A Local Success Story
9 mins | 1040 words
By: Katie LeClair
Heather Desjardins started down her career path with a clear plan. She studied to be an educator and knew she wanted to work with gifted students. That was until everything changed.
Heather entered the workforce and early on could see children falling through the cracks. Students that needed additional support in the classroom were being marginalized; they were going through school undiagnosed and forced to cope. The reality was, they were struggling with learning disabilities and required accommodations. She was drawn to these kids and, so, she pivoted.
Heather became a resource teacher, then transitioned into special education and ultimately earned the title of Head of Special Education. She loved her job, she loved her students, and she loved her school. But it wasn’t enough. Heather could do more for these children. After spending a significant amount of time developing her idea, she gave herself a deadline. Heather committed to completing the school year. When it was over, she said goodbye to the classroom and hello to building her business.
That was in 2014.
Today, Heather is an award-winning entrepreneur (including 2019 Top Forty Under 40). Her company is The Open Door Educational Services. She employs a team of three administrative staff and almost 40 educators or tutors. Together, they deliver catered education services for struggling students. The Open Door offers live in-person or online tutoring, holds small group-writing workshops, conducts individual assessments, offers a variety of services to teachers, and more. The company is so busy the challenge isn’t attracting clients; it’s keeping up with demand.
— Heather Desjardins (@heatheropendoor) May 29, 2019
After five years of hard work, Heather has transitioned from building a basic business plan to preparing to incorporate.
How Invest Ottawa Helped
When Heather was about to launch her business, she had “no connections, no money, and no anything.” The one thing she did have was an inspirational speaker flying in from California – on her own dollar – to speak at her kick-off event. Feeling the pressure to fill the room, Heather put what she had learnt and done with Invest Ottawa to work.
Heather spent months attending Invest Ottawa’s free workshops, learning and building her business as she went. All the while, she was growing her network. She got to know other owners and entrepreneurs, as well as the ‘right people’ in Ottawa, with deep community connections. This time investment combined with grit and determination led to a sold-out launch event – precisely what she needed to give a boost to her business. But her relationship with Invest Ottawa didn’t end there.
Heather continued to attend events and workshops, and when the time was right, she applied for the Starter Company Plus Program and was selected! It is a week-long, intensive training program where business owners meet with mentors, network and collaborate with peers, and learn from industry leaders. At the end of this boot camp-style sprint, every participant pitches their business.
Heather had the opportunity to pitch The Open Door Educational Services to a panel of experts, and she won! She walked away with a $5000 grant.
During the Interview, Heather said, “Every time I find some new service or some new offering with Invest Ottawa, it seems like it opens another door for me [pun unintended]… I have no idea where this business would be if it weren’t for the services, but I can tell you for sure it wouldn’t be anywhere close to where it is now.”
To date, Heather’s participated in many of Invest Ottawa’s free foundation seminars but says, recently, she’s revisited these courses, taking them for the second time. Her business is five years old, and so there are new challenges to face and problems to solve, and the years of experience under her belt allow her to process and digests the information differently.
Over the years, something Heather’s consistently done is book free consultations. They have turned out to be essential to her success. During her first session with a business advisor, she was “encouraged” to resist the temptation to do the work that made the most money (in her case it was tutoring students) but to instead hire staff and focus on building the business. He said, “You’ll get bogged down working in the business instead of on the business.” She’s been using this advice to help make decisions all along her journey. She recalls another meeting that was instrumental in leading her to incorporate; the expert she met with actually became her accountant.
Beyond the training workshops, one-on-one consultations and programs, Heather emphasized one thing that’s immensely benefited her progress: subscribing to the Invest Ottawa newsletters. The Spotlight Newsletter is how she stays “plugged in” to what’s happening in the business community and what’s available resource-wise for business owners. It’s where she finds new opportunities and awards to apply for too, like the 2019 Bootstrap Awards, where she was honoured as Founder of the Year or the Founders Fund, a community she joined this year.
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Advice to Leave, Yours to Take
Being an entrepreneur isn’t easy. It’s not like selecting a job; it is a lifestyle choice. We asked Heather what she finds hardest about being her own boss. She replied, “The darkest moments for me are always around uncertainty. I worry about what I don’t know. What if I am doing something wrong? What if I’m not following some rule that I am supposed to follow?” She went on to explain, “But that’s why Invest Ottawa was so great because I would get in touch and book a consultation with an accountant or lawyer or business mentor.”
For Heather, advisor consultations give her peace of mind. She can ask what steps to take and walk away from their meeting with actionable insight and know what to do next. It’s like having access to a life-line that every business owner needs.
What she wishes she could tell every aspiring entrepreneur is, “Take advantage of services, capitalize on opportunities, and just go for it!” Heather believes there’s a lot of fear in entrepreneurship, especially for those who identify as women.
“I think there is a lot of fear. Fear not only about not succeeding but fear about how you’re perceived because you take that risk and make that leap. Remember to take the jump and go for what you really want (and you have to really, really want it). Just make sure that you’re doing things with integrity, the right intentions, and knowledge. If you’re doing that, then you’re going down the right path regardless.”
Thank you, Heather, for taking the time to share your story with our community.
If you’re an aspiring business owner, remember that there are resources out there and people ready to help bring your idea to life. You just have to reach for them and be ready to work.
About the Author
Katie LeClair is the Corporate Communications Team Lead with Invest Ottawa and Bayview Yards. What she loves most about working for Ottawa’s lead economic development agency and innovation hub is meeting the local business owners and entrepreneurs. They inspire her every day.