Jan. 21, 2021Print | PDF
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Award recognizes an alumnus or alumna for their outstanding work as a business founder or entrepreneurial leader with a demonstrated ability to generate business growth. Lazaridis School of Business and Economics graduate Dave Ceolin (BBA ’89) was the recipient of the 2020 Entrepreneurial Spirit Award.
David Ceolin arrived at Wilfrid Laurier University at the end of the summer of 1985. Like many first-generation university students, he didn’t really know anyone but was excited to make new friends. While he grew up only 30 minutes away in Guelph, Ceolin felt a new sense of independence that would push him to make the kind of connections that are easy to make in such a tight-knit community as Laurier.
He didn’t know it at the time, but Ceolin’s path ahead would include writing an international best-selling book, launching, leading and selling a tremendously successful company, and eventually finding his way to shaping and investing in the next generation of Canadian success stories. But before all that was to come, Ceolin had to get to class on time.
“We all started from the same place, as individuals embarking on our efforts together. When we came out the other side, and were successful in our careers, we recognized that Laurier was a seminal part of our respective stories."
Removed from those days on campus by some 30 years, Ceolin is able to see the full impact his time at Laurier has had on his career and notes the unusually strong connection between the university and its alumni community.
“Laurier is still the little school that punches way above its weight,” says Ceolin. “When you talk to just about anyone in any sector or industry – from arts, to business, to science – if they’ve had a Laurier student or graduate work for them, you hear about their determination, resourcefulness, and collaborative approach.
“These qualities carry through the entire university like DNA and give Laurier the ability to produce graduates who know how to bear down, get the work done, and treat people well along the way.”
Ceolin attributes the Bachelor of Business Administration’s renowned co-op program as the main reason for choosing Laurier. Like many first-generation students, he couldn’t rely on his parents for any kind of established professional network so he had to find those opportunities through co-op work terms.
“It really is an egalitarian idea,” explains Ceolin. “That anyone can have access to great jobs is a natural benefit the school offers, and it’s especially beneficial to students who don’t come from a background where their parents have an extensive business network.”
Ceolin says the success of the co-op program and the careers it has helped launch, are the direct result of the “pioneering vision the university’s leadership has had over the decades.”
Laurier left an imprint on Ceolin’s worldview that he describes as being grounded in community, but at the time, he and his peers had no idea how much their undergraduate experience would shape their lives for the better.
“We all started from the same place, as individuals embarking on our efforts together. When we came out the other side, and were successful in our careers, we recognized that Laurier was a seminal part of our respective stories. There’s a strong tradition at Laurier for producing successful alumni who have founded companies and have helped build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Waterloo Region, Canada and beyond, so to be recognized as part of that proud tradition is an absolute honour.”
Finding ways to improve things is an organizing principle in Ceolin’s life and career. After graduating into the start of the recession of the early ’90s, he recognized it probably wasn’t the best time to start a company and he found a position as a commercial banker at TD.
Managing millions of dollars in loans for small and medium enterprises is good exposure for an aspiring entrepreneur. After several years of seeing perfectly good business ideas get turned down for startup loans due to poor business proposals, Ceolin once again saw an opportunity to combine what he learned in school with his practical experience.
“For someone who wanted to strike out with my own business venture, working at a big bank could be considered very bureaucratic and boring,” says Ceolin. “But instead, it led me to learning enough about business planning to write The Idea Guide: The Step by Step Guide for Planning and Running Your Own Business. The book was a kind of how-to manual for entrepreneurs based on seeing so many inadequate business plans being presented.” The book went on to become a best-seller.
“If we take the philosophy that every experience can either move us closer to our goal or eliminate something that was what we thought we wanted but wasn’t, our efforts are put toward a process of constantly getting to the target in a more refined and focused way."
In 1997 Ceolin was ready to take flight as an entrepreneur. A decade after he began his BBA degree with a vague sense that he’d like to start his own company, he became the Founder and CEO of Digital Cement, a company that took a pioneering approach to digital customer experience management methodology, just when the Internet was beginning to be recognized as a medium for companies to reach and engage customers.
Eventually, the company would grow to 200 employees and attract a roster of blue-chip clients in Canada and the U.S., including Kraft Foods, FedEx, and Dell; culminating in an acquisition by Fortune 500 firm, Pitney Bowes in 2007.
Today, Ceolin applies all he’s learned about how to help startups find their footing through his work on investment committees such as the Laurier Startup Fund, an innovative finance course that sees Laurier business students invest real funds into real companies. He also serves on the Investment Committee of the Province of Ontario’s venture capital fund MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF), and is a partner at his firm Innovation Grade Ventures.
Looking back, his varied set of experiences provided yet another set of perspectives to his worldview about business and life.
“I subscribe to the Steve Jobs theory that every one of your experiences adds a dimension to what you’ll ultimately be doing,” says Ceolin. “Like every other graduate, I was impatient to get to where I was going, but you have to trust the process and understand that something from each experience will lead you toward your goal. Add to that the habit of treating people well along the way and you’ll find yourself being successful in anything you do.”
Ceolin’s approach to career development is not unlike his approach to running a business. He takes an innovative stance by going through trial and error to find what works, and sometimes more importantly, what doesn’t.
“If we take the philosophy that every experience can either move us closer to our goal or eliminate something that was what we thought we wanted but wasn’t, our efforts are put toward a process of constantly getting to the target in a more refined and focused way. This is another reason the co-op program is so valuable to students, because they can take that trial and error approach to their own careers.”
Nowhere close to being finished finding creative ways to solve big problems, Ceolin is partnering with international business coach and author, Caroline Watters to launch an entrepreneurship training program for women.
“My 30 years in the entrepreneurial sector have shown me firsthand that the capabilities of women in business,” explains Ceolin. “In fact, I’ve seen how many women-led companies outperform those run by men, especially in the startup space.
“This is a very exciting time for investors because we have access to this huge untapped resource of female talent that will really drive the economy forward in a big way.”
Ceolin and Watters have combined everything they know about startup strategies and training to launch The Mode School, a 12-week program that acts as a platform from which aspiring female entrepreneurs can investigate their business ideas and start their own companies.
“I believe everyone has the capacity to become an entrepreneur,” says Ceolin. “The trick is recognizing that we all have different traits and qualities, but instead of fitting an individual into the mould of the ‘perfect entrepreneur’ we want to show women how to take their own individual traits and hone them into the skills needed to launch and run successful businesses.”
In his new role as educator, Ceolin looks to his two daughters for inspiration. “When I look at them, I see two people who can do anything they want with their lives, so the more career doors we can open for young women, the better off we’ll all be.”
More information about The Mode School is available on their website. The Lazaridis School congratulates David on his award and appreciates his participation in this article.