Interview conducted by Chanèle McFarlane
Photography by Keidi Janz

They say that one way to stand out in your career is to always be a pleasure to work with. If you just take a moment to look at the career of Camp Tech Founder and CEO, Avery Swartz, it’s evident that it couldn’t be more true.

With a mission to help tech make sense to non-technical people, her infectious personality and genuine passion for technology has made her a trusted go-to for individuals and organizations looking to “get the web working” and media who can count on her to create memorable television segments. It’s safe to say that Avery’s not only a pleasure to work with (her team speaks very highly of her!) but she has made technology a pleasure to learn, hear and read about as the resident tech expert for CTV’s Your Morning as well as a tech writer for Chatelaine and the Globe and Mail.

Despite life handing her a pretty tough lemon several years ago, Avery was determined to not let it stop her and she continues to prove that she’s not a woman to mess with. In just five years, she’s grown Camp Tech across Canada with over 4000 people attending their 250+ tech workshops each year and she was listed #5 on the Top 50 Women in Marketing list by Search Engine Journal. Avery has certainly created a career trajectory worth watching and we can all learn something from her work and outlook on life.

Here’s Avery on rolling with the punches, mastering her mindset and why she’s not in competition with anyone but herself:

Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade? 

My most impactful ‘lemonade story’ is from my personal life. I learned I carry the BRCA gene mutation when I was 26 (just four years after my mother died of ovarian cancer as a result of the same genetic mutation). I was told that I had an 80% chance of developing breast cancer in my lifetime, and a 50% chance of developing ovarian cancer. WTF?!? It took time to process that information, and I definitely felt like a victim for a while.

Eventually I turned my thinking around, and realized that the genetic mutation discovery wasn’t a death sentence. It was an opportunity to prevent cancer before it even happened. I have had two preventative surgeries since: a double mastectomy with breast reconstruction when I was 29 and a bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (the removal of my ovaries and Fallopian tubes) when I was 36. Now I have a lower cancer risk than the general population, and there’s no way cancer is going to take me away from my daughter, the way it took my mom away from me.

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After that first year, how did you scale your business and continue to grow?

In the early days of Camp Tech, I invested time and money in building systems and structure. I gave a lot of thought to what the Camp Tech experience is for learners, instructors, and workshop facilitators. We wrote it all down and made handbooks. This work is still ongoing - it never really stops. Systems help to define the brand and provide the structure we lean on while scaling.

How much of your success as an entrepreneur has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?

There’s a concept in investing that says the reward of an investment directly correlates to the risk taken. While that may be true in investing, it has not been true to me as an entrepreneur. I’m relatively risk-averse, and many other entrepreneurs I know also don’t like risk. Of course there is often a moment where you have to just “go for it”, but I do try to mitigate risk as much as I can in my business decisions.

How do you measure success in your career?

I’ve done a lot of work to determine my personal and professional values. I measure success against those values and goals I set for myself. The key point is that they are MY values, not someone else’s.

“You can’t compete with me because I’m not playing the game. I’m focused on my own stuff, and the only person I compete with (and measure myself against) is myself.”

You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?

With 30 minutes to go before an important meeting, speaking engagement, or media appearance, I’ll seek out a quiet place (often the women’s bathroom) to collect my thoughts. I review what the key message is that I want to get across, and what I want to get from the meeting. I also love music and the power it has to pump you up. If I can put in headphones and listen to a anthemic song, I will. Otherwise I’ll just play it in my head. Recently my pump-up anthem has been Woman by Kesha.

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Was their ever a moment that you questioned your decision to become an entrepreneur? How did you overcome it?

I don’t think people “decide” to become entrepreneurs. People decide to be self-employed, but that’s different. Not all self-employed people are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is a mindset (and an often unhealthy one that is associated with mental illness).    

We have a perverted obsession with entrepreneurship in our society. It’s messed up. If you seek entrepreneurship because you think it’s sexy or looks cool, you won’t last long. It’s a cruel path that will chew you up and spit you out. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and I’ve been a self-employed entrepreneur for 11 years. There have been many times when I wish I wasn’t. But ultimately, I know it’s just how I’m wired. I can’t work for someone else. I’m unemployable. I know that sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I’m an entrepreneur because I honestly can’t not be. So I just keep going because it’s my only option.

What is the last investment you've made that has made your life better?

I believe in celebrating wins. Small ones, big ones, all of them. So often self-employed people can’t afford to give themselves a bonus, but we can reward ourselves in other ways. Won the bid for a contract? Treat yourself to a fancy coffee drink. Finished the latest draft of a design or a piece of writing? Take the afternoon off and go for a long walk or visit the art gallery. Whatever feels like a reward to you. For me, one of the biggest indulgences is ignoring my phone for a little while to relax and read magazines. Or going to Sephora and picking out a new red lipstick. That’s a big treat.

Have you ever had anyone doubt you?

People doubt me, judge me, compare themselves to me, and try to compete with me all the time. I ignore it. You can’t compete with me because I’m not playing the game. I’m focused on my own stuff, and the only person I compete with (and measure myself against) is myself.  Like Oprah says, "I know where my lane is, and I know how to stay in my lane.”

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What is your best negotiation tip?

Determine what your goal is, and what the other party’s goal is. Then do everything you can to get your goals aligned, so you can come to a solution that works for everyone. Try to sit on the same side of the table as them, not across from them (I mean that metaphorically, but it could work literally as well). Oh, and leave your ego at the door. That just gets in the way and doesn’t serve anyone.


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