Startup to Startup: A conversation with Leila Lavaee

Written by Jackie Clarke

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.

Travel Design by Leila Lavaee, Founder and Chief Travel Designer

First job: Process Analyst at a consulting engineering firm (as an intern)

Favourite quote: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” -Nelson Mandela

Hobby: Cycling, hiking & travel planning. In fact, just got back from a cycling trip to Niagara Falls

Guilty Pleasure: I am a foodie, full tasting menus with wine tasting and not counting calories is hard!

Mentor: My parents, Vicki Bradley

Jackie: Leila we’re living in unprecedented times. How can women entrepreneurs support other women and their communities as we all try to emerge from this crisis in one piece – and hopefully stronger!

Leila: It’s going to all come down to technology and how we can use it to our advantage. A lot of businesses had to pivot and the majority of them had to leverage technology and new business models, at least one of them or perhaps both.  A couple of women entrepreneur groups that I belong to started running more focused networking around give and ask to help with brainstorming and providing support to members. There has been a lot of emphasis on supporting local businesses as well. I know a couple of women that feature women-owned small businesses in their newsletter or social media to increase awareness about them, or they are including them in their podcast.

And back to the importance of technology, my husband works for a big technology firm. He’s been extremely busy working with clients who had to scramble to put a network in place so their employees could work from home. Some clients were not convinced that their employees could remain productive when they weren’t working out of the office – they have been proven wrong through trial by fire!

Jackie: We’ve noticed that as well. A lot of staff who now have to work remotely didn’t have laptops available to work from home. So there’s been a massive amount of work and expense to install hardware in everyone’s home and get them access to the company’s network so they can continue to work on their projects. There are certain sectors definitely busier than others during this time.

Leila: I’m not new to small business. I’ve been hanging out in this particular genre for 17 years, actually, since I started my business three years ago. We’ve gone through some challenging discussions over the last few months in terms of shortened work weeks, etc. So, yeah, being a small business owner and entrepreneur definitely adds a layer of stress to your day. But, on the other hand, it provides you with lots of great benefits as well. So, yes, it’s something we choose to do and grow from it – in the good times and the bad.

Jackie: What can we as small business owners do to support our networks and communities during this particular situation and others that we could be faced with in the future?

Leila: One of the things that I was actually reflecting on was the fact that we have not seen communities coming together as we have in the past few months. Large to small businesses are providing a lot of free services and there’s a lot of promotion for buying local – from your local cheese shop, butcher, whatever. And there are some other entrepreneurs that are promoting other small businesses just in terms of seeing if you can support them in any shape or form. And I think we’ve all done everything in our power to give back. Personally, I’ve had some challenges because both of my businesses are about travel, and of course, people cannot travel at this point!  But my mission in life is to educate and inspire and assist people, the travel lovers, to go and see the beautiful world that we live in. So the past few months of dealing with cancellations and bringing people back to Canada and all the chaos that I guess we all have to live in, was particularly tough. But I started thinking about how I can give back and how I can still keep the spirit of travel alive. So I started a virtual travel series, providing education, knowledge, everything you need to know about a particular country from culture, history, food, drink, costumes. And so far, in the past few months, we’ve travelled to Peru, Morocco, South Africa, and many other places. And I’m providing information on travel topics of interest – in particular how to travel safely in the future. So this whole concept of supporting the community goes back to my brand and what I believe in. I promote working with small boutique hotels, family-run business, local guides, and other small businesses that really care about you personally rather than supporting the giant corporations where you’re just a number.  This is something I knew was important but now more than ever. It’s brought out the best in us as humans.

Also since we were out of lockdown in Canada, I started focusing on local travels. We began creating and sharing itineraries for local travels. There are still too many places a lot of us haven’t explored yet. Also, we arrange quite a bit of weekend getaways for our clients.

We are spending billions of dollars exploring outside of Canada, and we all have to bring at least portions of that money to support our local economy and our local businesses. Travel was hit hard and about 10% of jobs are somewhat in travel, hospitality.

Jackie: You’re absolutely right Leila, it’s been a wakeup call for all of us. These are the sorts of positive efforts that hopefully will live on. Moving to another topic, what was your impetus becoming an entrepreneur? Why did you decide to go out on your own?

Leila: For me, it was a combination of different things. I had always loved to travel – I’ve been to more than 50 countries. So travelling was a burning passion inside me. I was already travel planning as a kind of side hustle before I realized it should become my business. I had planned family trips and my friend’s honeymoons just because I loved doing it and I was great at it. What became frustrating was I had no time for my own planning anymore as I had climbed the corporate ladder. I was super busy at my job working for a CTO of one of Canada’s top financial institutions. I had no time to plan my own trips, which is something I absolutely love. I tried using traditional travel agencies, but nobody gave me the same type of detailed itinerary and expertise that I expected. So I did a little bit of research to find out so who is actually providing this level of service? And nobody was serving me!

The other thing that was weighing on me was my frustration working in the corporate space. I did industrial engineering, then went back to school and I did my master’s in marketing analytics. It was a very male-dominated space throughout my school years and work. For the majority of my adult life, I have been the only woman in the room and the only women on the team. My last manager was not very supportive of me or willing to introduce any new ideas I would bring to the table. Frankly, it was really weighing on me. Before reporting to this guy, I had won two quarterly awards under the previous administration and now I was barely getting an average review. The light went on for me then. This was not a world I wanted to spend any more time in, especially when he called me too ambitious.  As I think back on it, if it wasn’t for this particular manager, I might still be in the corporate world and would have missed out on all the beautiful dreams of forming my own business and pursuing my passion. Even if I fail, I have tried at least. I have to admit, my husband and family were super supportive of me.

Jackie: He did you a real favour providing the impetus to pursue your passion and to fill a gap that needed to be filled!

Leila: Absolutely! I just started thinking about who I wanted to be. And maybe not to focus too much on the ‘how’ but more focus on the ‘who’ and what kind of life I wanted to have and my value system. Then I started putting it all together!  A lot of us are under the impression that you go to school, you get a good education and then you work in a series of companies as an employee. And that’s basically how your life goes. Taking the leap and becoming an entrepreneur, it’s showcasing the possibility of taking that great idea of yours and turning it into a really profitable business.

Jackie: That’s an amazing story of your journey Leila. Thanks for sharing. Tell us how your network of friends supported and helped you along the way.

Leila: I had joined Verity which is a women-only club in Toronto a couple of years prior. I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurial women that helped me to see the possibilities within me and how I could apply my passion to start my own business.

Some of their businesses seemed odd to me at first. Some had left corporate to start their own businesses and their stories were somewhat similar to mine. Wendy Buchanan started an eyewear styling business, which I think is amazing. She simplifies the process of selecting eyewear to help her clients accessorize and stylize their total image with fabulous specs. Kristi Stangland organizes and runs spiritual retreats and she was a CPA before she started this business. Yeah, incredible isn’t it?  Women sometimes don’t think that they can make such a dramatic change in their careers but if they really want it they make it happen. Meeting these amazing entrepreneurs opened my eyes to first of all, there’s a lot of varied and successful women out there. And secondly, there’s no limit to the type of business you can start up if you have the passion.

My network wasn’t entirely supportive, however. Some of my corporate network had a hard time understanding why I wanted to leave the tech industry to focus on travel – even though they knew it was my passion. If I wanted to start my own business why wasn’t I focusing on consulting in data analytics, technology, transformation stuff like that? I got some harsh feedback from some of them who thought I was stupid and didn’t know what I was doing.

Jackie: It’s so unfortunate when women project their own fear and insecurity on others. How did you react?

Leila: I felt that I had to stick to the advice I was getting from my entrepreneur friends. My corporate colleagues were giving me their opinion – which I had asked for – but it didn’t resonate with me like the words and deeds of the entrepreneurs I knew. When I started doing my research for my business plan, my entrepreneur friends were so supportive and provided great feedback based on their experience. They introduced me to people in the travel space that I could talk to and pick their brain to see how they survived. Some of them told me to reconsider travel – it is hard and there’s lots of competition but this only served to fuel my passion!  What books do I need to read? How do I need to change my mindset? Because I strongly believe that you need to operate on a very different mindset in the entrepreneurial world. It’s all on you – you’re not one of a hundred people in your department who can share the risk and the stress. You are literally your own business.

Jackie: Leila this has been a really interesting interview. Thanks for your honesty in sharing some of the highs and lows on your journey. You are an inspiration to others!

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