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Committed to Caring

Dawn Harsch engages a new generation of business owners as Edmonton’s Chamber of Commerce chair

Dawn Harsch. Photo by EPIC Photography Inc.

Dawn Harsch has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and a Master of Business Administration degree. She is the founder and owner of Exquisicare Senior Living, the chairperson of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, a former Business in Edmonton Leader, an Avenue Top 40 under 40 award winner, a Global Woman of Vision, and recently received recognition in the Edmonton Mayor’s Awards. She has plenty to be proud of, but she measures her success day by day as she achieves her overriding passion of providing respectful care for the elderly in residential settings, where friends and family are welcome, and seniors always feel at home.

“I had a close relationship with my grandparents,” Harsch says of what sparked her passion for eldercare. “I have a very deep respect for the elderly.” We need to be more respectful of our seniors. They are the individuals that built our cities, our country, and fought in our wars. At the core of my value system is the belief that it is not okay to institutionalize our parents.”

She went into senior care to correct what she sees as a grave injustice.

“I earned my MBA right after I got my nursing degree because I always intended to work in the business of healthcare. In our publicly funded health system, there is a pie of funding dollars: cancer, children, cardiology – issues like those get a big piece of the pie. The injustice is that only a small sliver of that funding pie is left for seniors, and that’s a shame. Early in my nursing career I worked in a number of long-term care facilities and that is where the idea for ExquisiCare was planted in my head.”

Harsch continues, “The care facilities I worked at looked and felt like hospitals. There were six-bed wards with people separated by a curtain. I thought, this is not okay. There simply must be a more dignified way of caring for our treasured elders.”

She took action. “I married my business thinking with my nursing experience. I knew there were great options for private assisted living, but what was out there for 24-hour care? Only the institutional model. So, the ExquisiCare business plan took shape when I was completing my MBA.

“That business plan sat on the shelf for years while I enjoyed a great career with Alberta Health Services (AHS). However, I always had a burning desire to activate my vision. When changes came to the way AHS operated in 2010, I left and built the first ExquisiCare home.”

An ExquisiCare home is unlike any other long-term care facility in Alberta. With a goal to provide purposeful living, Harsch and her team have built two custom homes in residential areas, with a third one slated for construction during the spring of 2019.

Each home has 10 bedrooms with an ensuite bath and walk-in closet. The living room, kitchen, and dining room are shared. The homes are staffed 24/7 with professional nursing and allied health staff. Three nutritious home cooked meals and snacks are provided. Respectful assistance with the activities of daily living (personal care, grooming, medication, etc.), along with housekeeping and laundry, are delivered on site. Concierge services like hairstyling and dental appointments are arranged upon request. Friends and family are encouraged to visit, and many stop by to share the evening meal with their loved one.

“What we give to our seniors and families is peace of mind,” Harsch explains. “It’s important that our seniors feel like they belong, and that they are at home.”

Having long-term care homes in residential neighbourhoods is very beneficial for the seniors’ state of mind, especially for those suffering from dementia or memory loss. “In an institutionalized facility, seniors with dementia often try to leave because it doesn’t feel like home,” Harsch points out. “Our environment feels like home. We see much less wandering and fewer behavioural issues.”

The communities have been very welcoming to the ExquisiCare homes as well, with neighbours coming by to visit and volunteer. It doesn’t hurt that the seniors hand out full sized chocolate bars on Halloween!

But it’s not always easy.

Harsch is married and has three children, including a set of twins, and with the nature of her business there is very little downtime.

“There is give and take,” she admits. “It’s a juggling act for sure. The life of a small business owner can be lonely. I work harder now than I ever did when I worked for someone else. As an entrepreneur you work 24/7, especially with a business that goes 24/7. It’s not a work life that ends each day at 5 pm. I can’t shut my brain, or my phone, off. However, I do love the ability to set the direction of the company and run things the way I think they should go. When things get tough, I make a point of reflecting on the difference I’m making for the people we serve.

She points out that having the support of her husband and family, and the support of networks like Entrepreneurs’ Organization, is crucial for entrepreneurs.

As a long-term resident of Edmonton that has always been very active in the business landscape, Harsch is excited to embark on her term as the Chamber of Commerce chairperson.

“To me, Edmonton feels like a bunch of small towns smushed together! It’s such a friendly, community-minded place. No matter where I go, I run into people I know, and with all the charitable events, it’s a very giving community as well.

“When I was new to small business, I didn’t fully understand what the Chamber did. I was initially drawn to it for the networking opportunities. Quickly, I realized there was so much more to the Chamber, especially for small business.”

Harsch continues, “I joined the Chamber as a member, but soon found a place on the board. While on the board I was on the policy forum committee, and co-chaired governance and nominating. I put my name forward for the chair position because I really feel it is important for small businesses to see other small business people involved in the Chamber. The Chamber does so much advocacy for small businesses, and people don’t always realize that.

“During my time as chair I really want the voice of small businesses to be heard. I want to be an example for other small businesses to see the value of the Chamber, and to get involved.”

She knows there will be challenges in this coming year, and she’s prepared to face them. “It will be a challenge to manage the time commitment, but I have an amazing team at ExquisiCare and the Chamber staff are phenomenal, so I know I will have plenty of support.”

There is plenty to be excited about, and that excitement offsets the challenges of the time commitment.

“I am excited to bring together the board to be laser focused on how we can move the Chamber forward with the inclusion of the new generation. Member-driven organizations are changing. Millennials don’t necessarily belong to organizations like Chamber or see its value. What I hope to do is help define that value and engage the new generation of business owners. I will answer the question: how can we make sure membership continues? If I can achieve increased membership or a strategy to ensure our membership is growing, I feel my term would be a success.”

There have been many Chamber highlights for Harsch on her journey to the chair. She greatly enjoys the Chamber Ball, and recently had an opportunity to speak to city council about the budget.

“Following my presentation to city council, strangers actually stopped me in the street to thank me for what I said about the budget,” she smiles. “That was very cool, and it showed that the Chamber is responding appropriately to the needs of our members with our advocacy efforts.”

Harsch encourages small businesses in Edmonton to join the Chamber. “Your membership matters because the advocacy efforts that the Chamber engages in on your behalf is invaluable. As a small business owner, it would be near impossible for me to call the Minister of Health and get an audience with her, but I can do that through the Chamber. This organization works with the governments at the municipal, provincial, federal, and even international levels. To make the most out of your membership, go to the events. You never know who you are going to meet. Get involved in giving feedback. Edmonton is such a great community in terms of supporting one another.”

Work-life balance and giving back are important to Harsch, and she wholeheartedly puts her signature energy and enthusiasm into all aspects of her life.

Harsch supports many local charities, but says, “My passion outside of elder care is actually baseball! My husband played ball in California and my son shares in his love of baseball. There wasn’t a good option for minor league baseball in south Edmonton, so I, along with a group of parents, incorporated and started a minor baseball league in 2017. It’s called the Southwest Edmonton White SOX. The first season we had 250 members. The past year we were over 480, and in 2019 we anticipate over 600 kids! The growth has been unbelievable. I know as Canadians we are supposed to love hockey, but baseball is a great sport too! Helping to run the SOX is definitely a 2nd or 3rd full-time job, especially from January to June, but I love it and I love knowing that we are creating an opportunity for all these youngsters to get outside!” 

It’s going to be a busy year for the chairperson and business owner, but Harsch is more than up for the challenge.

“Exquisicare is building our third home. Then I will expand the model, which is a community of three homes, into other areas. Perhaps our next community will be in St. Albert, Calgary or Vancouver. “I want to grow the model across Western Canada. With an aging population, there certainly is a need for this.

“With the expansion, I will give other nurses the ability to run the community in their own region. There are a lot of nurses out there that want to do better in senior care but, may lack the business know-how. One needs to have a good heart to care for seniors, but the care also must be carried out professionally, with the right medical team, and with appropriate business processes to make it sustainable. That’s the support our ExquisiCare team will offer to these nurses.

“The expansion will change how ExquisiCare is run. Currently, my husband and I own the homes, but I will look for the right partners to share in our values and the company’s growth.”

Harsch will also be expanding on another initiative she launched two years ago called Care at Home. This service bridges the gap for seniors that are not ready for a full-time care facility, but require assistance while living in their own homes.

“Care at Home is a boutique and personalized, Edmonton-based, home-care company, not a franchise. Along with the nurses who work in Care at Home, we are very proud to be Edmonton owned and operated. Going into someone else’s home is a very personal matter, and we believe it cannot be a cookie cutter approach,” says Harsch.

As for working with the Chamber, “This is a very exciting time! With the upcoming federal and provincial elections, we will be doing a lot of advocacy.”

Looking back, it’s easy to see how much she has accomplished in such a short period of time, but Harsch doesn’t have a habit of looking back. She always looks forward. When she sees hurdles, she finds a way to leap right over them, through grit, determination, and connecting with important organizations like the Chamber.

“As an entrepreneur, I don’t typically see obstacles. I have ‘shiny ball’ syndrome – I see something shiny or exciting and I go for it! That’s why my husband and I are such a good pair. He slows me down to look at things objectively.

“I truly believe that anything you want, you just go after it and make it happen. Just make it happen. There will always be detractors and naysayers. I’ve certainly encountered them. But I have a deep conviction in value of the care that we provide, and it is this conviction that enables me, my team, and my family to do what we love every day.