Women of the Year 2021: Ownr’s Shadi McIsaac is Building a New Generation of Small Businesses


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From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.

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Shadi McIsaac

CEO, Ownr


What is your elevator pitch to the world? 

Shadi McIsaac: My mission is to empower entrepreneurship through technology by building simple, accessible tools and services to help individuals start, scale, and succeed with their own businesses. 

What excites you most about the work that you are doing?

Shadi McIsaac: Entrepreneurs are economic change agents and forces of positive good for the Canadian economy. What excites me most about my work is that Ownr supports Canadians who are creating this change at a micro and macro level. At a micro level, people aspire to be business owners for many reasons—whether that’s to make their own money, pursue a passion, or create work-life flexibility. Through entrepreneurship, they can create a business that provides value to their community, and take charge of their own lives. Roll that up to the macro level, and these small businesses have a significant impact on private sector employment, Canada’s GDP, and the overall economy. It’s incredibly powerful, and it’s the motivation for me to continue to bring the best of Ownr forward to support business ownership.

Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?

Shadi McIsaac: My leadership style is to empower my team by creating a space for them to do their best work, trusting them to make decisions that drive the business forward. 

This is reflected in how Ownr works for entrepreneurs. We empower them by creating a space to grow their business the way they want. We’ve grown exponentially during COVID, and that’s a testament to the value we have for the small business community who rely on our platform and services to start and grow their business, even in uncertain times.

What kind of problems are you trying to solve? 

Shadi McIsaac: Only two out of five entrepreneurs actually take the leap of starting their own business, and of the businesses that do launch, only half survive beyond five years. We know that starting your own business can be incredibly confusing, not to mention lonely, expensive, and time-consuming. Ownr offers resources to entrepreneurs who otherwise would have no idea where to start and lowers the barriers to business ownership by making it accessible. 

What are you doing that no one else is doing?

Shadi McIsaac: As a legal tech platform, we are uniquely focused on automating the business formation process. Simply registering a business can take hours and cost thousands of dollars in lawyer fees. With Ownr, registering a business only takes a few minutes and we offer that service at less than a fifth of the traditional cost. 

While Ownr’s roots are as a point-in-time solution, we have now expanded beyond business registration and incorporation and offer lifecycle solutions to help entrepreneurs with their annual filings, corporate changes, minute book updates, and other day-to-day legal & compliance tasks.

Why is your work important?

Shadi McIsaac: Small businesses are the backbone of our communities. We want to ensure that anyone who wants to pursue their passion, create a net-new source of income or revenue for themselves, or simply find and redefine their path to professional success, can now do so without feeling like they’re in it completely alone.

Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better? 

Shadi McIsaac: This ties in heavily with what Ownr is doing that no one else is. After launching the platform, we recognized that we could do more than help small businesses get started, we could help them manage their business. This meant we had to evolve our product suite and service model, which led us to acquire legal tech platform Founded Technologies. This was in lockstep with a rebranding of our business, and closer integration with RBC, among some other exciting things on the horizon.

Identifying that there was the opportunity to parry the trust we earn with customers through our business registration service to offer them day-to-day business management solutions as well as a key insight and the catalyst to our current growth trajectory.

What have you learned about yourself as you’ve led your company?

Shadi McIsaac: I’m a big believer in the idea that “Whatever good things we build end up building us.” With Ownr, I’m focused on the work, the team, the product and, first and foremost, our customers. In that focus, I’ve discovered a newfound love for my work and the team that we’ve been able to build at Ownr on behalf of the entrepreneurship community.

What has been the most challenging part of building the business? 

Shadi McIsaac: The business has demanded different things from me at different stages. Like the customers I now support, Ownr had to go from an idea sketched out on paper to a real-life company. Once we launched, found our place in the market, and started to scale up, we faced the challenge of growing ourselves alongside the business. I had to evolve as a leader, based on what the team and business needed, and recognize that what had originally been my personal vision of Ownr had now become something much larger. 

As I have first-hand experience of what it’s like to take the first step in launching a business, I’m still sensitive to how vulnerable it can make you feel. It’s why I continue to be so passionate about putting Ownr at the forefront of making that first step a little less scary for aspiring entrepreneurs.

What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?

Shadi McIsaac: The most rewarding part is to see the business quite literally go from nothing to a company that has helped over 50,000 entrepreneurs launch their business. Seeing entrepreneurs grow with our support is validation that we are providing a valuable service.

What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?

Shadi McIsaac: Building a successful company requires a team, shared belief, and a strong support system. Before aspiring entrepreneurs get started, they should ask themselves if they’re prepared to lead? Can they inspire others to believe in their vision? Are they willing to trust their team, and allow them to grow the company alongside them? 

In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission? 

Shadi McIsaac: Start with the customer, identify the problem you’re trying to solve, engineer a solution, and iterate from there. That clarity of purpose builds company identity and keeps the team focused on what matters.

What is your mission? The bigger picture? 

Shadi McIsaac: Our mission is to help individuals take charge of their lives through entrepreneurship.

How do you define success? What does it mean to you?

Shadi McIsaac: For the business, we define success as creating value for our customers and being able to anticipate their needs. For me personally, things have changed since I founded Ownr, as I’ve also become a mother of two. My own version of success now is to be able to balance the business and my family.

What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work? 

Shadi McIsaac: No person is an island and any success I’ve had with Ownr is shared with our phenomenal, dedicated team. But your team can extend beyond employees or peers. Your team can be your family and friends who support you; a mentor who’s helping you grow professionally, or a community you can lean on. My lesson is to seek out and surround yourself with people who will elevate you, and, conversely, avoid those who’ll bring you down. 

If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?

Shadi McIsaac: I recently read an article about how Hot Streaks in Your Career Don’t Happen by Accident that resonated because it articulated better than I could have on why Ownr found its initial success. 

The concept is, ‘explore, then exploit’. Essentially, people ought to explore a bunch of things at work, deliberate about the best fit for their skills, and then exploit what they’ve learned. As an RBC-backed venture, Ownr was funded pre-product, and tasked with exploring the SMB space to see where we could create value for Canadian small-business entrepreneurs. To start, we simply identified every step an entrepreneur took when they were first launching their business. Off that, we focused on the step where we believed we could reduce the most friction and add the most value—business registration and incorporation. We explored then exploited. 

Ownr quickly found product-market fit because we had unconsciously applied that explore-then-exploit mentality. I want to now consciously apply that mentality to our next phase of growth. I believe it’s a good framework for people who are thinking about building businesses and their own careers as well.

Who is a woman in the community that you admire? 

Shadi McIsaac: I’m fortunate to have a strong network of supportive women in my life. Most recently, I was contemplating how to structure my latest mat leave and I sought the advice of Jacquelina Calisto, a senior executive at RBC. As a mentor, powerhouse and mother herself, Jacquelina offered me a genuine, honest perspective of her experience as a professional and working mother. More importantly, she gave me the confidence to own my decisions, understanding what would work best for me,my family, and my career aspirations. 

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Feeling inspired? Meet the rest of the 2021 Women of the Year