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Navigating Turbulent Times: A Conversation with Ann Kaplan

Photo courtesy of Kayla Rocca.

Self-made businesswoman Dr. Ann Kaplan is proof positive that yes, you can have it all and do it all if you find it. As president and CEO of iFinance Canada, she took the company from a start-up in 1996 to one of Canada’s largest consumer finance companies today — with loan applications exceeding $2 billion. If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she also handles an extensive portfolio of luxury real estate properties across the country.

The mother of eight, author of seven books, in-demand entrepreneur, and television host appears in the Canada Top 100 List, Canadian Business Magazine, and Profit Magazine year after year. Kaplan has been recognized with over forty international and national awards for her many achievements, including the Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year (2000 and 2015) and the Award of Excellence for Canada.

Kaplan has hosted television shows including Global’s NYtv (featuring surgical and non-surgical makeovers), The Ultimate Makeover, Beauty by Design, and CosmedicTv. In addition, she was many viewers’ favourite housewife on TV’s The Real Housewives of Toronto. When she does not appear in front of the camera, she often appears in front of the microphone as a motivational speaker, frequenting the lecture circuit while discussing bank regulation, credit lending, and entrepreneurship.

Eager to use her resources for good causes, she has helped save countless lives by creating and donating more than 70,000 face masks during the COVID pandemic to frontline workers at Sick Kids Hospital, Sunnybrook Hospital, and retirement homes. Kaplan also started a fashion platform for new designers and brands, promoting the inclusion of social responsibility and fairness in fashion. Following this launch, Ryerson University announced its partnership with Kaplan with the AnnKM Fashion & Social Impact Initiative, which will support institutional inclusion initiatives. UforChange also incorporated AnnKM in the naming of their fashion school.

Kaplan epitomizes the drive and determination needed to accomplish one’s goals. She offers The Edge readers ideas on how to navigate turbulent times, prepare for the future of the business world, and the best practices to manage a team.

What is your secret to staying focused and running multiple operations smoothly?

I have built many businesses and have currently been running a national finance company for over 25 years. My understanding of the corporate world and the focus it takes to successfully navigate multiple businesses is that it takes a team. The moment that I pat myself on the back is the same moment when I look in the proverbial mirror and say, “Get over yourself.” I lead from a platform based on values and hard work, and I align myself with people who are like minded, talented, and have incredible skill sets.

Running and managing multiple operations takes considerable balance. To be successful, it is important to put a good team in place and to focus on each initiative unto itself. I use the saying, “Nose in, fingers out,” which is to say don’t do the job that your management is doing, but make sure your managers are doing their jobs.

The business landscape has changed drastically over the last decade with increasing social media and technology. Can you explain how you’ve adapted?

Those things happen very quickly, and if we don’t change with the time, we’ll be left in the dust. Everything now is interconnected, and COVID expedited our understanding of the impact of social media and technology.

With these changes, you’ll see fewer brick-and-mortar businesses. It is not that everything will shift; it is that everything has shifted. If you’re waiting for things to return to what they used to be, it isn’t going to happen. It is important to incorporate solutions into any business model with consideration of the new-thinking customer.

What are some strategies that entrepreneurs can utilize to help their businesses thrive and grow?

When you’re thinking of your business strategy, ask, “How can I mass distribute this?” If you’re trying to find a solution for yourself, you must realize that somebody else is trying to find that solution too. For example, Uber didn’t replace taxis. Uber found a solution for ride pickup. In the end, they took control of the ride market. Think of solutions and distribution, and if they don’t exist, make them.

What impact has the pandemic had on your businesses, employees, and you, personally? What systems or processes did you put in place to navigate through it?

We’re a finance company. We’re lending across the country. We already had the systems and processes in place to make automated credit decisions; however, when we went into lockdown, we had to immediately move employees to work out of their homes. We supported a hundred employees throughout the pandemic and continued operating. It was complicated, but my response was, “We’re a team. We support each other. We will figure it out.”

I knew that we would be affected adversely. The demand for financing increased, while simultaneously we had to reconsider how we looked at an individual’s ability to service a loan. The pandemic expedited online lending. It expedited medical procedures getting done because people started looking at themselves. People started focusing on their homes, purchasing pets, and basically shifting to the internet to make purchases. Purchasing changed. The demand to borrow went up, but it also shifted the job market. Needless to say, we had to adapt to the new customer.

In today’s business environment, what are some critical challenges and issues directly affecting women in Fortune 500 companies regarding wages, promotions, or gender equality?

The Fortune 500 companies get scrutinized for diversity, gender pay gaps, and women on boards. If there is an issue and a Fortune 500 company does not address it clearly and concisely, they will get hammered. I think organizations should have some governance and a response team for social impact.

I started a platform using the name “AnnKM” in the fashion world. It isn’t a platform necessarily for fashion or design; the platform addresses the need for the positive social impact that the fashion industry can have. Just as UforChange’s fashion school will now be called the AnnKM Initiative for Positive Social Impact Through Fashion, Ryerson University incorporated the AnnKM Fashion & Social Impact Initiative. Both will support institutional inclusion in the fashion industry. This encompasses fairness — consideration to the fabrics you’ve used, where a garment is made, size inclusivity, and consideration of fairness in gender and equality. Really, this message isn’t isolated to fashion, but every industry. It’s not a not-for-profit company; we donate the proceeds from sales to charity.

Have you established specific models regarding diversity and inclusion in your businesses?

We hire for skill, talent, and values, not intentionally balancing our talent in consideration of diversity. That said, we have a very diverse group of talented and skilled individuals. The culture of our organization incorporates and embraces inclusion and fairness. If I were to state there is a specific model — and there isn’t — but there is a culture of respect for our differences and inclusion.

Being such an accomplished figure in business and leadership and winning numerous awards, how can you influence others with similar interests and aspirations?

There are no limitations other than yourself. You have to first get out of your own way. Don’t look back. Surround yourself with people that lift you up and hold you up and forge forward. Be in the moment and keep learning. In fact, soak up information and learn to process and connect what you have learned to achieve output. Don’t look at the end game but consider that every step will contribute to your future.

Your wit, passion, and authenticity are apparent in your books, including How to Be Successful In Spite Of Yourself. Which of the recommended principles have you applied in your own life, and how have they worked for you?

The book talks about the principles of success and how to live for your values. First, your values are what define you, and every action you take should be based on your values. Second, incorporate a lifestyle that allows you to be in good physical shape and embraces a healthy lifestyle. Yes, that includes food, substance abuse, sleep, etc. It is difficult to focus on success when you get up each day focusing on repair. Third, purge the people that pull you back. 

You should be aligned with people that support you in business and in your personal life. Fourth, learn. Gain knowledge. If not in education, read books. Take in what people say and how they act but keep learning. Knowledge is power. Lastly, move forward. Don’t look back. Have values you incorporate in your decisions. Have a healthy, clear mind, experience, and a learned brain and then ultimately step it up. There is nothing you cannot achieve from that platform where you are willing to put the work in.

During your tenure on Slice’s hit TV show The Real Housewives of Toronto, what did you learn about teamwork and cultural differences from working with a diverse group of women?

I didn’t really know any of the housewives before the show, and in the show, they separate you, so you don’t discuss things between filming. I learned that life reflects what happens, and people are out for that moment. I think COVID has pushed us more forward in that we’re trying to figure out and gain attention. [In] reality TV, you have to be engaging at the moment. You can’t just sit there and say nothing. Reality TV tells you, “I’ve got a camera in front of me, and whatever I’m doing, I have to be succinct, and I have to be engaged.” What I took away from that show was that realization as to the impact of focusing on the moment. Basically, I live my life as if I am still always in front of a camera.

When it comes to teamwork, in particular with people you do not know, there is an underlying feeling of survival. You question motives and you don’t see the other side until it plays out on television months later. You don’t know if someone was on your team or purely self motivated. You can also consider that, similar in life, we do not know intentions; we can only assume and at some point, the hand may be shown and surprise us.

One of your charities, MasksForEveryone, has donated masks to frontline workers and those in need. Would you care to elaborate on this?

2020 was a difficult year. The reality of the pandemic shifted us to a fearful mode of survival. People scrambled for the essentials, including simple supplies such as masks. Unfortunately, supplies were short as were the resources to make them. My self-motivated survival shifted in one phone call: my dear friend who works at Street Health called me in tears, “Ann, we don’t have enough masks. The workers don’t have masks. People on the street don’t have masks.” I replied, “I will see what I can do.”

Well, I had material from designing clothing. I had seamstresses, and I had the will. A few of the designers made mask templates and a how-to video. We sourced filters at Canadian Tire, sourced gloves and drivers, and a business was born. So far, we have donated over 70,000 masks to frontline workers, Sick Kids Hospital, Sunnybrook, and retirement homes throughout Ontario. I paid a dollar per mask to the seamstresses who were helping from the good of their hearts but appreciated a little income during shutdown.

Are there any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with anyone wanting to pursue a career in finance or technology?

These are exciting times. The recent expedited shift to online shopping has and will continue to open opportunities for entrepreneur-minded people. How can I get that product to market? Think about it. Finance is a product just like any other product that can be attained in a store or online. Technology is the vehicle to distribute your product. Consider ways to mass distribute in a user-friendly way, then create the technology that enable your distribution channel.

Do you have an inspirational motto or quotation?

“The universe rearranges itself to accommodate your picture of reality.”

Jennifer M. Williams | Editor-in-Chief

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