close up people working together around table

Despite her vast experience and strong reputation in reproductive medicine, Dr. Marjorie Dixon was told her business goals were excessively ambitious and unattainable.

She faced many naysayers while building Anova Fertility and Reproductive Health, a next-generation full-service fertility and in vitro fertilization (IVF) centre using the best global standards, based in Toronto. Before it opened in 2016, critics said the business model was too costly and couldn't be sustained.

“My belief was always that, if you build your business in such a way that you're innovating and leading, you'll leave everyone else in the dust," says Dixon.

And in addition to being a doctor in reproductive medicine, Dixon is a mother of three who has been through the system for assisted fertility. The more she heard it couldn't be done, the more she worked to make it happen.

Solving problems in fertility treatment and care

Dixon's goal was to solve the problems she saw in the assisted fertility system, including inequality for different segments of the population, insufficient services for women seeking to get pregnant and gaps in innovative, evidence-based treatment options.

“I'm a firm believer that there's a solution to every problem," Dixon says. "I knew Anova Fertility would be great if we had the right people, systems and technology in place. From there, the rest would come."

In three years, Anova Fertility has grown from a clinic with eight employees to a full-IVF centre with a team of more than 80 people. As for results, Anova Fertility is currently reporting twice the Canadian standard rate of success per cycle for its patients. The company describes itself as an international leader in innovation, education and communication for high-quality humanized fertility and reproductive care.

Overcoming hurdles

Starting and growing Anova Fertility didn't come without challenges. In addition to critics, there were difficulties with financing and finding the right partners and employees to help build the business. But Dixon wasn't deterred by the short-term setbacks; to her, the challenges were lessons that made her business stronger in the long run.

"You can't experience the true exhilaration of success without first appreciating the abyss of the failure that has preceded it. My mantra to live by is: Out of adversity comes opportunity," says Dixon, who was recently honoured with the RBC Momentum Award at the 26th annual RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, presented by Women of Influence. The award recognizes women whose businesses have delivered growth of more than 10 percent year-over-year for at least three years.

marjorie dixon winner of the rbc momentum award from women of influence

Marjorie Dixon, centre, after winning the RBC Momentum Award at the 26th annual RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.

One key element to a successful business is a solid business plan, says Allison Marshall, vice president of high-net-worth planning services and financial advisory support at RBC Wealth Management in Toronto.

"Many entrepreneurs have big ideas about how to approach their business, but don't write it down," Marshall says. "The problem is, when it's all in their head they may not be as well prepared when the business grows."

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Having a written plan also helps entrepreneurs measure their performance as they expand. "It helps you see how well you've stuck to your plan and how to make changes, as needed."

So what makes a good business plan? Marshall says it includes everything from how and where to sell the product or service, ideas to finance the company's growth, as well as the initiatives for attracting and retaining employees. The plan should also include how the entrepreneur plans to compensate him or herself, and how to mitigate any risks to the business, she says.

Raised to be a trailblazer

Successful entrepreneurs like Dixon have a few things in common: a passion for their business and blueprint to make it happen. As Dixon says, "Success doesn't happen by accident."

Growing up in Montreal, Dixon knew she wanted to be a doctor and became fascinated with reproductive science through her father, a reproductive biology teacher.

"I was exposed to a level of explanation of the science of reproduction most other kids didn't have," Dixon says with a laugh. "I was also fascinated by the human body, the physiology, and its multiple systems and how they intertwine."

As a student in 1988, Dixon remembers reading a newspaper article about the 10th birthday of Louise Brown, the British woman who was the first human to have been born after conception by IVF.

"I was just taken by all of it," Dixon recalls. "I went to my guidance counsellor and asked, 'what do I need to do to become a doctor in this field?' She told me the steps, and I immediately set out on my mission to make it happen."

Dixon graduated from McGill University's School of Medicine and did her initial postgraduate training in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto, followed by a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Vermont. After years of practising reproductive medicine, Dixon co-founded her first fertility business in 2007 and in June 2016 took a giant leap to open Anova Fertility and its state of the art facility.

Creating your own rules for success

Dixon feels her career is driven by a passion to take what she learns from others, and then come to her own conclusions and rules in order to create something new and innovative.

"Science is like life. I can't be a scientist and doctor and go into life and just accept what everyone else tells me I should accept," she says, while citing the parallels with business.

 "The principles of medicine are the same as in business or to affect social change: You identify a problem, you don't believe the hype or take for granted what everyone else says is real. You go and figure it out yourself. Once you've proven it you move forward and come to your conclusion then share your information. That became my algorithm."

"The vision I have for the future of fertility care in Canada is enormous," she says without hesitation.

"I believe it to be feasible and I believe it should come to fruition with the right partners, the right planning and strategies. Success doesn't happen by accident."

How to get started

The first thing entrepreneurs often tackle is deciding how to structure the business—either through a sole proprietorship (when a business owned by one person with no legal distinction between the owner and the company), incorporating the business (which legally separates the owner and the business and has certain tax deferral benefits), or a partnership if there is more than one owner.

Marshall encourages owners to work with legal and financial professionals to determine which structure meets their individual needs and goals. "Entrepreneurs also need to ensure they get professional tax advice to ensure they're taking advantage and abiding by the latest rules," says Marshall.

For instance, the federal government recently changed the income-splitting rules for incorporated small business owners and implemented new policies around taxation of passive investment income over a certain threshold. Business owners may also wish to consider setting up vehicles, such as individual pension plans and corporate-owned life insurance policies, to help with longer-term retirement and estate planning.

Planning for employees

More and more business owners are building plans that consider ways to attract and retain employees, which Marshall believes is wise given the growing competition for talent in today's economy. Employees want to be well compensated, but are also drawn to benefits such as health and dental care, as well as saving and retirement plans like a group registered retirement savings plan.

"They might want to consider different strategies to keep employees motivated and focused on the company's goals," says Marshall.

Business owners should also consider their own benefits, including critical illness and disability insurance, in case they're injured or develop a serious illness. "Business owners need to consider what would happen to their business if they have to step away," she says, including having a plan in place around who will run the business if they are sick or injured.

While developing and maintaining a business plan may not be as exciting as running the company itself, Marshall says it's an important part of the process to ensure the company is sustainable over the long term. It's about planning for both the imagined and the unimagined, with the help of legal and financial professionals.

"Part of the success of being an entrepreneur is having the right plans in place and getting the right support to realize your dreams," says Marshall.

Surrounded by strong women growing up, Dixon was always encouraged to do something important in her career. She encourages other women to be bold and never undersell themselves in their pursuits—both personally or professionally.

"I've spoken up and made a difference and managed to grow my business in concert," she says. "I don't think it was accidental. I was raised this way. I believe women can be bred and nurtured and encouraged to be in charge."

Her advice to other women: "Find your passion and follow it, unwaveringly."

We asked successful Canadian female entrepreneurs to share their stories and offer advice on how to support aspiring female business owners get ahead: