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‘Choose courage over comfort,’ advises Dragon

Manjit Minhas schools Sudbury crowd during Venture North conference
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Manjit Minhas, cofounder and coowner at Minhas Brewery, was the keynote speaker during Venture North in Sudbury on Sept. 22.

Manjit Minhas was at a career crossroads when a chance encounter with a black bear put everything into perspective.

It was 2000. The liquor business she'd established the previous year with her brother and business partner, Ravinder, was thriving. But Minhas envisioned more.

Passionate about beer — a holdover from her undergraduate days studying engineering at the University of Calgary — the liquor connoisseur was eager to "ruffle up and disrupt the beer business” in Western Canada.

But with the country's big four conglomerates hogging the market share, doubts crept in: how could a small, family-owned enterprise like theirs make an impact against the lobbying power of the Labatts and Molsons of the world?

Cut to a Sunday summer hike with Ravinder.

Minhas was espousing to her skeptical brother the benefits of expansion — she had already sketched out, in her head, the details of their debut lager — when a massive black bear appeared in their path, just 15 feet ahead.

“No matter if your whole life you've been told — which I was up until that point — what to do when you see a bear that close, trust me, you'll forget,” she laughed.

“What you want to instinctively do is run, and that is what you are told all your life not to do."

Minhas and her brother resisted the urge to bolt, calmly and quietly waiting until the bear finished snacking on buffalo berries and meandered away.

The entire incident elapsed over 10 minutes, although it had felt like hours.

In the aftermath, Minhas said, she recognized the experience as a lesson she could apply to business.

If the siblings wanted to move their company forward, they had to acknowledge the risks but keep going anyway.

“I think it's important for all of us always to be cautious and conservative, but to be courageous, and to understand that having courage doesn't mean you don't be afraid — trust me, I get afraid a lot because I try a lot of new things,” she said.

“But I don't let the fear stop me, from moving forward, from putting a smile on my face, from taking some risks, from knowing that I might not succeed, from trying.

"We all need to choose courage over comfort, especially when there's opportunities in front of us.”

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Minhas imparted this wisdom while speaking in Sudbury during Venture North, a one-day business and innovation conference hosted by Northern Ontario Angels and held at Science North on Sept. 22.

Following the bear encounter, the Minhas siblings stepped up their expansion plans, launching their brewing business in Calgary in 2002. Their inaugural beer, Mountain Crest Classic Lager, was a hit and is still widely distributed across Canada and the U.S.

Connoisseurs will note the design on the can incorporates the silhouette of a black bear as a nod to the moment that pushed them toward their next milestone.

"On the tough days, I definitely always look at that can and it reminds me why I decided and why I truly, deeply wanted to get into the beer business — to provide an option, something I was really passionate about — but why I was courageous that day and what the experience has been 20 years later."

Today, Minhas Brewery, Distillery and Winery produces 90 kinds of spirits, wines, and beers, which are distributed in countries around the world, generating annual revenues upwards of $220 million.

Minhas’ business prowess has garnered her numerous accolades, but she's perhaps best known for her turn on the CBC TV show Dragons’ Den, where she's appeared as one of a panel of capital venturists for the last eight years.

Now in its 17th season, the show appeals to the average Canadian because there's a genuine interest in entrepreneurship and innovation, Minhas said.

Though she described it as an “amazing” experience, when she was first approached to appear on the show, she declined.

As a busy young mom of a toddler, and better known for working the back end of the business, suddenly being thrust into the spotlight didn't appeal to her. It was her family that convinced her to change her mind.

“Up until that point, there was definitely no diversity on that panel,” she laughed. But also, she believed that sharing her story could help “Canadians to understand that there's different paths to entrepreneurship and what investors look like can be different in a variety of different ways.”

For entrepreneurs getting into business, she offered a few key pieces of advice.

One: get a mentor, or some mentors, who can provide guidance, listen to your ideas, and give a little push when needed. Mentors can change as your needs in business change, Minhas noted, and that's OK.

She also encouraged business owners to become mentors themselves, as she's done, to share the knowledge they've learned. Minhas is particularly passionate about working with young women, helping them to “break glass ceilings, and find their passions, and not make the same mistakes I did.”

“I believe we have to all give back and be involved in each other's lives.”

Learning to negotiate is a powerful skill that can help entrepreneurs achieve their goals, she added. Yet it's not a skill most people are born with.

To learn how to negotiate purposefully, and with intent, she advises entrepreneurs to practise, by taking courses, reading books, listening to podcasts, or whatever medium helps hone that skill.

It's a tip she so innately believes in, she said, everyone at her company takes some kind of course in negotiation at least every six months.

"You don't get what you deserve in life,” she said. "You get what you negotiate.”