Joelle MacPhee is an entrepreneur and the Director of Marketing at Ooka Island, an education company that helps parents grow confident readers. Joelle was featured with Ooka Island co-founders on the Women’s Network series Backyard Inventors, has appeared on Dragons’ Den, and won “Start-up with the Most Impact on Student Learning” and “Solving the Biggest Problem in Education” at the 2013 National MindShare EdTech Summit. She lives in Toronto, but PEI is home.

What does a typical day look like for you, from waking up to going to bed?

I have accepted that I am not an early riser. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it and ignore those studies that say how successful people all wake up before dawn. Not me. If I’m up by 7:30AM, then it’s a good day.

I like to read and eat breakfast at the table and catch up on the news while I sip a couple cups of coffee. When I do finally get out the door, I ride my bike, Ursula, to work, which is about twenty minutes door to door.

I typically get to the office around 10AM and by then I’m ready to hit the ground running. The caffeine has kicked in and I’m immersed in whatever campaign or project we have going at Ooka Island that week. I meet with my marketing team every day for fifteen minutes mid-afternoon to go through any roadblocks or wins of the day.

I definitely hit my stride in the afternoon and enjoy working late into the evening once everyone else has gone home. We work in a co-working space at MaRS Discovery, so the quiet can be hard to come by sometimes. Then I try to be home by 8pm to just wind down, have dinner, watch Netflix. Then I read myself to sleep at some point before midnight.

What three tips would you give to young women who are looking to break into the world of tech and startups?

Take the time to research an industry that excites you, whether it’s education, health, finance or whatever. Read everything you can about what’s going on in that space. Dig into the history, find out what’s new and exciting or controversial about it, look up the key players and form some more solid opinions. The goal of diving down all these rabbit holes isn’t to be an expert, but to really help yourself understand WHY it makes you excited. If you start digging and find yourself losing interest, switch gears and thank your lucky stars that you’ve just saved yourself an enormous amount of time and energy.

If you haven’t lost interest after a lot of digging around, you’re likely more excited than ever about “it.” Now you need to find other people who are as excited about “it” as you. Take them out for coffee and ask questions and let them challenge you. Ask them to introduce you to other people in their networks and continue building your own network of like-minded, passionate people in the space.

At some point in the process you’ll meet a person or learn about a company or startup that will blow your mind. Take the leap. Leverage all the knowledge you now have and tap into the networks you’ve built to do whatever it takes to get yourself in the door. It may take longer than you expect or you may not start where you want, but focus on the big picture, which is what you’re actually excited about — the impact of the company and the people you’ll spend your days with. That’s way more important than the other stuff anyway.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your career to date?

Danielle (our Director of IT) and I were the first employees at Ooka Island and the founders were my family members. In those beginning days, it was just a few of us in Prince Edward Island trying to build and launch this huge, new technology that could teach children all over the world how to read.

When we went on Dragons’ Den in 2013, we really started to gain momentum. We brought in outside investors and started to attract amazing talent that wanted to help. We opened up a Toronto office where now half of us are based out of, while the rest of the team is still in the head office in PEI.

When I look at our now team of ten and see how smart, passionate and hardworking everyone is, I honestly can’t think of anything more rewarding than knowing how fortunate it is that we all found each other to get to do what we do every day.

What’s been the most difficult?

There was a time in the early days of Ooka Island that I now fondly refer to as the “Valley of Death.” Due to a number of pretty bad turns of events all happening at once, it knocked the wind out of me and I started shutting down and feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was stuck and was pretty close to giving up.

Then I came across this article about a Latin proverb that says, “If there is no wind, row,” and it was a major turning point. I realized I was the only one who could make change happen and I hadn’t even been trying anymore. So I ended the pity party and started rowing. My whole outlook changed and all of a sudden I was only focused on doing what was best for the business. To my surprise, all the hard choices I had to make became a lot less hard.

What have you learned about yourself (that surprised you) since joining your grandmother at Ooka Island?

I’ve learned that what matters most is moving the needle in the right direction and taking the time to celebrate the small wins. Building a business from scratch is really hard and the everyday grind is a slog, but if you can acknowledge the little daily victories with your team, you can stay just as excited as the day you started.

My grandmother has always worked with this kind of stoic optimism and it’s not only really inspiring, but it’s also contagious.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Make your own plans, do what you can with what you have, and try to enjoy the process because that’s where you’ll spend the majority of your time. Remind yourself that as bad as it gets, everything will eventually fall into place as long as you keep moving. If there is no wind, row.

You have a day off to do whatever your heart desires. Where do you eat? Shop? Stroll?

If we’re talking about the summer, I’d spend my day swimming at Canoe Cove beach in PEI. I would eat Raspberry Point oysters at the wharf and stroll around Charlottetown, shopping and eating on Victoria Row.

What are you excited about right now?

I am excited to be on this crazy roller coaster ride with such an awesome group of people. We just launched our first app and right now is the best it has ever been. I’m looking forward to helping as many kids as possible become confident readers on Ooka Island so they can learn anything they want and take on the world.

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