Last Thursday, the Institute for Management and Innovation hosted their annual Countdown to Success. A key feature of this event was the keynote speaker, Manjit Minhas—self-described as a “beer baroness,” successful entrepreneur, and dragon from CBC’s Dragons Den.

Whether you attended the event as a potential accountant, an aspiring entrepreneur, or were simply hoping to meet Minhas, the crowd that gathered in the Innovation Complex was impressive.

Minhas and her brother Ravinder together own Minhas Breweries & Distillery, which is the 10th-largest brewery in North America. It is a micro-distillery which makes products for a variety of different markets, with annual sales of more than $150 million. In Canada, Minhas’ company sells their products in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. In the U.S., the products are sold in 43 states, including private brand craft brews for Trader Joe’s and Costco.

Minhas’ story started when she was 13. There was a decline in the oil industry and her father was laid off. Shortly afterwards, the premier of Alberta announced his intention to privatize alcohol retail in Alberta, which meant that any private citizen could get a licence to sell alcohol within the province. Her father decided to open a liquor store.

Minhas was at the University of Regina, studying engineering. After her first year, she decided to take the spring off, but she couldn’t get a job anywhere. After a couple months, she began working for her father and taking orders for the store.

Weeks into the job, Minhas noticed that restaurants or bars would call and place their order for the cheapest rye, rum, or vodka that was in the store. Her father explained to her that when, for example, someone orders a rum and coke, but doesn’t specify the type of rum, they get whatever rum was cheapest in the store that week. Sometimes that rum was made with quality ingredients and sometimes it wasn’t. This prompted Minhas to slowly develop the idea of bringing a house brand of spirits to her parents’ store.

The idea was to develop a spirit made of quality ingredients, which would be the cheapest in the store every week and give her parents a step up within the business. This house liquor would mainly service their wholesale customers.

However, nobody would talk to Minhas in Canada, and so she began to look towards the states. Minhas attended a conference in Texas with the hopes of finding someone to make the spirits that she and Ravinder were looking for.

There, she met a man named Max, and called her brother, who then Googled him. They found out that Max owned the largest family-owned distillery in America, and already shipped to Canada.

Knowing that this would be a perfect match, Minhas says, “I followed him around the rest of the day. I didn’t let him out of my sight, except for two times—he went to the washroom.” Eventually, she got 15 minutes at the end of the day to pitch to him. She talked as fast as she could, and at the end of the pitch, he told her that he didn’t know a word she just said because she was talking so fast, but he did love her passion.

“That’s one of the great things about being young. You think you know everything and are not afraid of anything. If you ask me now, there’s no way I would have followed him around all day,” Minhas says.

But it was her passion and youth which led to getting an agreement in writing, although it was written on a napkin.

“I discovered early that I was going to stand out for a variety of reasons. Being young, being a woman, being ethnic,” says Minhas. “So, stand out for the right reasons.”

Being prepared, on time, and respectful are all critically important for business. Minhas also advises to always be the best dressed, because your appearance matters.

“A lot of people always say ‘Well, that’s kind of superficial,’ but I don’t think so, because I really do believe that if you are confident and you have respect for yourself, then you present yourself that way, and you should always bring the best you to wherever you are.”

The best piece of advice Minhas can give to an entrepreneur is to find a mentor. She strongly believes in mentors, both having and being one. Her dad was one of her mentors. He didn’t just give her his business because they lived under the same roof, but he made her come up with a business plan. He gave her the opportunity to learn how to write a business plan, so that in the future she would be ready. This is one of the most important elements of mentors —support.

“Nobody can be successful in life without a support system,” says Minhas. This is not only to encourage you, but can sometimes go the other way too: to slow down a minute, support you, and offer advice. As your experiences grow, so should your opportunities for mentors and mentoring.

“Mentors have to change with you—both in your career and your personal life.”

Minhas’ father was a mentor to her early on in her career, but also earlier in life. When he decided to go into business and open a liquor store, he focused on the three pillars of business. He was going to “offer the best selection, at the best price, with the best service you could find in any liquor store,” and with this philosophy, his stores quickly became three of the top-grossing stores in Alberta.

Minhas also strongly believes in being a global citizen. As an owner of her own brewery and distillery, there is a lot of responsibility. When she first started her business, she and Ravinder had no control over the production process, but they did have control over the packaging, so they cut down on the amount of cardboard or plastic used.

Minhas adds that the choice of being efficient or being involved in environmental conservation does not have to be a one-or-the-other choice. At the Minhas Brewery & Distillery, they use the same water to heat and to cool, instead of heating the water and then dumping it. Minhas believes that we can help ourselves and the world that we live in at the same time. However, she does acknowledge that the many restrictions in the industry often restrict innovation, and make it difficult and expensive to innovate.

When asked about her role on CBC’s The Dragon’s Den, Minhas shared that she spent more time with the dragons last year than she did with her husband. She also shares that the atmosphere is a little different this year because they all know each other a little better.

On the show, each business pitch is about an hour. There is no outside contact—you’re not even allowed to look at your phone.

“And we take it to heart when we lose,” says Minhas. “It’s real. We really do want to beat each other out, it’s true competition. We get along, but we are very competitive by nature, especially with each other.”

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