Valerie Brown-Dufour: Leader, Woman, Trailblazer

The Inspiring Women Changing the Franchising Industry 2020


“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” ― Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Sheryl’s vision should have come true already, at least in 2020. However, the blunt truth is that we are far from the equality that she envisions, for now. Nonetheless, gender equality has started to unfold as women have now realized that equality is well within our reach. A recent study shows that “between 2018 and 2019, U.S. women started an average of 1,817 new businesses per day, representing 42% of all businesses.” When you look at these staggering numbers, you realize that women have found their voice, and they have the capabilities, drive and determination to fulfill their dreams on their terms. Valerie Brown-Dufour, President, WSI is one such trailblazing woman, driving the world, on her terms. She is spearheading a full-service Digital Marketing company, which was incorporated in 1995. WSI works with clients on a global basis creating, developing, and maintaining effective digital marketing solutions to deliver business and profits for each of its clients.

The Coming Together of Many Things in my Path

American naturalist John Burroughs once famously said, “Leap, and the net will appear.” Drawing lines from this quote, Valerie has always believed that the resources you need will turn up when you need them. This is simply faith in its purest form. Back in her twenties, Valerie was a professional student and equally, a citizen of the world (as she proudly highlights). She enjoyed working and studying abroad in a number of places. “And I think that ultimately is what steered me towards WSI. In the earlier days, I loved that it was internet-based and it was a new world. I loved that what we were building was a global company. In fact, prior to joining, I had considered a career in the diplomatic service. I just love learning about other cultures and working with people from around the world. So that was an aspiration of mine,” Valerie shares.

There was also a period where she ran her own importing business. Through her travels, she had found some interesting products that she wanted to market in Canada. And so, for a couple of years, she ran her own business and just discovered through that process, ‘how much I loved business.’ But she realized you need support when you start a business. It certainly comes in many ways and different shapes and forms. She believes being an entrepreneur is challenging, exciting, and rewarding, but it’s super important to have support behind you. “And so, when I joined WSI, it sort of seemed like the coming together of many things that I love and get to explore. I’m certainly passionate about our community and our network, and I love working with our Consultants from around the world. I love the creativity of being in an industry that is ever-changing – and you always need to be adapting and learning.”

Vision, Collaboration, Dedication & Belief in Each Other

When Valerie joined WSI, the greatest challenge for the team was to make people aware of the internet. The co-founders would fly around the world, gone for months at a time, to simply educate people about using the internet to market their business. “We used to talk about the ABC’s of internet success – all of which are still needed today. “A” you have to use Advanced technology, still just as relevant today, “B” Build targeted traffic (be found), no different today and “C” you had to Convert that traffic into customers just like you have to do today,” Valerie recalls. Helping people understand that back then when they were just getting used to fax machines was an uphill battle. “Part of our challenge was we were always ahead of the curve promoting the latest capabilities we had, and the rest of the world was still wrapping their heads around the internet. Like all businesses, we have had to adapt and evolve, especially in such a dynamic space as digital marketing. I think what got us through was the vision, our belief in the industry and each other, collaborating with our franchisees and dedicating ourselves to educating the business community about what it takes to develop an effective digital marketing strategy. Still, to this day, all those factors play a huge role in our past success and our future.”

The Trusted Advisor for Digital Marketing

WSI’s philosophy – to create an effective digital marketing solution that delivers results for our clients –begins with a “top-down approach.” Valerie shares that the team starts with an in-depth analysis of the client’s existing digital footprint and establishes how they fare against their competition. After the team has a clear understanding of where the client is at present and what they want to achieve going forward, WSI develops a digital marketing strategy that will meet the client’s business objectives.

This plan could include everything from a new website, landing pages, PPC, SEO, marketing automation, programmatic display marketing, paid campaigns, reputation management, remarketing,  social media marketing, etc. “Once an online strategy has been defined and deployed, we continue working with our clients long-term to measure their results, and update and enhance their online presence. We act as the trusted advisor to our clients and ensure they continue to get the results they are looking for,” she adds.

Recreating the Business World through the Internet

Valerie also shares that there are a few reasons behind deciding to use franchising as WSI’s go-to-market strategy. First, the founding team saw the opportunity to help recreate the entire business world through the internet. It made sense for the team to align with individuals who embodied an entrepreneurial spirit, drive, and like-minded vision to take their business concept global. The second consideration, Valerie explains, is, “we believed we would attract the type of people who wanted to take control versus those looking for a job.” Also, she believes when you have individuals with a vested interest in their future, they are usually more creative and driven. “We realized that for us to build the company we wanted to build, the best thing we could do is to work alongside the franchisees versus across the table. With this philosophy, we could share ideas, test concepts globally, and develop a collaborative environment whereby the franchisees support each other; our collective knowledge and experience is definitely an advantage for our clients and the results we can deliver them,” shares Valerie.

Valerie’s vision for WSI is to continue to grow like it has for the past two decades. Part of WSI’s strategy is to assist its existing offices to grow, do incredible work for their clients, and to stay on top of emerging digital technologies and trends. There is also an incredible opportunity in expansion through women in franchising as it is proven they have the ability to do extremely well in the industry. Valerie says this is equally true as it relates to millennials since this is an industry that is second nature to them. As WSI continues to grow, part of its strategy will be continuing to educate the business community as to what it takes to succeed online. “We spend a great deal of time educating our clients. That’s why we published three WSI Digital Minds books. We believe we can be the voice of digital marketing for the business community, particularly for small and mid-sized businesses.”

Women — Building Lasting Client Relationships

Talking about the rising number of women in franchising, Valerie says it is becoming more common, and a lot of women are making a name for themselves in marketing. So it’s not a big stretch to now focus on entrepreneurship or digital marketing. Women typically are good multitaskers as well as good relationship builders. Valerie believes they like to take the approach of partnering and understanding the client needs. So it’s very in line with how a lot of women work. “I also think as it relates to our business model, a lot of our franchisees start in a home-based business. And because we develop solutions around the world and we work in different time zones, it’s a conducive business model for people who want flexibility in their life. So if you’re a woman and you have children still at home or have obligations in or out of the home, it’s a great business opportunity. You can work from home, you can work at 10 o’clock at night, you can work at four o’clock in the morning, and clearly you’ve got some time through the day when you need to meet your clients.”

Being Able to Lean on Each Other is the Nature of WSI’s Community

One of Valerie’s favorite quotes is from Jeff Bezos, “The true secret to business success is to focus on the things that won’t change, not the things that will.” Likewise, one thing that won’t change is the nature of WSI’s community – it is very collaborative and supportive. Going further, she says, “We have so many mechanisms to enhance collaboration, whether it’s regional meetings, sharing in our online Workplace community, or logging into our monthly network web meeting — there’s not one thing that does it, but we do have a very unique group of franchisees, and that’s how we navigate in a very dynamic space. Digital marketing is changing all the time, and so being able to lean on each other and get insights into things you might not be aware of yet, or share successes or challenges is just inherently how we all work together.”

Communicate, Support, Listen and Innovate

Over the years, Valerie has held many different positions. The journey has made her understand enough about marketing, customer support, branding, finance, and sales. But she is knowledgeable enough to know when she needs to lean on people who specialize in that expertise. She calls herself a generalist, as she loves moving between all elements of the business and working to set the strategy and then inspiring the team to execute on it. “But in franchising, it’s very interesting because we also have the business to run, which is here at the Home Office. And then we also have the responsibility to support our franchisees in their markets. And as you can imagine, people are at very different stages of growth, and have very different needs as they grow their business,” she adds.

Valerie’s role, summed up, is to communicate, support, listen, innovate, and to make sure that as an organization, WSI is helping clients succeed online. And so, she says it’s a myriad of things. “I mean, it’s very dynamic, but ultimately my role is to not only run the day-to-day things but also to look ahead, into the future; we make sure that we’re getting a lot of information, innovation, and insights into where the industry is going. And that happens in a lot of ways,” Valerie asserts. WSI depends on some of its top Consultants to give the team direction and to help them see three, five, ten years out. Further, WSI’s Board is very involved in the business. While they have a number of other business interests, they certainly provide direction to Valerie in her role as well as the management team. So, “I’m definitely surrounded by a lot of people who have key roles to play, and my role is really to orchestrate all that,” simplifies Valerie.

“Truly a Globally Connected Network”

“Inspiration exists, but you have to find it working.” – Pablo Picasso. However, it’s not just one thing that inspires the team at WSI. It’s an amalgamation of many things.First off, it is amazing to be part of this network – you can be talking with one of our offices in South Africa at 10 am, then at 11 am, speaking with someone in Brazil, an hour later someone in Ireland, then an office in California. We truly are a global, connected network – and frankly, just being able to work with so many smart, motivated people is inspiring,” Valerie talks about motivation at WSI. “I should mention it also doesn’t hurt when you have clients singing our praises or the work we do, winning awards. In fact, we were recognized as the top digital marketing agency by the WMA (Web Marketing Association) which was a huge sense of accomplishment for our entire network. It is great recognition for the incredible work we do for our clients. The fact that there is always something new and exciting to work on is a huge motivator. No one will ever get bored around here. The knowledge that we are all making a difference in the lives of so many people – from franchisees to clients to even staff members — is also inspiring.”

WSI’s corporate culture has an open-door policy and encourages ideas from everyone. They equally celebrate those ideas and successes weekly. “We do our best to make it a fun environment and acknowledge all the different cultures we have at the Home Office. One of our core values is “everyone swings a mop,” In other words, we all chip in to do whatever is necessary no matter what the title or what the task may be. It’s not unusual to see one of the co-founders helping set up for the next training class or cleaning out the storage room if needed. It breeds a real team spirit where everyone feels valued and accepted. When people feel good about where they work, that’s when they “run it like they own it” —- another one of our core values, and that’s when the collective brainpower kicks in. And of course, “Beer Cart Friday’s” always helps,” she further adds.

Surrounding Yourself with Support and Good People is the Key!

When asked about maintaining a balance between personal and professional life, Valerie believes there are a few things over the years that have helped and worked. For her, number one is to have a plan to help maintain a balance between professional and personal life. “First off, my husband and kids are always supportive – and with two parents with executive careers, and two active adolescent kids, we have to be pretty organized as a family. Equally, I have an amazing Management Team with great tenure and skills. They know our community. They’re adept in many aspects of franchising and certainly knowledgeable as it relates to digital. So, yeah, I think surrounding yourself with support and good people as well as some planning are some of the key aspects to help strike a balance.”

Looking Towards a Better and EQUAL World

Valerie believes more women should get into franchising. She says it gives them the opportunity to self-actualize. They no longer have to take a job that is offered at sometimes an unequaled pay rate. She truly believes women have found their voice and realize they have the capabilities, drive, and determination to fulfill their own dreams on their terms. She also thinks this is the case for millennials as well! Franchising gives a solid base for someone to get started in owning their own business. They should take advantage of franchising for the same reason men have for decades. It’s a path to business ownership without all the same hardships, time, and financial burden of figuring out everything you need to know to create a concept, develop it, prove it, systematize it and then market it. “We have several top performing franchisees that are women. And today, we are getting calls from around the globe from extremely accomplished women who have made hundreds of millions of dollars for large companies who are realizing that with the right vehicle they can do it for themselves. Women in franchising is a definite strategy as we move forward,” Valerie concludes while eyeing a more EQUAL world.

When one listens to such inspiring stories from across the globe, the day seems near when “there will be no female ENTREPRENEURS. There will just be entrepreneurs.”