Part of Ownr’s entrepreneurial community, BoardWalk Group was founded in Toronto during 2020 by Jennifer Wilkie and her business partner, Kasia Bruski. Together with their team, they offer consulting services to healthcare organisations, helping them discover growth opportunities, workshop solutions, develop strategies, and more importantly, deliver better and more accessible healthcare to the community.
In business, success stories seem to be a dime a dozen—there’s an article or case study, but once you hear about the extraordinary growth and culture behind BoardWalk and its founders, you’ll quickly realise how rare of a story Jennifer and Kasia have made.
Ownr had the great opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Wilkie, BoardWalk’s Principal Consultant and Co-Founder. But, as we soon found out, that’s only two of her many titles. She is also a busy mom with a Master’s degree in Health Administration—which she applied to no earlier than six weeks after the birth of her son. So to say she embodies the drive of an entrepreneur is an understatement.
“Foolishly, I had one good night of sleep and thought ‘I think I should apply for my Masters’”, she reminisced during our chat, and it seems that’s all it takes with Jennifer: a set goal and then the surge of confidence to take the first step. Within minutes of speaking with her, you realise that if uncertainty and self-doubt were ever even factors of her decisions, her determination quickly outpaces it.
The Birth of BoardWalk
BoardWalk’s mission and focus on improving healthcare within Canada was no accident. Wilkie had been in the industry for over 15 years. While she started her career in marketing and public relations, she soon found herself pursuing work in healthcare: moving from Government Agency to Community Health and finally working as a Director of Continuous Improvement at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), where she was responsible for the implementation of Integrated Care Pathways and measurement-based care. And it was during this time, she witnessed what truly fueled the healthcare system in Canada: community.
“What was really interesting was getting to see these small community-driven organisations across Ontario, and seeing the diversity in the way healthcare was being delivered across Ontario.” She also explains how her previous work in the mental health industry gave her a good understanding of just how grassroots activities can make a difference in healthcare.
“What I saw was how these community organisations can run very entrepreneurial. They’re small, grass roots, but they really drive transformation, and I saw the amount of passion and change they can lead.”
In 2019, she met her soon-to-be business partner, Kasia Bruski, in a collaborative meeting. Both were pregnant at the same time, Jennifer with her daughter, and they soon began taking walks together on a boardwalk of a local beach, discussing work, life and motherhood. Once the pandemic hit in 2020, the two women stuck to the normalcy their long walks on “the boardwalk” brought. During that time, their talks quickly went from motherhood to community health improvements and innovations. One question soon became central to their meetings:
“How do you scale bottom-up innovation with sustainable system change?”
And with that, BoardWalk was born…quite literally on the boardwalk. Under the leadership and expertise of its two co-founders—Jennifer with her knowledge of smaller healthcare organisations and Kasia with her experience in government and consulting, clients soon came knocking at their door to seek balanced and diverse insight from the two partners.
“We just thought ‘let’s figure it out ourselves’. We built our website, and made our own logo and about four months into running, we were overwhelmed with contracts. We started in March and by August we were having conversations about hiring people.”
In the first year, they completed fifteen projects with just the two of them. Today, they have four full-time employees, as well as a regular roster of freelance contractors to help supplement the ever-growing projects.
“The biggest learning curve for me was switching to understanding how to run a business and thinking I was entrepreneurial but having no idea what it meant. I had to become my own I.T.,my own accountant, my own lawyer—my own everything! So we had to figure out how to grow and scale…and build the plane as you fly it.”
From the beginning, they knew to establish a good foundation of values and focus in order to build the company they wanted. From accountability to finance to fostering a healthy and balanced work environment—including individual commitments and goals. Wilkie says this was key to their entrepreneurial journey.
“This isn’t just us taking on a couple of contracts for a couple of years, this is us pushing to build and grow a business, and to build a brand and reputation across Canada.”
And obviously, they’re doing something right. Jennifer says while the number of new projects they sign is exciting, her barometer of success is marked by the clients who come back and simply being able to feel excited about the work they do for the community.
“For me, success is less tangible but being able to do work with an impact. If I ever feel we weren’t able to do that, that’s when I know we need to do something different.”
While Wilkie says she’s still learning as a business owner and new entrepreneur, she had valuable insight for those starting on their own journey.
“I would never have been able to do this without my deeply supportive husband, kids, and parents. Like raising children, it takes a village to be successful in whatever you do and it also should take a village to celebrate that.”
So what’s next for BoardWalk? It seems the sky and horizon are the limits. Both founders are experts in their professional fields and are also committed to being with their families—and that humility and transparency. They want to provide more support for seniors living at home as well as help in the mental health space.
BoardWalk is also putting more focus on running their business as opposed to building one. She says BoardWalk grew so rapidly and quickly, she wants to be able to prioritise the stability of their employees and stream of clients.
With BoardWalk and their team’s growth, we talk about how much has changed in her life since those early walks with Kasia along the beach. She remembers a wonderful moment in April that captured the whirlwind of a journey they’ve had so far. The two founders went to Yellowknife to work on a project with the local government and there they found a wonderful memento for their journey so far:
“The first night, we saw the Northern Lights and that was around the time of our company’s one year anniversary. It was in that surreal moment when we both realised that all the things we said we’d do, we’d done.”
To learn more about Jennifer and BoardWalk Group, please visit their website.