On the one hand, I’m a speech and debate coach; on the other, I’m an entertainer. My story has had failures as well as successes—from its very beginnings. My family didn’t come from a lot of money, so when I was younger we lived in cooperative housing. But they always pushed me to go for what I dreamt of most in life, and I did that in every possible way: as a singer, as a speaker, as a debater, as an entertainer, always looking for the next big opportunity. On the speech and debate side of things—a lot had to happen before I could start an academy. I competed as a debater all throughout high school, scrounging together the funds to go to tournaments across the country. We were a public-school team competing against private schools, but we did very well, making it to Nationals and even the semi-finals of a tournament in Europe. After graduation, I knew that I wanted to give back as a speech and debate coach, so I coached at the school I attended for five years. This would later lead to a paid coaching job that I did on the side during university—and, eventually, my own academy. We’re about to enter our second year, opening our own storefront in Vancouver, and we have over 150 clients. I couldn’t be prouder of my journey. I’ve turned my hobby into a business that will hopefully one day be worldwide.
On the entertainment side, I faced similar degrees of struggle. I’ve been rejected a lot as a singer, as an actor, as a model—but eventually the “Yesses” did start to roll in. I was selected to represent Canada at the Mr. World Competition, where I won Mr. World Talent and came in the top 10 overall. I’m even more proud that—a year and a half later—the chairwoman of Miss World herself, Julia Morley, asked me: “Frankie, would you like to host the next edition of Mr. World?” I was ecstatic, I was thrilled, I was honoured—and I never imagined that that would be the beginning of a four year, ongoing hosting career, in which I’ve been able to host Miss World, the world’s largest beauty pageant, and will be back this fall in Sanya, China.
What ignited the spark in you to start your career or to make significant changes in an existing career?
The spark inside me is, I think, something that a lot of entertainers and entrepreneurs speak about: this innate need to just, succeed. This innate desire to put yourself out there. As a little boy, I wanted to be on stages, to be recognized, to be one in a million—to stand out as something different, something unique, something better for the world. And I think it’s this drive that has led me to succeed in entertainment and in business.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your career and how did you overcome them?
My biggest hurdles were financial. When I was finishing high school, I told my parents that I would not go to university unless I won a full scholarship, which—through hard work, a bit of luck, and the grace of God—I managed to do. Of course, I wanted to go to music school or acting school, but it just wasn’t feasible So I made a promise to myself to make enough income to support my dreams, to reinvest in myself, and to be able to one day record an album or hire a singing teacher, to do whatever it took to advance my entertainment career.
A secondary hurdle was having the courage to face the public. When I was at Mr. World I was ridiculed for being the shortest contestant of any male beauty pageant ever, and for not sounding or looking the way that the other guys were—and I was told that I didn’t belong. I remember calling my friends on Skype and being all sad and upset about the fact that I wasn’t loved by everyone in the pageant community. But it was later that night that I realized: “Frankie, this is just a little hint of the criticism you’re going to get if you ever become a star.” And it was in that moment that I knew that if I wanted to be in the kitchen, I’d better be able to handle the heat. And from then on, I grew a thickness to my skin that has allowed me withstand criticism from any direction, and from any one.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits? How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
Well, my family has always been pretty supportive. But one point of contention came when I was in grade 12 and we were spending a lot of my family’s money on all my pursuits. And I remember my dad asking me: “Why are you doing all this debate? Where is it going to take you? Why are we spending all this money?” And even though he didn’t say it in a mean way—but in that practical, fatherly tone of voice—I didn’t really know what to say to him. There was no guarantee that they’d be repaid. I was asking them to take a leap of faith and to sacrifice, all for me. But thankfully their investment laid the foundation for my speech and debate academy, which now employs my grandmother, my sister and my mother—three generations of my family. And I’m incredibly grateful for that.
A second point of contention came in my third year of university, when I finally broke up with my lifelong plan of becoming a lawyer. I told them: “Look, I have this dream of being an entertainer and this business that might have some potential—so I don’t want to go to law school.” And again, my parents were concerned because they thought being a lawyer was sort of a sure-fire way for their son to succeed. But I think they ultimately respected that I was on this Earth as Frankie Cena, that I had to follow my gut and my dreams and what I thought was best—and that’s exactly what I did. And looking at the business and entertainment careers before me, I wouldn’t do any of it differently.
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your career success?
The single most influential factor in my success is perseverance. God or a higher power or whatever you believe in will constantly test you—so you can prove to It that you are destined for this activity, and that you will fight for it. I believe we see this in famous basketball players, dancers, singers, actors, who are tested over and over and over again to show themselves and to prove that this is what they want to their very core. For my business, I had to constantly show my friends, my family, my colleagues and competitors, that I would hunt down every technique of speech and debate across the world, relentlessly—and to such a degree that I am now one of the world’s experts in speech and debate.
With singing and entertainment, it was the same thing: every day having doors slammed in my face and being told: “You’re not good enough. You don’t fit the role. You’re too short. This isn’t right for you. And you can’t be an entertainer if you sound like that.” But deciding that I would not give up. Prove to the higher power that you will not buckle, and true success will come.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
I think the most valuable thing that I know today is held in a quote that someone told me: “What is meant for you shall not pass.” If you’re meant to be a singer—you will be, in some way, shape or form, singing. If you’re meant to be a debate coach, you will, in some way, shape or form, be a debate coach. What is meant for us on this planet—whether it be an activity, a person, a skill, a moment—will come to us. The Rock (Dywane Johnson) failed in his dream to join the NFL—but if that hadn’t happened, he would never have become the superstar that he is now. And I wish that my 20-year-old self knew that. I wish I could tell him that not everything would happen right away; that what must happen will happen; and that I would have to accept different opportunities as they came along. You can’t see what’s meant for you, but there’s no need to stress—because there’s no way that it will pass you by.
What advice would you give to an upcoming young and old entrepreneur locally and internationally?
My advice to all entrepreneurs—old, young, local, international—would be that to be successful you need to find the trifecta. It’s something that you love to do; something that you are good at; and something that people are willing to pay you for—all at the same time. My debate career is something that I love to do, that I became very good at, and that I created a market for in Vancouver, where I convinced people that this was an activity that they should invest in for their children. If you’re creating a new product, it’s the same thing: Do you enjoy creating it? Are you good at creating it? And do people want it? If you find these three things, then I think you’ll find success.