Dal alumni who are now Canada’s rising business leaders point to common theme for success

- June 11, 2024

L-R: Panelists Daniel Bartek and Faten Alshazly speak with moderator Shakara Russell Joseph. (Provided photos)
L-R: Panelists Daniel Bartek and Faten Alshazly speak with moderator Shakara Russell Joseph. (Provided photos)

Discussing the importance of making meaningful connections at an event named after Neville Gilfoy (BA’75) just seems right.

Gilfoy, who passed away in 2016, was the head of Progress Media Group for many decades and a strong advocate for entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia. He is remembered for the way he built connections and maintained relationships with everyone he met. He not only was a pioneering entrepreneur himself, but he championed others with events like the Face 2 Face conference and Top 101 Awards, which were as much about networking as they were about celebrating Atlantic Canadian businesspeople.

With Gilfoy’s family in attendance and his photo at the front of the room, Gilfoy himself was very much a part of the 2024 Neville Gilfoy Entrepreneurship Panel. This year's panelists, Faten Alshazly (BSc (CS)’99) co-founder of WeUsThem Inc and Daniel Bartek (BComm’14) co-founder of Ace Beverage Group and WakeWater Beverage Company, offered advice on launching a startup in a conversation with moderator Shakara Russell Joseph, an instructor of Inclusive Innovation in the Faculty of Management. Mitch Hollohan, CEO of Site2020, was scheduled to be part of this year’s panel but had to send his regrets.

The two Dal alumni, each a rising business leader in Canada, pointed to a common theme while discussing their success: people. 

“We're all in the people business,” Bartek told the audience. 

Alshazly, who is also the CEO of the new startup HealthEMe, works with clients all over the world between her two companies.

“Being open-minded to the different demographics you're dealing with, the different needs and the different cultures” has helped her businesses build global presences, she said. 

Alshazly and Bartek discussed not only the importance of understanding the people they’re targeting with their products and services, but also the importance of surrounding themselves with the right people. The right people, they both agreed, help bring their ideas to life.     

Bartek and the Ace Beverage Group

Bartek’s career as an entrepreneur started when he was a Management student at Dal. He and fellow Dal alum Cam McDonald (BComm’14) co-founded Ace Beverage Group (ABG) in 2020, which has grown exponentially since then, culminating in a sale of the business in 2023 in a deal worth $165 million.

Success didn’t come right away, of course. ABG’s very first product failed after all the bottles exploded before they even made it to the shelves.

“We just wanted to create something unique and different. We wanted to stand out,” said Bartek, shown right. Products come and go, he said, so entrepreneurs need to pay attention to long-term trends, or “mega trends,” to build something significant that lasts.

For Bartek, it was noticing more consumers becoming interested in the health-and-wellness market. ABG eventually created Cottage Springs, a zero sugar vodka soda with natural flavouring. Those slim white cans led ABG to became one of Canada’s fastest-growing beverage companies. 

Noticing the demand for these types of products, Bartek’s latest company, WakeWater Beverage Company, is filling another gap: zero-calorie caffeinated sparkling water in cans.

“A lot of our brands have become successful because we really listen to consumers.”

Alshazly and WeUsThem Inc.

Alshazly, shown left, employs a similar approach to innovation and creativity, but her company doesn’t produce consumables. Alshazly is the co-founder and chief creative officer of WeUsThem Inc., a global strategic marketing and consulting firm with an emphasis on digital work.

Their client roster includes Telus, the Canadian Space Agency, Government of Canada, State of California, Eastern Caribbean Central Union, and Nestlé. WeUsThem Inc. has been able to build lasting bonds with these clients, as demonstrated by their 85 per cent retention rate. 

She said this is because of the variety of personalities and perspectives of her team members who build meaningful connections with people in different countries around the world.

“That made us competitive. As simple as it is, it was a formula that was unbreakable,” Alshazly said. It has also led to WeUsThem Inc. being named Diversity Employer of the Year by Atlantic Business magazine.

‘Personality comes before skill’

As much as interpersonal relationships matter in business, the panelists said you also have to be built a certain way to endure the ups and downs of a challenging industry.

An entrepreneur needs to be able to get back up and try again after failing, Bartek said, because it’s going to happen. “Every journey of entrepreneurship is paved with those near failures or near bankruptcies,” he said.

Like Bartek, Alshazly experienced a major challenge early on. WeUsThem Inc. ran into a financial hiccup that she thought might be dire for her young company. 

To not become discouraged, Alshazly said entrepreneurs must be tenacious and willing to devote many hours to get it done.

“We always say, ‘personality comes before skills,’” Alshazly said. She agrees with the adage that skills can be taught, but you must have a personality that makes you willing to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. “We are all different; that’s what makes us unique and special.”     

Make the most of your time

To wrap up the event, Jamie Gilfoy (BA'05), Neville’s son, was invited to provide some closing remarks. 

Jamie worked with his father for many years before starting his own company that provides language translation services for businesses. He said losing his father taught him we all have a limited time to do what we want in life, and we need to take advantage of it.  “Hug your people and do what you care about,” he told the crowd.

Inspired by Gilfoy's entrepreneurial spirit, we continue to raise funds to offer financial assistance to our future changemakers. The Neville J. Gilfoy Endowment in Entrepreneurship & Innovation was established to provide financial support for Dalhousie business students studying entrepreneurship and innovation.

A donation to the Neville Gilfoy Fund would be greatly appreciated to help support young entrepreneurs in Atlantic Canada. Donate today!


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