Women in Business Awards: Rising Star

Johanne Paquette: brings personal touch to Speakwell

As a teacher and academic, business had never really occurred to Johanne Paquette as a career choice. But sometimes, a happy accident is all it takes to discover a true passion.

Today, Paquette is the owner of Speakwell speakers bureau and the Black Press Women in Business Awards Rising Star.

Nominated by husband Rob Dyke, a competitive swimmer, triathlete and now businessman, and Nobel Prize-winning UVic environmental scientist Dr. Andrew Weaver, Paquette has grown Speakwell from a fledgling collection of speakers to a thriving company with some of the top names in science, business, sport, and health and wellness.

Paquette was a teacher in Montreal when she moved to the University of Victoria for graduate studies. Teaching while finishing her PhD, it was there she met Dyke, shortly before his big swim around Vancouver Island to raise money for charity.

At the time, Dyke had also taken over the Speakwell business from founder and wellness pioneer Dr. Martin Collis, but was more interested in developing new wellness products than growing the speaker bureau.” When he was approached to provide a keynote address, he asked Paquette, now his wife, to look after the details. Though she had never negotiated anything similar before, she managed to get Dyke a very good deal, and from then, she was hooked.

“Wow – this business thing – there’s something in this,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a very interesting game if you put your mind to it.”

Soon after, Paquette bought the company and set out to develop her speaker base, marketing the company and utilizing her extensive network of family friends and work colleagues. Today, Speakwell “has a limited roster of speakers that share a common belief: that a talk can be a catalyst to inspire positive change. Speakwell chooses its speakers very carefully to ensure that each one will give you that exceptional inspirational talk you seek – every time.”

Among her favourite coups? Business expert Peter Johnson was huge, she says. “I was very proud of that one because he’s a negotiator.”

Paquette currently has about 20 speakers and is developing a youth speaker series, which provides both experience to newer speakers and a more affordable selection of knowledgeable, engaging speakers for organizations that may not be able to afford the more high-profile individuals.

Erin Van Wittenburg, for example, is a young woman who ran 4,200 kilometres across Africa to raise money for youth education in Africa and is a fabulous speaker. “There are lots of young, talented Victoria people who have done great things and have an amazing story to tell,” Paquette says. “I’m trying to give them an avenue to start their speaking careers.”

Throughout the growth of her business, Paquette has remained clear that at this point, she wants to stay small enough to provide her clients the personal attention that is a hallmark of her business philosophy. “If you get too big, it’s harder to market effectively and provide that personal attention I want to give clients.”

As Paquette has worked through her first few years of business, balancing those hours with being a mom to 3 1/2-year-old Hudson, an interesting by-product has been the development of new skills such as website design, and the creation of the complementary J Media Design.

“I’ve learned a lot of things,” she reflects. “At first I used to approach speakers and clients very clinically or academically. Then Rob said, ‘Just relax and think about what you would like to hear, and what as a speaker you would like to receive.’”

With that in mind, the job became much simpler. “My role is to be the agent for my speakers – to represent them the best I can – but also to keep in mind what the client wants.”

One of her proudest business achievements stems from a very difficult negotiation for Dr. Weaver. “It was the first time I had to really fight for my client,” Paquette remembers. “I had to put my foot down and I felt a little bad about it, but it worked and I was very, very proud of myself. It was a great win for me and it gave me a lot of confidence.”

While it hasn’t always been easy, “I have found that trusting my instincts has paid off. That was a good lesson for me to learn.

“I’m enjoying this business thing!”