Amber Mac — entrepreneur, bestselling author, and award-winning podcast host
Amber Mac is a successful entrepreneur, bestselling author, a TV and radio presenter, an award-winning podcast host, and a popular keynote speaker. She is also widely recognized as a global technology expert, constantly challenging the status quo when it comes to “what’s next” in the field of innovation. From her childhood in rural P.E.I. to building a thriving media company, Amber Mac talks with Jen and Catherine about highlights, pitfalls, and life lessons on this episode of The Honest Talk.
Becoming an entrepreneur
Catherine Clark: If someone checked your webpage, they would see photos of you with some of the most influential tech gurus in the world and even the Canadian Prime Minister, but they’d also see that you grew up in a very small community and attended a two-room schoolhouse. How did you get from there to here?
Amber Mac: When I was growing up in Prince Edward Island, my parents were very entrepreneurial. And so it was always a reality for us that we worked in the family business, whatever that family business might have been. I think I appreciated working more than the average kid in elementary school, and I really enjoyed it, quite frankly.
And so when I got out of university and started working out in San Francisco, in the tech industry, I always had two or three things on the go, and I still do today. Growing up in a rural community where you’re working as part of your family business, I think you just develop a really good and healthy appreciation for work. And that work ethic in my opinion has been one of the things that has allowed us to build up Amber Mac media today into a successful business.
Catherine Clark: Did you always think that you would be an entrepreneur, because there is a real spirit to that, right? There are some people who are better suited to a nine-to-five day job. And then there are other people who just have so many ideas, and so much drive.
Amber Mac: I think I always knew I wanted to run my own business. But of course, in my 20s, I also took on regular jobs where I was working nine to five, but it didn’t take me long. In most of those positions, it was about 12 months before I started to get a little bit antsy and bored.
I always loved the freedom that comes along with entrepreneurship.Amber Mac
The importance of diverse, empathetic leadership
Jennifer Stewart: Did you have a moment in your career where you were told by a boss or a supervisor that your idea didn’t have enough substance? And that drove you to start your own career path?
Amber Mac: Growing up in Prince Edward Island, one of the few role models I had was Anne of Green Gables. That’s an important part of this conversation. She was amazing, and very sort of stubborn in terms of standing up for what was right. Many years ago, my grandmother — we called her Grammy and I was really, really close to her — she very suddenly got sick and ended up in the hospital and I flew home to Prince Edward Island to be at her side. And I remember I was taking a work call in the hallway, and my boss at the time had insisted that I get on this call even though my grandmother was literally slipping away.
As my boss was talking in the middle of the call, I just hung up the phone and very soon left that job. I mention that because it just felt like I didn’t want someone else to be able to dictate when I was able to take that time to be with the people most important to me. And unfortunately, and I hope this changes, many people in positions of leadership really aren’t empathetic to the needs of the people who work with them.
Many people in positions of leadership really aren’t empathetic to the needs of the people who work with them.Amber Mac
Catherine Clark: You know, Jen and I both run our own businesses. But Jen hires staff, and they’re mainly women, and she gives them a ton of latitude. They’ve got to get their work done, but there’s a recognition that they have other things going on in their life. What do other leaders need to do to change workplaces and create better workplaces for people?
Amber Mac: We really need more diversity in leadership, and that can be gender or racial. All different types of diverse leaders are really needed at this point. When you get that diversity among leadership, you start to have people who are more empathetic, because they’ve grown up in different ways and with different levels of privilege or perhaps even not having privilege in their lives.
So I really do think that the more we can push to have businesses that are formed by a diverse group of people, I think that we will end up getting better leaders who understand the needs of everyone. And we do see that with women leaders today. Unless your staff are in a good place, we can’t be good as a company. And I think that’s pretty apparent to many leaders of today who respect their team.
Jennifer Stewart: I want to go back to that moment in the hospital where you hung up on your boss. That’s brave and kind of creating a line in the sand. That’s tough to do. How do other women do that?
Amber Mac: Well, I think it’s really hard to do that. It really depends on your comfort level in terms of the opportunities that lie on the other side. When I say to you that I’ve always had two or three jobs, I’m actually being serious, and I’ve always felt as though that was the only way that I was going to have security. So if something didn’t go well, I could stand up for what I believed in and fall back on something else.
I would say to women out there, and anyone listening, I recognize that it’s really not easy, but I think it’s really critical that you don’t put yourself into a position where you’re in a tiny little box, right? You do have that ability to have range. It gives us options. And most importantly, it gives us freedom to stand up for what’s right.
Catherine Clark: What’s the biggest hurdle you faced in your career?
Amber Mac: When I got out of university, I had almost $40,000 in student debt. And it’s hard to come from that place and be able to overcome that. The biggest challenge for me was not having that security blanket to fall back on. At the same time, that’s probably my biggest driving force as well, not having that security blanket.
But I think the challenge in the early years is that things didn’t come easy. I really did have to work tirelessly. And today it’s still the same for me. I still work an incredible number of hours and thankfully I do get to dictate in terms of how I spend my time a little more closely.
Catherine Clark: Change doesn’t seem to scare you at all. Am I right in saying that?
Amber Mac: One of the things that I do talk about a lot in my keynotes is something called relentless adaptation — this idea that every day you’re changing, you’re pivoting, you’re adapting to doing things in a new way.
Change doesn’t really scare me all that much, but it’s not just because I’m a brave or courageous person, it’s probably just because I’m a really good planner and I’m always planning for those times where financially something could go wrong. So, I’m always paying attention to the fact that I can only embrace change if I have that stability at home, the stability with my business. The challenges give you the confidence, but I certainly always have a fallback plan.
Living with purpose
Jennifer Stewart: What is something that people don’t know about you?
Amber Mac: I quit drinking in my early 20s. And I still don’t drink so I’m 100 per cent sober. That was a really important milestone for me, because I grew up on the East Coast and drinking culture is just part of many families. It has just made my life so much more simplified.
I knew that building a business and being a woman in tech, all those things weren’t going to be easy. I certainly didn’t need alcohol in my life kind of muddying up my weekends. And so I removed that factor entirely, and it certainly has made my life better.
Jennifer Stewart: Was there a reason why you quit? Was it a problem?
Amber Mac: Like anyone in their early 20s, I was partying a lot. I found that I socially depended on alcohol to socialize with people. It was a bit of a crutch for me, and I recognized that, and someone dared me to quit drinking for a month, just some silly challenge we were doing. I felt great, and then I was just kind of like, I don’t need this in my life. And I lost a ton of friends who just didn’t want to hang out with me because they didn’t think it was fun anymore. So, that was an adjustment.
But we all have to make these choices in our life, and for me, that was the healthiest choice. I’ve lost too many family members to alcohol, and I just didn’t want to end up in that place.Amber Mac
Catherine Clark: You’re living your life with real purpose. What kind of lessons are you trying to impart to your son?
Amber Mac: I think the most important lesson is trying to impart on him that things that seem overwhelming and things that he maybe gets disappointed about, or gets frustrated about, really, in the big picture, are small things. So, a healthy sense of optimism while also being practical about his approach day-to-day. And of course, you know, health and fitness and all those things are incredibly important. So I’m trying to convince him to move a lot.
Jennifer Stewart: What’s an opportunity you encountered in your life that at the time seemed like the end of the world, but in hindsight was a catalyst for this incredible career you have now.
Amber Mac: Well, one of the things I still do today, I do things that terrify me. And I have always been like this. I don’t mean physical risks, but professional risks are things that make me very anxious or fearful. Early on, when I moved back to Canada from the U.S., I was working at Citytv as a reporter and I got approached by Tony Robbins’ team. He wanted to meet with me and talk to me about advising him on social media. The only window of time he had was on a short flight on his plane between Toronto and London, Ontario. I fly all the time, but I’ve suffered from a terrible fear of flying, you know, sweaty palms and just super anxious.
So the thought of getting on a small private plane for me was terrifying, but I was trying to play it cool. After we landed, I apologized for being a little weird on the plane, and told him I’m kind of a nervous flier. And he looked at me and he said, “No shit.” I had to laugh because here I am trying to dupe the guy who makes a living off reading into people. It was a life-changing opportunity — he has been incredibly supportive and helped me a lot early on in my career.
Catherine Clark: What’s next on your bucket list of incredible things to do with this remarkable life you’re building?
Amber Mac: The past year has taught us a lot in terms of what can be done with virtual events. And although I’ve not really publicly said this, I’m very tempted not to be going back to flying around North America for in-person events. I think there’s great opportunities in virtual. And at some point, maybe I’ll write another book. Day-to-day I’m just trying to get through the pandemic and hope to see my family and P.E.I. one day soon.
(Note: This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)