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For more than three decades, the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards have recognized and celebrated the strides of Canada’s most accomplished, influential and impactful women. The Awards, which are presented by Women of Influence, shine a spotlight on women who have been instrumental in driving business success in Canada. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, we proudly recognize and promote their inspiring stories.
When asked why she founded Theory+Practice, Rogayeh Tabrizi answers, “Because I didn’t fit in.” After completing her PhD, she joined a startup in San Francisco – and while it was interesting work, she felt the focus was very narrow. She then tried a larger organization, but that role brought with it the added obstacle of size and bureaucracy, and she felt she didn’t have a way of communicating her ideas. “At that point in my career, I discovered that nothing in my education had prepared me to talk to non-technical people,” she explains. She decided to try consulting but found that because of her background in both physics and economics, she asked questions differently. She didn’t fit in with the consulting world either, so decided to start her own company.
Today, Theory+Practice is a data innovation company that combines AI and behavioural economics with the goal of helping enterprises put their data to work. While many businesses understand the importance of data, their siloed structures mean their data can’t offer optimal solutions. Tabrizi offers the example of a big grocery company that wants to leverage customer data to run better campaigns and promotions. But without a full view of their data, they may offer promotions on the wrong products. “If you can connect some of the dots better, you can offer discounts on products that may be going to waste as opposed to ones that might be going out of stock,” she explains. “We sit at the intersection of these different business conversations and use data to contribute to an effective strategy.”
What makes Theory+Practice stand out
Tabrizi was a 2022 Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Start-Up Award Finalist, recognized for her achievements in building a profitable business within five years. Her specialty is connecting dots that don’t even occur to people could be connected, which she does so by asking questions nobody else asks. “That’s what created a lot of momentum from the beginning, because I would meet with an executive and they would be surprised by the questions that I would ask. But then it would make sense to them. Imagine you’re thinking of a complex problem and you’re not sure how you’re going to solve it. And then somebody points out something almost trivial and you just tilt your head and realize that was the foundational piece that was missing. By asking the right questions, we can figure things out.”
Momentum was created early for Theory+Practice, whose first client was a $1billion company. Their second client was a $2 billion company and their third was FedEx – all signed within the first six months of business. “I was dealing with these large enterprises and had barely worked inside a company myself. It was probably the best thing because I didn’t go in with assumptions of what could or couldn’t be done. I just asked, ‘why not?’”
The imperative of diversity
Should someone look at the Theory+Practice team, the diversity of its 35 members is immediately evident. Tabrizi explains that she went out of her way to find people with very diverse backgrounds. “It’s about diversity on every possible level, but the most important is intellectual diversity,” she explains. “By definition, when somebody gets a PhD in something, they believe their discipline offers the best tool to solve a problem. People who have very high specialties are often very quick to dismiss other disciplines or methodologies. So, for example, I look for people who had engineering backgrounds but switched to social sciences. And, I build a team of experts that when put together, is very diverse. The key for me was to have a physicist be able to work with an economist work with a social scientist – because magic happens at that intersection.
Today, her team consists of more women than men, which Tabrizi acknowledges is very rare for her field. “Every single one of us, including me, was the only girl in the class. When you look at the kinds of fields and disciplines we come from, it is very uncommon to have so many women. The goal was to find the best people, but I think we got more female applicants because I am a woman.” She also adds that in interviews, she asks technical questions to truly identify who the better candidate is, citing that many of the women she has hired have been quieter about their achievements – and by paying attention and asking the right questions when recruiting, she can determine who the best person is for the role.
Finding the power within: It’s not about being inspirational
RBC’s 2023 theme for International Women’s Day is Celebrate the Power Within
For Rogayeh Tabrizi, the ability to find and draw on the power within yourself is a requirement for succeeding as an entrepreneur. “There are going to be so many difficult scenarios you will have to deal with – it is a challenging path in so many ways. One is the pure physical and mental stamina that you need to bring to the table. Days are extremely long – a typical day for me is 16 hours.”
That’s one layer. Another is the power to quiet self-doubt.
“Every day, about twenty times a day, I wonder if I can actually do this. It’s a constant thing,” she says, acknowledging that the trick for her is to use that moment of uncertainty as a signal to pay closer attention to something, rather than an interruption that would consume more of her energy.
“So finding the strength in yourself is a real thing – it’s not a theoretical thing, it’s not an inspirational thing. If you don’t find it, you can’t continue. If you don’t find it, you’re not going to be able to push limits – and the odds are that you’re going to act from a place of fear as opposed to a place of courage. So, you really do have to dig deep.”
Tabrizi is quick to add that there have also been people who have championed her along the way. “While they can’t do the hard work of digging deep and finding your inner power, they can be very big reminders. And they can be mirrors. I am very lucky to have had some incredible mentors and teachers along the way that when I’ve been low, they gave me the push I needed to continue.”
Today, Tabrizi is building on the momentum she generated early in her business. She is driving impressive results for clients and solving complex problems with the brilliant team she’s built, which gives her great satisfaction and pride. With the business just five years old, there are so many new questions to be asked and problems to be solved, through the intersection of theory and practice.
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