President of Contango Strategies Ltd.
Location: Saskatoon, SK
After completing a PhD in microbiology, genomics and bioinformatics at the tender age of 26, Monique Haakensen’s working life started in research for government and educational and government institutions. This alerted her to a big market need for applied microbiology research in the natural resources sector. Specifically, Haakensen saw that companies in these fields needed help with bioconversion, the process by which microbes are used to remediate effluents, clean up spill sites and transform biofuel waste into something useful. “Microbes are like young children,” she explains. “Feed them well and give them clear parameters and they will do a lot of interesting things.” Moreover, Haakensen felt that doing these tasks right could become a source of competitive differentiation. That’s what led her to start Contango Strategies in 2010. The company has since won contracts from multinational mining companies, biofuels producers and waste-management firms; many more are on the books for the next three years. But commercial success hasn’t caused Haakensen to forget her academic roots: she speaks at universities regularly and she hires students for part-time positions. In doing the latter, she gives smart but green talent real-world experience while providing mentorship about the life of an entrepreneur.
What is your best advice for young entrepreneurs?
Spend the money for professional help on your finances and accounting. One risk of large magnitude and probability associated with startup businesses is a lack of understanding of tax structures, accounting and cash flow. It is a risk that must be mitigated.
What has been the biggest surprise about being an entrepreneur?
I have been surprised by people’s generosity and helpfulness. In starting up Contango, I asked for help from many people, and was surprised to find how giving they were of their time and resources. In all instances where I have asked for assistance, the person (or organization) has either directly provided it, or pointed me toward someone who they thought might be able to do so. For this reason, I now feel much more connected to the community. I feel a sense of responsibility to also help others and pay this goodwill forward.
What can governments, institutions and other businesses do to better support young entrepreneurs?
I think it would be fantastic to see more business-focused classes offered as part of non-business degrees at universities, or even in high schools. There are a lot of young people in various areas of study and paths of life who have great ideas but lack the basic knowledge of commerce and finance that are needed to start up a business. I believe that the integration of just a single general business course as a component of either high school or of university degrees would not only result in a large increase in the number of startup businesses by young entrepreneurs, but also contribute greatly to their long-term success.