When Nancy Knowlton started her career, she knew she wanted to own her own business. A chartered accountant with two undergraduate degrees and an MBA, Knowlton threw herself into entrepreneurship with her husband in a field that she was not familiar with – technology – and grew her first (and second) companies into successful endeavours.
“It was never about being in charge. It was about the challenge. It was the opportunity to be involved in a multi-functional drive to solve a meaty problem.”
Knowlton’s husband represented the technology side of the business and she provided the business and marketing background.
“It’s always been a collaboration because we focus in our areas of strength and respect each other’s expertise,” Knowlton explains of working with her significant other.
Rising to the challenge
Together they founded SMART Technologies which they grew to a $800M company in their 25 years of ownership. SMART Technologies manufactures and sells interactive whiteboards for classroom and business use. They left SMART Technologies and two years later started Nureva, specializing in a different, but adjacent, technology and market. They remain in the ‘classroom’ but transitioned away from SMART boards to improving audio technology.
“We’re solving the age-old problem of bad audio in conference calls, virtual classrooms. Poor quality audio exhausts participants. You miss parts of conversation, have to repeat yourself, or ask the presenter to repeat. It’s time consuming and inefficient when you can’t hear what is being said or presented,” Knowlton explains of the focus of Nureva’s business.
“We took on that challenge and created a patented technology – microphone mist technology - to fix the problem.”
Loyal to Alberta
When faced with the question of why they stayed in Alberta, Knowlton’s answer is “Why NOT Alberta? Alberta is our home.” She explains that Alberta’s quality of life, international access, and quality of talent make it an accommodating home for any successful business.
“If there is a gap, it’s that business schools don’t focus on industrial marketing to the same degree as retail/consumer marketing. But when you have a pool of inherently bright people to draw from in Alberta, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.”
By starting her businesses with her husband, Knowlton was offered a unique perspective when it came to being a woman entrepreneur.
“I had a co-founder. My husband and I were a team. If I was rejected, he was too, so any bias against me as a female founder was shared equally with him. That was different than for other female founders.”
Knowlton feels she did not experience any outright negative treatment as a woman.
“Throughout the years, I didn’t experience anything particularly negative in Alberta, but it wasn’t particularly positive either. […] Of course, there were biases, especially in the ‘80s and ‘90s and you hear about them when you talk with female founders,” she says.
“The strategy is generally to ignore the biases and work harder to demonstrate what you can do.”
Equality to well-being and ambition
Knowlton classifies her mentors into three categories: university professors, basketball coaches, and business leaders.
“One common characteristic is that my mentors were all men. They were both kind and tough on me at the same time. I knew what they expected of me because they told me; I bought into that philosophy and that is how I self-manage and aim to manage our team.”
Though Knowlton is committed to her constant betterment and that of her team, she advocates for a balanced lifestyle – one that gives equal thought to well-being and to ambition.
“Worry less. Get more sleep. There were periods where I lived on 4-5 hours of sleep a night Worrying does absolutely nothing except negatively affect your health,” Knowlton reflects on advice she would give her younger self.
“Be active; exercise. Get outdoors into nature. Get lots of sleep. Take care of your physical health.”
Nancy Knowlton’s Three Tips for Success:
Be prepared for your business to take longer to develop than you planned.
Be prepared to work very hard to get it off the ground. Nothing beats hard work. Put your heart and soul into it. It takes tenacity and sustained effort; you must learn, learn, learn and be constantly acquiring knowledge.
Respect the role that luck plays in achieving positive results. There are lots of smart, talented, driven people just like you and sometimes luck plays a bigger role than talent itself in achieving results.