Mandy Gilbert knows all too well how graduates often do not find themselves in their field of choice. The founder and CEO of Creative Niche was a graduate of George Brown’s Graphic Design program and found herself working as a professional recruiter. Unlike most graduates working outside of their chosen career, Gilbert discovered that her soft skills led her to a career helping others find work.

Finding Work That Fits Your Personality

“I went for an interview at a recruitment company, and they offered me a job to get into recruiting. You don’t really go to university to go into recruiting, but the more I thought about it, the more I did figure it was more in line with my personality.

“I’m way more of a “people person,” more so than I realized when I started that program. So the idea of working with that, helping to facilitate matches with brands and people and help them grow their businesses, energized me more, so I started a recruitment at a fairly young age.

“And I decided at that time, that instead of working for a competitor, I just wanted to do something on my own, so I resigned. I was twenty-seven when I opened Creative Niche.

I resigned, I hardly had any money…I had enough for a splash page for a website, a logo and 200 pages of letterhead, and that was it.

“I worked at a co-working space, and I think I had about 210 square feet, and it was like a tiny, little closet. I honoured all my legal obligations to my past employer because it was a competitive company. I didn’t solicit any new or existing relationships. Which was tough, because I had done a lot of hustling and built my brand quite a bit. This was before LinkedIn, so you can imagine how hard recruiting was back then.”

Mandy Gilbert, CEO of Creative Niche and co-founder of RED Academy

Know Your Limitations

Gilbert feels she was lucky in that the fork in her road led to a career that fit well. Second choice careers seldom work out well for others. She advises those who start a new career to be objective about their skill set when starting a new venture. Gilbert shares that while her people skills were strong, sales were not her strong suit. However, being aware of her deficiency helped her develop that skill.

“I think a lot of entrepreneurs get into a business because they are good at something, but that doesn’t mean that they’re really great at finance, or admin, or leadership,” says Gilbert. “When you grow your business this fast, it becomes really obvious that you need to develop or strengthen certain muscles.

“That’s when I spent most of my time developing [business skills,] doing an MIT program through Entrepreneurs Organization, going to the Bell Leadership Institute in North Carolina, to really get some self-awareness and develop as a personal leader.”

From Financial Slump To Expansion

Like any entrepreneur, Gilbert’s meteoric start was not without its pitfalls. When the stock markets plummeted in 2008, Creative Nice was still in its large space at King Street and Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto, operating with a staff of 22 people. At that time, her company had a gross profit of $800, 000 on the board: It’s understandable how Gilbert could feel they could outsmart the downturn in the economy. It wasn’t to last.

“By the third week of January 2008, we had $30, 0000 and my burn rate was quite substantial. So, that was quite a humbling experience for sure, and trying to figure out how to rebuild the company.”

The company thrived after the recession and grew to have offices in New York and Amsterdam. However, Gilbert reflected on how her experience as a new graduate and how the new economy is affecting the current generation of students entering the workforce. She wanted to make a difference.

How Unemployed Graduates Inspired a New Venture

“I was a bit hungry to try something new. I thought the education space was very interesting. I wanted to make an investment there,” said Gilbert. “Over the years of working with new grads, and seeing how much debt-load they have, I wanted RED to be more of a place of positive impact with tangible job placements.”

“Frankly, I think it’s alarming that in Canada, if I’m correct, roughly 40% of University grads are working in unskilled jobs, and have a debt-load of at least 30K.”

Gilbert’s personal and professional challenges in finding work after graduation guided her decision to create RED Academy. She noticed that few graduates had applicable skills to enter most industries, and saw an opportunity to create a positive influence in the world, while starting a second company.

“I’m not saying universities are bad, there’s a lot of great things about universities. It really helps you with maturity, critical thinking, discipline, all really great things that are going to set up your career. Many of our students that come through RED are post-grads that are looking for more relevant education and skill sets beyond their degree.”

Real Education for Real Experiences

RED stands for Real Education and Development. Gilbert decided to work with a management consulting firm on it, on an acquisition for a small agency, where she was introduced to an individual through a mutual friend in New York. He was CEO of a digital agency and they started a conversation about investing in education.

“I asked him if he would ever consider an acquisition, and he was like, ‘yeah, I would because I really want to do this school. I already have this vision, it’s gonna be called “RED” and it’s going to be high on impact, trying to make a dent in this world, make it a better place.’

As both a recruiter and an entrepreneur, Gilbert knows that finding employees and business partners who align with your values are critical to creating a good corporate culture. Having connected with Colin Mansell to co-found the academy, Gilbert wanted to develop her “impact business” more. “Within three weeks of that meeting we had a deal signed between the two of us, and we decided, “let’s do it.” Our first campus was in Vancouver, and we focused on web development, digital marketing, and UX design.

”We signed our shareholders’ agreement probably – in April, and July 1st we had our first space. We had a 5000 sq foot school.”

Gilbert wanted a different approach to adult learning: It would benefit charities while providing practical courses for students and be accessible to a wide range of backgrounds. “RED is for everyone, including those with university degrees who want to focus on something else. We’ve had students that have been engineers, dentists, accountants, plumbers, actors, you name it.”

“We designed a program so that is fully immersive so that on their very first day, they have a client. They work with various charities, we do impact work for free, it gives our students the opportunity to have face time with clients, collaborating, presentation skills, and at the end of their course, they actually have real portfolios. They are not mock-ups, they actually really work, they have analytics that shows that they have something they can talk to if their work has been launched. So, they have real projects and work within 90 days.”

Gilbert recalls how RED helped a woman get out of a job she hated. “A server out of our local café, said, “hey, I’ve got stuck in this service industry, but I really love your school and I come to some of the programs you offer for free at night. I really want to take it.” We said:

“You really should be able to design the future you desire,” that’s really what occurs at RED. I want everyone to believe that they can do that.

“So, she came to RED and then, after graduating, after a couple of months, she landed a role within a digital creative agency, as a UX designer, so it’s pretty amazing. It’s exponential growth, and it changes people’s’ lives.”

Communication Can Reduce Workplace Stress

Despite being able to travel to places like New York, Amsterdam and Las Vegas, Gilbert acknowledges there are downsides to starting a company. She feels the negative elements shouldn’t dissuade entrepreneurs from starting a new venture. Recognizing what the stressors are before they happen can go a long way towards maintaining emotional and financial equilibrium.

“I think that for a lot of entrepreneurs, it comes down to money and people…some entrepreneurs have a hard time finding themselves, they don’t necessarily have the structures in place, or the communication in place, getting feedback and acknowledgement in place to really solidify their culture.

“The office culture is not about the entrepreneur, it’s about how the people and the product come together.”

“So, until that happens, you feel a little bit exposed, a little bit vulnerable that you are going to lose key people in the company, or be unable to attract the people that you need to grow your business. You’ll only be as good as the people you attract and retain.”

Gilbert feels that the human element of any company is always key, and one that causes both employers and employees worry. “Especially if we’re feeling that we don’t have good relationships with our colleagues… often times, when you’re going through a period of high growth, you can’t offer a great work culture. Something gives when you’re in a high growth period, you’re typically changing directions, and time puts a lot of pressure on the team and that’s a necessary evil.”

As the successful CEO and founder of two companies, Gilbert lends some great advice for entrepreneurs.

“I would say, entrepreneurs by nature can be very reactive, and be very decisive. I’m not going to generalize, but I’ve been exposed to a lot of entrepreneurs…and we tend to have an idea of a hire. We want to do it yesterday, and we can make decisions very quickly. You want to slow down the process and have some discipline and rigour around it, so you don’t have to do a tonne of work. Here are a couple of key things that you have to figure out:

People Skills That Ensure a Good Hire

  1. Ask if the timing right for this hire: Some entrepreneurs will hire somebody that represents the company yesterday, and they can never really deliver up to the standards of the CEO because they are growing, have high growth plans, and ambitious goals. They think the perfect hire represents the business today and also where they’re going.
  2. Consider The Use of Senior Roles: If you hire staff that’s too senior, they’re going to be bored, and they’re going to be expensive. Depending on their role, they’re going to need a lot of staff or resources, because they’re used to that kind of infrastructure.
  3. Assess The Company’s Needs: Having a clear idea of what your vision is for the next one to three years, then figuring out what strengths you will need to offset yours, and what strengths you will need to drive the growth that you need will help ask the right questions for your next hire.
  4. Strategize Your Retention: “A lot of times we’re working with leaders, and we’ll help them go through this process before they hire staff, adds Gilbert. “Ask, ‘how are you going to measure them? What would need to happen in this hire in order to feel really great about their success?’ Get really clear on that,” Gilbert advises.

Gilbert maintains that though this is often a question asked by senior staff, questioning measures of success should be a practice for all hires at every level. “You’ll have more retention and engagement if you do this for all hires,” states Gilbert.  “Create a scorecard: What kind of attributes you’re looking for, and what are the technical answers that they will respond to, just to make sure you’re not throwing any bias.

“Once you have that scorecard, it’s about communication, make sure that there’s an onboarding process has a lot of discipline in it, and you’re not planning any travel during that period, you can really give this individual all the attention and time they need in order to set them up, give them the confidence and the tools to be successful in their role, and successful in your business, and integrate them into your culture well, which is so important.”  

Talk to Like-Minded Experts

“I have been a part of Entrepreneurs Organization. They have great learning events, and I’ve done the Bell Leadership Institute, I’ve done a number of things that have helped me lead and grow, and I still do. For me it’s just about being prepared and organized and sharing some of my challenges and opportunities are right now, and getting their feedback.

“If you can join a group like that, it’s great. There’s just so many different entrepreneurial meetups, and cool things right now, so it doesn’t matter if you’re making a hundred million or twenty-five thousand dollars in revenue, there’s so many like-minded people.”

Gilbert believes in the importance of having a professional development group or sounding board. She says entrepreneurship can be lonely, especially when faced with challenges or vulnerabilities. When working within a larger corporation, she says, people have the support of different people and can lay the blame on another division, or deflect a perceived flaw.

“But, when you’re an entrepreneur, you’re out there, and you’re worried about sometimes making payroll, sometimes wondering if your product is going to be around in a year’s time, or going through a huge sales process…it can really take the wind out of your sails.

“You’ve gotta be out hustling, and innovating, – you have to or you die. The highs and lows of an entrepreneur are like no other.”

“If you’re ever in a catastrophic thinking stage, where a deal falls through and your mind starts to go, ‘omigod, I could lose the house…’ it can be a roller coaster, it really can. So having that open communication about your feelings and open communication can really ease some of that stress, sharing some of your stress with your partner and friends is really important because it’s not fair or kind to yourself to just struggle silently. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs do that.”

A Leader Who Practices Self-Care Leads Effectively

Gilbert adds that self-care goes a long way towards keeping an even keel. That age-old saying about getting enough sleep and eating well really does go a long way towards making a productive and profitable company. “ Honestly, you’ll never get a straight head if you’re working 14 hour days, you’re not exercising, you’re skipping one or two meals, drinking back red bulls, and coffees, you’re not going to be your best self. So, sleeping and all of these basic things go a really long way towards clarity and happiness.

“Being an entrepreneur and having a lot of stress and worry doesn’t give you a hall pass to be a jerk, or be temperamental or rude to your staff.”