amrita 123rd Annual Dinner recap – Stolen moments of a few “well dressed clowns”

The 123rd Annual Dinner, a highly anticipated soirée and a premier event in the city of Toronto, was an entertaining and spectacular night as suspected.

It was an absolute honor to have been present at this beautiful gala event hosted by the Toronto Board of Trade, featuring Jian Ghomeshi as emcee and Guy Laliberté as the keynote speaker. Yes, this is the one and only Guy Laliberté who founded the famous Cirque du Soleil – watched, enjoyed and applauded my millions of people around the world.

The mild mannered Canadian billionaire has also travelled into space, as he explained during his keynote, to fulfill his lifelong dream of walking on the moon to fill the emptiness he sometimes felt (even after accumulating enormous wealth), by undertaking this arduous personal challenge.

This year the Annual Dinner attracted the likes of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, Premier Dalton McGuinty, former Prime Minister John Turner, Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, MP Tony Clement, former KPMG CEO Bill MacKinnon (a personal favorite because he is an extremely down-to-earth kinda guy), CEO of SIMAC Gloria Rajkumar as well Enterprising Women of the Year, CGI President Doug McCuaig, Dragons Den investor Arlene Dickinson and many other business leaders, innovators and city builders alike. The Globe & Mail did some extensive photo coverage at the gala event along with other media.

The cocktail receptions as well as the gala dinner room were lavishly decorated, with exotic drinks and succulent treats doing the rounds. Crystal chandeliers, backlit white satin curtains and elegant orchid center pieces made for exuberant and affluent decore. As one tweeter said:

The President and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, Carol Wilding was beautiful, articulate and commanding as usual – she remained calm throughout the event and graciously introduced people to one another, even knowing this was the biggest event put on by the Toronto Board of Trade each year. Perhaps it was the pressure that amounted to perfection!

Jian was charming, witty and did a stellar job as emcee. Thankfully he did not cross the line; except when he jokingly asked us to refrain from touching our red balls. Ahem. He was only referring to the red clown noses the audience was asked to put on when Guy Laliberté took the stage.

Overall, the event was electrifying. The Cirque performers dressed as Zebras were impeccable; Mayor Rob Ford took the stage and addressed the Toronto business community with cold hard facts; 12 year old child prodigy and gifted pianist Tony Yang brought tears to our eyes with his performance of Chopin ballade #2; while Guy Laliberté both a visionary and a realist, shattered all boundaries and spoke from the heart, inspiring many and leaving us wanting more after a 50 minute unscripted speech.

Guy began his keynote by coming out on stage, quickly scanning the crowd with red clown noses on, and saying:

Wow wow wow, I’ve never seen so many well dressed clowns in my life!

That set the tone for the night. Guy went on to tell an inspiring story of his personal journey through life – of never giving up in the face of adversity, his years of struggle but belief in oneself, of dropping out of college (anyone else thinking of Steve Jobs?) to become a sidewalk performer, a life of living hand-to-mouth while backpacking and street performing in Europe – and his big break when an undisclosed Quebec financier showed faith in him; believed in his cause and abilities and decided to fund him.

You can listen to his full speech here and be inspired like the rest of us. Start watching at 8 min to skip the intros.

Listening to Guy’s story first hand made me realize that thinking big is not a bad thing. I have often been reprimanded for thinking too big or not being “realistic”. Sometimes I do get carried away; but I have realized it is important to have a vision, however unrealistic it may be in the moment. I often find that with technology… and even film, that ideas and dreams I had had 10 years ago are coming to life today. Just because they weren’t realistic back then doesn’t mean they weren’t at all possible. This is what Guy’s story has made me realize. I know now, in my heart… that dreaming and believing bigger is what will drive innovation and new creation in our generation. As somebody once said:

Keep your heart open to dreams. For as long as there’s a dream, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, there is joy in living.

On the business side of things, Guy also told a story about how then president of Columbia pictures, Dawn Steel offered to make a movie about Cirque Du Soleil. After negotiations and announcing the partnership at one of his shows, Guy was made to sit in the back row and barely introduced around – he realized that day that Columbia was simply trying to steal his brand and piggy back on it – they didn’t care for Guy, his cause or his artistry. That’s when he called his lawyers and backed out of the deal. He explained “Thank god she sat me in the last row. I then learned one thing – protect your product, protect yourself and don’t compromise for anybody and don’t sell your soul. It’s tough sometimes, but it is the one thing that is important to keep on that because in the end is important to preserve the fundamentals of what you believe in.”

He also talked about being close to your employees and to listen well in order to enable future growth, especially when hit by hard times. He believes that company employees are the heart and soul of an organization and even if you aren’t always able to give them the answer they want, it is important to keep the dialogue going.

Guy has also kick started a charitable organization called the One Drop foundation. This foundation believes water is part of humanity’s common heritage. Their motto water for all, all for water was repeated by Guy several times during his speech. His foundation aims to fight poverty by providing access to water and raising awareness about the need to make safe water accessible to all. He also used his extra-terrestrial trip to promote the One Drop foundation and its message to people. I encourage you to learn more about the water crisis by going to the One Drop website and watching the featured video.

Photos in this blog post are courtesy of Matheus Christopher, Warshawskis and the Toronto Board of Trade; including this picture of me and my boss with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Right after the photo opportunity, Ford gallantly whipped out his business card and handed it to me. I hear it’s his thing.

You can see more official gala photos on the Toronto Board of Trade website. If you were one of the 1500 people there, see if you can spot yourself!

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