The first project, "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground," won the 2010 Emmy for Best Investigative Magazine while “Uganda Rising,” which she self-produced, was also acclaimed by prestigious award-giving bodies. She also partners with UBC to develop and deliver medicines to places like Africa.
Featured in 2012 in “Giving back: Eight innovative philanthropists around the world”
Because of Alison’s commitment to social change through doing well in business and staying committed to her projects, she made it to the list of “Eight innovative philanthropists around the world.” The article revolved around her involvement in the University of British Columbia’s Journalism Graduate School and her private company, Winfield Venture Group. Of course, the documentary film "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground” she funded through the one million dollar donation she gave was also highlighted.
The article ended with a quote from her defining what she really does:
"People say I'm a social venture philanthropist... But I'm really into the start-up phase – you know, seed funding, taking an idea that isn't proven and try to find a way to prove it out ... really putting a significant amount of money behind an idea that I think matters."
Early Life of Alison Lawton Montreal near West Vancouver
Alison was born in Montreal, Canada on 29 May 1970 and spent most of her childhood there. Her mother is a nurse and a compassionate woman. She was raised in a Catholic home and went to Catholic schools. Early in her life, however, her mother has opened her eyes to the many other ways of showing faith and religion.
Often, she went with her mother to the hospital and that’s when she witnessed how fragile life is. There was one woman she would sometimes feed who passed away without family in her last moments. Alison felt sorry for people who are alone in their battles, feeling ostracized and unloved. That’s when she felt the desire in her heart to do her part in restoring hope to people who see no point in their existence.
As a kid, Alison took part in fundraising and really enjoyed it. She couldn’t wait knocking on the doors of people to tell them about causes she thought everybody should know. Then it struck her—since she finds real sense of fulfillment in doing charitable works, she might as well go into that direction as she grows up.
Education, Career, Net Worth, and Marriage with Frank Giustra
In 1995, Alison graduated from the Concordia University with Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies. In the same year that she finished college, she joined Investor First Financial where she specialized on the use of syndicated software, film, television, real estate, and tax shelter offerings, according to Wikipedia.
In her People Uncut interview, Alison spoke about her NGO involvement, saying that it began even before she started a well-paying career. In 1992, she finds herself in the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. She then became part of Earth Day International, doing voluntary work for them. Back when she was much younger, she found immense joy in helping underdogs and spreading knowledge about worthy causes. She thought her destiny is in NGO. However, she soon found out that the NGO industry could also be riddled with management issues.
She wants to break free from that environment without abandoning NGO work altogether. She was in that crossroads when she met David Richardson of Investor First Financial, Inc. which is an investment firm based on Vancouver. She approached David to raise funds for Earth Day International. David was taken by her passion, commitment, and intellect and thought she would make a good employee in his company. He convinced Alison to join Investor First Financial, Inc., not as a volunteer but a paid employee. He promised to mentor her and teach her all she has to know about investment.
It was the kind of break she was hoping for and she didn’t waste time. She thought that if she wanted to support causes, she might as well put up her own NGO, one that she could control by herself and run using whatever knowledge she would learn in David’s investment company.
In just a matter of two years since she joined Investor First Financial, Inc., she founded her very own investment firm, which she called Winfield Venture Group. She proved to be a great entrepreneur and her net worth began to grow. She successfully brought Winfield Venture Group in the frontline of investment industry. Upon the boom of the Internet, she joined IdeaPark Ventures Inc. where she was a co-founder alongside Dave Schulz and Rory Holland. According to bcbusiness.ca, IdeaPark is “a tech incubator.”
In 2000, Alison has successfully made a name in the investment business and Internet ventures. IdeaPark caught the attention of a shrewd mining investor, Ian Telfer. A deal was made and IdeaPark was sold to him for 2.5 million dollars in stock and cash in 2000. It was also around that time when Alison married Frank Giustra, who used to be Yorkton Securities Inc.’s president and CEO. In 1997, Frank founded Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
IdeaPark was renamed Itemus Inc. after it was sold to Ian. However, the following year, Itemus filed for bankruptcy. She was already out of the picture when the bankruptcy occurred as she gave birth to her son. About her involvement in Itemus, she said:
“I was very lucky to have participated in Itemus… but something didn’t sit right with me there either. It’s not right to be able to put in a certain amount of money and walk away with significant gains, only to watch it go bankrupt. If I win, he loses. Where is the justice in that?” (Source: BCBusiness)
Producing “Uganda Rising”
Alison was having the time of her life as a mother and wife to a successful businessman. But she was again drawn to school when she found time to do things for personal growth. She wants to contribute more to helping victims of social injustices and she couldn’t do it without being equipped with knowledge. It led her to Simon Fraser University where she took a master’s degree in communications. Her thesis’ central idea explored “the role of the media in creating value in financial markets.”
After completing her studies, she again felt that she has to do something to leverage her experience in the non-government organizations and private sectors. She asked herself:
“I’d had a taste of the non-profit world, I had a taste of the for-profit world and I had a taste of academia... I thought, ‘OK, how do all of these powerful stakeholders work together for social change?’” (Source: BCBusiness)
She knew that she won’t find any sense of accomplishment for as long as she doesn’t do her share in helping others who are struggling. She was in a quandary and that's when her path crossed Lloyd Axworthy's. Being Canada's former foreign affairs minister and then heading University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, Lloyd is the perfect person to talk to about issues of global scale. It was through Lloyd's prodding that Alison was convinced to use her background in communications to chronicle the ongoing conflict in Uganda.
It lit up a light bulb in Alison that she went ahead and booked a trip to the war-torn country. The desire to help was there but it was initially limited to looking for data that she could then turnover to Lloyd for further study and eventual reference. But she was not prepared for the attachment she would feel with the Ugandan people.
Uganda changed her forever. What she thought would only be a research assignment became a feature-length documentary, which she titled “Uganda Rising.” It did not matter that she used one million dollars of her personal money to fund the project. It did not matter that she spent some time away from her husband and kids. What she wanted to accomplish was make good her promise that wherever she went and whatever happens, she will not forget about the Ugandan people. “Uganda Rising” won awards in various international film festivals. In Canada, “Uganda Rising” garnered an honourable mention during the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2006.
Two years later, Frank and Alison filed for divorce.
Chairing Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS campaign by UNICEF
In 2005, Alison began partnering with UNICEF when the organization appointed her to chair the Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS campaign. Her Unite with Art auction raised over a million dollars for UNICEF in four years. She also championed Unite against AIDS concert series where Avril Lavigne, John Mayer, and Sarah McLachlan participated in. She also produced a documentary movie which ran for 22 minutes to highlight the plight of children living in an environment where contracting human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is as possible as getting infected with flu. Pierce Brosnan, who once played James Bond, agreed to do the voiceover.
Alison also donated 150,000 dollars to fund two projects of UNICEF Canada.
Founding Mindset Social Innovation Foundation
Alison has immersed herself in philanthropy and social business and it is only fitting for her to contemplate on creating her own foundation to maximize avenues for helping. She founded Mindset Social Innovation Foundation in 2006 and according to their website:
“Mindset Social Innovation Foundation is about supporting initiatives that take risks and capitalize on the power of the collective to realize the emergent possibilities in sharing.
We are a house of collaboration, entrepreneurship and social innovation. We bring together individuals that have the capacity to make a difference and expand awareness of underrepresented issues. Mindset has supported educational institutions, governments, UN organizations, policy makers and artists to develop new social, economical and political paradigms that can change the world. Together with our partners, we inspire movements that shift the way global citizens THINK, FEEL and ACT towards some of the most pressing issues of our time: HIV/AIDS, Child Soldiers and Access to Life-saving Drugs. We provide funding to the collaboration process and explore our networks to connect the people and organizations who are needed to find solutions. We are very interested in researching public perceptions and context, and we seek to change mindset surrounding those issues… through whatever means imaginable.”
Since Mindset began work, it has been instrumental for UNICEF fundraising projects. Mindset also produced "Hope in the Time of AIDS" for UNICEF. Furthermore, Alison began her OPEN HEALTH initiative. Her Virgin Unite profile describes this initiative as intended for "researching the development and distribution of pharmaceuticals and working to develop innovative solutions for global access to life-changing drugs."
She partnered with Virgin Unite because she has seen how Richard Branson sincerely wants to contribute change to society using his business. Due to the way she has mobilized Canada through UNICEF and Mindset’s joint effort, she has received UNICEF’s Champion for Children Award and made it to Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40 list in 2006. The following year, she received the Simon Fraser University Outstanding Alumni Award for Community Service.
The $1 Million Donation to the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
In spite of what she has accomplished with UNICEF and Mindset, she feels that there is still so much she can do to help.
Peter Klein of 60 Minutes is a teacher of investigative journalism in the University of Columbia. He met Alison through a mutual friend. Having heard of the success of "Uganda Rising" Peter asked Alison if she'd love to do it again if the opportunity arises. She was honest enough to reply:
"I told him that I was emotionally exhausted because I had traveled there and witnessed firsthand some things that were difficult and challenging to witness...," says Lawton...'well, if I were to do it again, I would really like to find a partner and I'd really like to invest, you know, a million dollars in continuing to uncover those stories that are underrepresented in mainstream media.'" (Source: Christian Science Monitor)
Peter then presented Alison with a cool idea of enabling students to learn and uncover news on the field. The idea of empowering the youth to mobilize society by using facts news corporations shy away from appealed to her. She agreed to give UBC Graduate School of Journalism 1 million dollars for a program that will run for 10 years. The first documentary produced, "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground," won the 2010 Emmy for Best Investigative Magazine. The 100,000 dollars a year grant Mindset has given is now being used for "The Pain Project" which is about the shortage of pain medications in poor countries.
Alison is yet to grow tired of using her net worth earned out of private business to fund her NGO initiatives. So far, she’s been satisfied with the noise they are making and films that put to the fore issues often disregarded by news corporations. Asked what her top priority is, she neither sited her Winfield work nor her Mindset endeavors. She’s a mother first then a businesswoman and a philanthropist next.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- World AIDS Day Concert
- Winfield Venture Group
- Mindset Social Innovation Foundation
- Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education
- Sosido Networks
- Tyze Personal Networks
- Unite with Art
- Clinton Foundation
- Positive Women’s Network and Pacific AIDS Resource Centre
- University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
- Virgin Unite Canada
- Acumen Fund
- Greater Vancouver Food Bank Society
- BC Advisory Council for Social Entrepreneurship
- Centre for Sustainability and Social Innovation at the Sauder School of Business, UBC
- UBC Graduate School of Journalism Advisory Board
- International Leadership Association
- Association of Fundraising Professionals
- Act for Stolen Children
Awards and Achievements
- 1997: Founded the Winfield Venture Group
- 1997: Founded IdeaPark Ventures
- 2005: Appointed Chair of the Unite for Children, Unite Against AIDS campaign by UNICEF
- 2006: Founded Mindset Social Innovation Foundation
- 2006: Received the UNICEF’s Champion for Children Award
- 2006: Received Top 40 Under 40 Award from Business in Vancouver
- 2007: Received the Simon Fraser University Outstanding Alumni Award for Community Service
- 2009: Donated $1 million to the University of British Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
- 2010: "Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground" won the 2010 Emmy for Best Investigative Magazine
- Uganda Rising won the Best Documentary Award at several festivals including WT Os International Film Festival and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
- Appointed to the John F. Kennedy School of Government Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard University
- Senior Fellow of the Centre for Sustainability and Social Innovation at the Sauder School of Business, UBC