The Capitalist With A Heart: The Early Years Of Brett Wilson

When Brett Wilson was in university, he persuaded a local dancer to re-enact Lady Godiva's infamous horseback ride across campus as a stunt. Campus feminists were none too pleased, but they would be proud of Wilson today. The self-described "capitalist with a heart" has made a name for himself not only as the "nice" Dragon on CBC's Dragon's Den, but also as a savvy businessman, and a generous and innovative philanthropist who divides his time among his many passions in life.

W. Brett Wilson was born on July 1, 1957 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His father was a car salesman, while his mother worked as a social worker. "That's how I became a capitalist with a heart," he likes to say.

In school, Wilson paid the price after being accelerated a grade. "It was arguably the worst thing that ever happened to me," he says. "I was one of the smallest kids in the class. You can only come in last in a running race so many times before you feel like giving up."

But Wilson turned things around for himself in university. "[It] was a fresh start in terms of brand new relationships, brand new friendships," he says, "and I also discovered that I was no longer one of the brighter kids in the class." Wilson called it an important wake-up call. "I discovered that I was pretty average, and if I didn't get my ass in gear, I was going to be pretty much below average."

He decided to study engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, Wilson began feeding his passion for business by reading the bi-weekly Financial Post from cover to cover. "It was a great education about the real world of business," he says.

Wilson also enrolled himself in a four-week survival course in British Columbia. "Outward Bound changed my life," he says. "By doing the course, I took myself from being relatively insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin to the point where I could say, ‘I'm ok. No better than anyone else, but ok.'"

But it was the investment club he started with some friends that really got his juices pumping. "There were nine of us, and we each put in $200. At the time minimum wage was $1.65 an hour, so it was a fair bit of change for us and we just pretended like we knew what the stock market was all about," he says. "In the end, each of us got $221 back for our $200 investment. Not only were we successful financially, we were also successful in terms of process - understanding how the stock market worked: how to buy and sell; paying commissions; following research and market trends. Those were the early days, but it was a start."

Wilson graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in 1979 and went straight to work in the oilfields of western Canada. But Wilson quickly realized that engineering was not his passion, and that the business world was calling.

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