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Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship · Shanthal Perera

Connie Clerici, QS ’08 - Creating a legacy of care

Jun 7, 2019

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Some personal stories stay with us. They often showcase our personality, character, and the values we live by.

For Connie Clerici, QS ’08 and founder of Closing the Gap Healthcare, that story is from her time working at a nursing home.

As one of the nursing assistants, Clerici and her peers didn’t mix much with the regular nurses. Healthcare was very hierarchical in nature.

One day, some of the occupants at the retirement home section of the facility asked if they could host a Grey Cup party, which was promptly denied by the head nurse.

This really upset Clerici, who still refers to the nurse in question as Mrs. Ratched from the film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Together with her husband and a few friends, they prepared a pile of food and took liquor orders for the retirees. “We did a conga line from the parking lot at 5 a.m. in the morning, to the residence before that nasty lady came to work,” said Clerici, who received a call during the party with everyone tipsy but having the time of their lives.

“That’s what life is about.” said Clerici.

“You have to do for others, what you want them to do for you. I didn’t know that those were my values until I started reflecting on them. And that’s how I run my company.”

Becoming an entrepreneur

After almost thirty years, and a plethora of awards, and accolades for both Clerici and Closing the Gap Healthcare, it’s surprising to think that Clerici never aspired to be an entrepreneur; especially in a highly regulated industry like the healthcare space.

Clerici grew up in a house surrounded by business. Her father, who was an entrepreneur, would regularly have business associates visit their home, and the family were well trained on how to behave around such company. Still, Clerici’s goal was to be a family physician, which took her to Calgary, Alberta, where she pursued nursing as a stepping stone.

When her well laid plans became complicated, Clerici had to recast her vision.

She could go back to school for a career change, or go out into the community to see what was available. When she saw the lack of options for home healthcare, she felt disheartened. “I kept saying to my husband, I can do better. The public deserves better,” said Clerici.

With an idea to fill this gap, and a $10,000 loan, Closing the Gap Healthcare was born.

However, the new company’s mandate did not sit well with some of Clerici’s former colleagues, and they made sure she knew about it.

Some naysayers threw out terms like “for profit healthcare,” like a bad word. The deep-rooted nature of the negativity caught Clerici by surprise.

They branded me a ‘for profit’ organization but unbeknownst to them, I was so deeply in debt. My house was on the line, and there was no profit. I didn’t take paycheck for seven years, but I couldn’t come out and tell people that to make them to stop, because then I would have been branded as ‘not being viable.'

Despite the backlash, she felt strongly that this was the only way to tackle the gap in home healthcare, and provide the class of treatment she would have wanted for her own family.


Shoring up your weakness

While Clerici possessed passion and determination in spades, she discovered that she knew very little about business during the early years of Closing the Gap Healthcare.

“I couldn’t speak the language of the bankers and the accountants. I didn’t have the skill set to run a business and safeguard our family assets,” said Clerici.

Going back to school, Clerici took evening business courses and aligned herself with individuals who had the skills to complement her areas of weakness.

“I hire for my weaknesses,” said Clerici confidently. “You can’t know everything, you can’t be all things to all people, and I never pretend that I know everything.”

Throughout the years, Clerici has made constant learning very much a part of her journey. She says that responsible leaders owe it to their workforce to continue improving themselves.

After years of successful growth and expansion at Closing the Gap Healthcare, Clerici was nominated by KPMG Enterprise to join the QuantumShiftTM program with the Ivey Business School; a rigorous five-day experience that brings together forty of Canada's most promising entrepreneurs to improve their leadership style, and maximize their growth opportunities.

“It was so heart warming that all these entrepreneurs, who had the same problems in different industries, were in the same room. It was a bonding that happened so quickly,” said Clerici.

She found Ivey’s case study methodology very relatable.

“Many of the other programs I had taken involved a lot of textbooks and theories, which are fine and great if you have a real-life situation to apply it to. And that’s what separates QuantumShiftTM from other training programs.”

Eric Morse and Connie Clerici standing with another man at the Spencer Leadership Centre
Since that experience, Clerici has continued to be part of the program’s annual gathering of alumni, and has become an integral part of the Ivey Business School, serving in both the Ivey Entrepreneurship Advisory Council, and the Ivey Advisory Board.

Through that connection, Clerici has had the opportunity to invest her time and resources into helping students find mentorship through the Entrepreneur-in-Residence Program and New Venture Project.

I think it’s incredibly important that there is education for entrepreneurs. I had to do it by trial and error, and it becomes quite costly. Every time you hit one of those hurdles or obstacles, if you don’t know who to talk to, how to work through it, or what your options are, your business is at risk, every single time.

Clerici specifically highlights the need to understand items like the shareholders agreement, the value of venture capital and private equity, terms she didn’t fully grasp when she began Closing the Gap Healthcare.

In 2018, Clerici, and the Closing the Gap Healthcare Group, Inc., donated $250,000 to expand programming and outreach opportunities at Ivey to serve students and Canadian entrepreneurs. One of the first fruits of this gift is the launch of the Ivey Entrepreneur Podcast, where alumni can share their stories and lessons with other entrepreneurs and aspiring students.

Women, family and legacy

Throughout the past decade, Clerici has been frequently recognized as one of Canada’s top women entrepreneurs. She’s also had the opportunity to mix with, and mentor some who are building strong businesses.

“Their business is their life. They are in it for the long term, not to build a business and sell it in 5-10 years. They are highly motivated to be successful, and highly driven by quality.” said Clerici.

It is a feeling Clerici can relate to from her early years with Closing the Gap Healthcare. However, she admits that her dedication to the company’s mission impacted her family life.

“I was prepared to give my heart and soul to improving care in the community, however, it came at a huge cost to my family.” said Clerici.

She points out that many of the women entrepreneurs she encounters don’t take care of themselves enough, and need to find ways to put the business on the back shelf.

For Clerici that release valve came in the form of a group of advisors she carefully put together. They don’t have a vested interest in the organization, and are unafraid to say their piece.

“I’ve taught all the women I’ve worked with, the value in doing that. Just so, you can get a mental break,” said Clerici.

They have played a vital role in charting the company’s direction; from decisions on buying out shareholders, and new acquisitions, to selecting the new CEO, Leighton McDonald.

Late last year, Clerici assumed the position of Executive Chair of the Board of Closing the Gap Healthcare in preparation for the transition.

“I have been thinking about it for a while. I learned through QuantumShiftTM the need for the entrepreneurs or founder to step aside for an organization to go to the next level... it really struck a chord with me.”

Clerici had already attempted to mentor an individual to take on the role of CEO, but the process eventually fell through. Second time around, with assistance of her group of advisors, Clerici was able to take emotion out of the decision.

She’s very pleased with the final decision, and completed the transition by moving out and giving up her office.

But she’s not ready to retire yet. “I truly love people and I love working,” said Clerici. “I wake up every morning, inspired to do something within both of those streams.”

She’s closely involved with big moves happening at Ivey and Western University, particularly in the area of growing entrepreneurship across campus. Clerici is also an active investor, which has helped fulfill her urge to try new ideas outside the healthcare space. Clerici does jokingly confess her lifelong desire to be a waitress, and own her own restaurant, but her family has successfully talked her out of that venture.

As she continues in her new role at Closing the Gap Healthcare, Clerici is proud of the legacy she has crafted for the company and its customers.

“Giving patients independence, and control over their own healthcare, as well as being a place where people enjoy working and find their jobs fulfilling. That would be a good legacy.”