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From barista to Dragon

CBC Dragon and tech entrepreneur Michele Romanow, centre, meets with current managers of the Tea Room, Eleanor McAauley and Kristy Tu, during her visit to the ILC in April. Ms. Romanow, a Queen's Engineering alum, founded the Tea Room during her time at the university. (Supplied Photo)

When Michele Romanow (Sc’07, MBA’08), best known as one of the business 'Dragons' on CBC's Dragon's Den, returned to Queen's earlier this year, it was a special, personal kind of homecoming.

This is where she started on the path to becoming a massively successful entrepreneur after all.

“I think the most important thing that happened for me at Queen’s is that I was able to start a business,” Romanow says. “I was able to use what I learned in engineering, go through the approvals process, figure out how to raise a little bit of capital and actually start the Tea Room from scratch. I have so many warm memories of starting my first business here.”

It’s that foundational Queen’s engineering education from which Romanow propelled herself to a hugely successful career. From a student enterprise in light refreshment and social space – one that continues a decade later as an integral part of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science student experience – she has become a national figure in commerce and media.

She co-founded consumer deal site Buytopia.ca, then SnapSaves, an online couponing venture sold to Grouponin 2014.  She was consequently named one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada in 2015 by the Women’s Executive Network, then one of the Forbes Top 20 Most Disruptive Millennials on a Mission. And last year she earned a spot as a Dragon on season 10 of the popular, long-running CBC television show,Dragon’s Den.

But it wasn’t just a straight shot from espresso machine to boardroom.

“There’s this narrative that if you want to change the world, you go to school, do two things then magically build a huge, huge thing,” Romanow told a crowd at an April 2 return visit to Queen’s. “In my experience, it was never like that. It was much messier than that, much more surprising, and it was certainly much more difficult.”

In one of several early ventures she and her partners noticed, for example, that high-end chefs across North America were hungry from an undersupply of caviar. It was a great businesses opportunity, one they seized. There was a strong start but then the bottom fell out of the luxury goods market with the financial crisis of 2008 and regulatory hurdles made export to US clients untenable. The business lost momentum and Romanow took an executive job with a large retailer. But she and her partners didn’t give up. They used the last of their caviar funds to bankroll SnapSaves, worked on their own time to bring it to market and the rest is history.