“Are you okay if we lose everything?” When I hear Dawn Laing ask this question as we talk about her wild life—one that’s lead her from doing biological field research in remote parts of Canada to being one of Toronto’s leaders in the art community—I already know the answer. She’s setting the scene from a few years ago, when she and her partner, Drew Downs, discussed the next steps in building the manufacturing and printing business he cofounded. Notion and its two house brands, GelaSkins and Nuvango, focus on supporting and facilitating the use of artists’ work on various mediums, from tech accessories to t-shirts. To grow operations, the couple had to make a major financial investment that could have jeopardized their home ownership had it not panned out. But Laing, who describes her child self as an “army brat” and recently travelled through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in a camper van, isn’t one to be shaken by taking the not-so-easy route.
“If someone had told me, ‘When you’re forty you’re going to live in Toronto and you’re going be working at a fashion-tech manufacturing company that’s like your family,’ I would’ve been like, ‘You’re joking, I’m a Birkenstock-wearing hippie,’” Laing, whose approaching that age milestone this year, says. We’re sitting in the spacious hub for the company, located in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. I’m familiar with the space not only because I’ve visited in the past, but because Laing’s Instagram feed is a constant source of work—and play—motivation, showcasing team lunches, new products, and on particularly lucky days, an office pooch or two (Laing and Downs also foster dogs). I’m always amazed at how energizing it all looks. It’s a world in which the word “never” does not exist, because Laing and her team would show you otherwise. “I’m kind of addicted,” she says, “to that start-up feeling of what’s next.”
Laing also often posts about being up until the wee hours of the morning working away, but she always keeps a positive outlook. And it’s not an attitude coated with the glossy veneer of an influencer trying to persuade her audience that everything’s just peachy, but rather the realistic lens of an infectiously enthusiastic entrepreneur who sometimes has to find WiFi in the desert just so she can work while on vacation.
Of course, this go, go, go attitude can come at a cost: burnout. And while Laing admits that by nature it’s not easy for her to “do nothing,” she’s getting better at setting boundaries for herself and taking a step back. “That was a hard lesson to learn,” she says of feeling more comfortable about declining invites because her schedule is so jam-packed. “Our businesses aren’t going to fail, I’m not going to fail as a human, and no one’s going to hate me [for saying no].” It’s surely a difficult shift in perspective for someone as dedicated as Laing to adopt, but it’s ultimately essential to ensuring she has the energy and focus to follow through with her mantra: “You get one life, and you get one chance to do stuff.” Nothing lost, everything gained, when you look at it that way.