But that didn't stop her from launching a career in sales and starting two not-for-profit organizations.
Ms. Robertson, currently an owner at Odgers Berndston, recently spoke with Fenix Solutions Inc. CEO Jennifer MacKinnon, who writes a monthly column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.
Tell me about yourself.
I have two beautiful daughters. I had my oldest, Melanie, with my first husband, Phil. He was in the RCMP and we were posted to the Yukon in the early 1970s. I then had my second daughter, Suzannah, with my current husband, Ron.
When we moved to Halifax in the early 1970s, I joined an employment agency that specialized in staffing secretarial and hospitality positions. The woman I worked for was let go and I replaced her. I felt badly about this, so I took her to lunch. She was working at Xerox at the time and, as we met for lunch, I met her bosses who ultimately asked me to work for them.
Xerox was known to be difficult to get into: you had to have a university degree (I didn't have one), I was blonde (they didn't hire blondes corporately) and I was a woman (not many women worked for Xerox at the time). In fact, I was one of the first women in Canada they hired. That was my transition from recruiting to Xerox.
What was your role at Xerox?
I was a sales rep in the photocopier division. I was at Xerox for a total of three years when I left because of my illness. I didn't know I had multiple sclerosis at the time. It was about four years later when I was officially diagnosed. I have had it for years.
Was sales a new position for you?
I realized I could sell when I was at the secretarial staffing agency. I arrived at the agency as a sales rep and ended up running the company. That's why Xerox hired me; they knew I could sell. I have been in sales my whole life as a result.
Why did you have to leave Xerox?
I became ill with what was later diagnosed as MS. I am a great believer in fate and truly believe that when a door closes a window opens. My husband and I were always looking for homes to fix up and sell. However, as soon as we would identify one, invariably, a friend would approach us and ask if we minded if they bought it. That is when I thought I should start making money from this type of transaction. Always very resilient and resourceful, Ron and I started our own real estate company "Robertson Real Estate."
We started immediately after my leaving Xerox. My husband was my broker but I was the principal agent. This proved to be a very lucrative move.
Was it hard to run the company given your girls were so young?
No. I ran my business from my home and I always had housekeepers. I realized that I loved selling, but I didn't want to manage people so I never had more than one person working for me at a time. I knew what I could manage and what I couldn't and built my company around that.
Where did you go from there?
When I was officially diagnosed with MS, I was directed to the most wonderful naturopath, Lois Hare. It changed my life and over the next couple of years, I learned everything possible about improving my health and consequently my life. All my amalgam fillings were replaced with porcelain. I produced a TV series on WTN, the forerunner of W, devoted to educating the world about the virtues of naturopathic medicine, and joined the board of the Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine.
My husband owned another company called Murray Axmith, which he wanted to expand from Halifax to Ottawa. I felt like I had to leave town to get out of the real estate business because I was so busy and wouldn't be able to stop the momentum unless I left or added agents. We came to Ottawa to launch our Murray Axmith company and stayed for a short while. We returned to Halifax simply because Ron still had his executive recruiting company, Robertson Surrette, there.
And then you moved back to Ottawa.
Yes. The main reason was because our youngest daughter, Suzannah, was modelling and was supposed to go to Toronto to pursue her career. She didn't want to go to Toronto; she only wanted to go to Ottawa because she wanted to go to Canterbury. And, I remember asking her "It's a performing arts school, what talent (other than modelling) do you have?"
It turns out she is a wonderful and gifted visual artist. We didn't even know she could draw. She has done most of the gorgeous paintings in our home. I had told her if she got into Canterbury I would take her to Ottawa. She was accepted quickly and I had to tell my husband that we were coming to Ottawa and that he needed to sell the house and come up and join us.
During this time Frank Magazine was very popular. It had started in Halifax and I was well known because of our real estate company. My husband called me in Ottawa to tell me that I was on the cover of the magazine (again) with a headline saying "What makes knowledgeable realtor, Brenda Robertson, think she can get $xxx for her house." But I did. The person who said bad publicity is better than no publicity at all certainly knew what they were talking about. I might be the only reader of Frank to have sent them a Valentine.
And you brought Robertson Surrette here.
Yes. We brought my husband's company, Robertson Surrette, to Ottawa. My husband asked me to be a part of the company and of course I said yes. Within two years we joined Ray and Berndston, an international affiliation of independently owned executive search firms.
Our oldest daughter Melanie came to visit from Fredericton with her future husband. We had promised to help him find a job and he ended up being interviewed by my husband. He is a wonderful man with great attributes and, most of all, he can sell.
We decided to offer him a position in the company. As a result my daughter, Melanie, came to me about six months later and said "It's not fair that my husband has to report to both his mother and father-in-law" and she was right. So with that I left the company. I stayed on the board of directors, but left an active position at the company.
What did you do next?
In the meantime, I renovated and sold homes here in Rockcliffe where we live. It's easy for me and I love it. Some people knit, I renovate and sell houses. We live in them for a while and then sell them. I served on several community boards and produced a television series titled, Mind, Body and Spirit with Up Front Entertainment. This series highlighted the value of naturopaths. One of the boards I was serving on was the Ontario College of Naturopathic Medicine.
What does it mean to be on the board of Odgers Berndston?
It means I am part of every major decision for the company. I am still an owner and one of four partners that have signing authority.
What did you do next?
I started the DIVA Foundation, a Canadian charitable not-for-profit organization, 18 years ago with six other founding members. Diva is dedicated to extending the good health life expectancy of Canadian women.
How does it do that?
We reward clinical breakthroughs. We don't support research but we do support results. We can highlight the individuals and make a donation to them. We have a very popular speaker series that feature people who contribute to women's health - lawyers, financial advisors and brilliant doctors, both naturopathic and allopathic (regular medicine).
We have been fortunate to get donations to the DIVA Foundation. I was president for six years and since then we have grown in popularity and awareness. Our new head is a wonderful woman named Grace Betts. At the time of transition, I assured her she would just have to serve for a couple of years. That was at least eight years ago, and she is still going strong. Thank you, Grace.
It has attracted a lot of interest outside of Ottawa - various places across Canada want to establish their own DIVA Foundation.
What are you doing now?
My mother, a fabulous story teller, died two years ago and I wanted to do a project for her. With that I established a company called Face2Face Projects, which aims to collect the largest critical mass of stories in Canada. Lynda Partner is the truly amazing president of our working board. It is a not-for-profit company and our entire board is volunteer. We are awaiting our charitable status.
We have a parallel board of ambassadors, which includes philanthropist Shirley Greenberg, Second Cup founder Frank O'Dea, National Arts Centre vice-chair Adrian Burns, author John Gray, Senator Joseph Day as well as former senator and TV host Laurier Lapierre. Each of our ambassadors represent amazing stories of their own.
A mass collection of oral histories means what?
It means you can sit down with me and tell a story and that would be recorded and archived and you would be given a CD you can take with you and share with others. And these would be made available to everyone across Canada – even the world - to learn, inform and experience from each other. As with all good ideas, this is the first intention. It is evolving as we grow.
We now have a website with our first fifteen stories recorded in video. The main part of last year has been dedicated to growing our board and becoming legal.
Being a woman entrepreneur, were you one-of-a-kind in the 1970s?
There were others. Not many, but there were others. I have always had that drive. I have to be kept extremely busy and I love being focused on something that's bigger than me. I was always a good sales person. It's in my nature. But there is the other side of selling, which is capitalizing on ideas to optimize the impact of them. That's what really excites me.
Did you take formal sales training?
Yes, while I was at Xerox I received the best sales training in the world. In fact I often thought it made me lethal in my real estate business. It was impossible for people not to buy.
You were a natural sales person but, with the combination of formal training, you were a force to be reckoned with?
I suppose so. When I lived in the Yukon I had a 70-year-old neighbour who ran an Avon business. When she became ill, she asked me to take over her business. I was only about 23. At that time Avon had a perfume called "Roses, Roses." I loved it. I had never used Avon myself and I simply sold within her territory. People in the Yukon bought more of that perfume! It taught me so much about selling. Specifically that people value the tactileness of one-on-one selling. And I realized that if I could go in person to see someone, they would buy from me.
I learned that in order to sell, you must believe in what you are representing. I often think that if I had stayed with Avon, I would have made trillions of dollars. My dining room would be stacked from floor-to-ceiling with boxes of orders for this perfume. I realized then that selling is easy if you have a product you believe in. And I believed in this product. I never learned so much about selling as I did taking over my neighbour's Avon job. And, of course, I was delighted to give it back to her when she was well again.
Did you have that passion for Xerox products?
Oh yes, I did. I believed in its products. I was so excited about automatic duplexing that it was easy selling. It was exciting for me, so it made me a good sales person. If I am gung-ho about something, it becomes my personality, it becomes me.
That's why real estate was a natural. I loved real estate, I loved houses and I loved the stories of the owners and it was simply a matchmaking effort. I would look for those same qualities in a new buyer and then the house would sell.
Do you have grandchildren?
I have four gorgeous granddaughters ranging in ages from 7 to 13. From the eldest to the youngest: Martha, Molly, Julia and Lily.
Molly is our star entrepreneur. She loves the American fashion designer Betsey Johnson and wants to go to New York City to become "Bitsey Betsey." I hosted a party at my house featuring Wynn Jacobsen's jewellery and Molly organized it all: she invited all the guests, set up the room for the party and organized the event. And she was only 10.
In order to sell the products better, she filled up a bracelet with charms that she wore, personally greeted everyone at the door and marched them to the table where the jewelry was set up. Every one of the girls left the party with a full charm bracelet simply from following what Molly was wearing. There were 30 girls at the party! She ended up being an amazing sales person that night.
What are your hobbies?
It is necessary for me to be involved in the community. Having started two not-for-profits, this satisfies this need.
I love family events, whether it is Sunday night dinners with my granddaughters or hosting my siblings and their families for various events.
I have a beautiful saltwater pool in my backyard, and I need to swim to stay active.
I think I am renowned as a very good people connector. And I love doing it.
Do you like to cook?
No. Dinners are catered.
Do you have a good network of women?
Yes, I have the best. I cherry-pick the people I want on my boards and foundations, and they are fabulous people. I always choose people as though I am putting together a family. I tend to bond with people who are connected and our groups become intertwined. This is very efficient for networking. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have wonderful friends and connections all over Canada. I have many friends who think they could never leave Ottawa. I could go live anywhere in Canada and know someone everywhere I go.
I am a humanist; two people have recently told me that. My greatest strength is that I am a very strong people connector, particularly over dinner parties or similar events where individuals can relax and interact easily.
I love the concept of inviting people into your home and having dinner for the purpose of connecting new and interesting people.
Yes, I might try to create a more formal version of that where I host dinner on a monthly basis. I love this form of networking and connecting.
Any challenges along the way while running your businesses?
I have been in business my whole life. And, I worked while I had young children and continued to work throughout their lives. During my time at Xerox it was popular for women to dress to be taken seriously and that often meant not dressing like a woman. I never understood that and enjoyed dressing like a woman.
I understood that the people that make decisions and buy (at that time) were men. When I would sell, I would keep in mind the approach that I could sell to men and women. It didn't matter who. "Sell, don't tell," was my approach. And, if you focus more on selling you can accomplish so much more.
- I have never been to university. I could not justify the opportunity cost. But I also knew I was capable of getting jobs (that required a degree) regardless.
- I am a candle lighter. When I travel I will stop at Catholic churches and light candles. I was raised Protestant, but I always loved the more formalized traditions of the Catholic faith.