sleep and stay in touch with my friends.  I realized that I really missed the feeling of fulfillment that I had from volunteering and working on community projects at YHS and the network of like-minded people I met through it.  I felt disconnected from the very city I was living in (we call it the “Western University bubble” because the school acts as its own community): I couldn’t even name the major streets that were off campus.  I decided to look for opportunities to involve myself in the London community and discovered the ASB program, offered through Western.
Do you see yourself continuing your community service after graduation?

Absolutely.  Giving time to my community is important to me and I can’t imagine it not extending beyond my graduation.

What are you studying and what do you see yourself doing after graduation?

I study business at the Ivey Business School, at Western University.  I hope to work in health sector innovation after I graduate, possibly doing quality improvement projects in hospitals. I see myself at the intersection between healthcare and business – working to improve quality of life through improved healthcare.  In this respect, I see myself managing projects to improve the quality of processes and care in hospitals (in a business operations or analytics capacity).  I am also interested in how to incentivize profit-seeking medical device and pharmaceutical companies to invest in better healthcare innovation, while keeping the products of this innovation affordable to patients.

Any advice to new grads heading to Western this September?

Keep in touch with other Yorkies at your university!  They know what you’re going through better than anyone.

You’ll learn just as much, if not more, outside of classes as you will in them, so be open to new opportunities and get involved with clubs, sports, and causes that you’re passionate about.

Buy a good quality winter jacket and snow boots (we had snow into April this year)!