Hoffmann, Isabel: Maclean's 1995 Honor Roll

 Isabel Hoffmann's eyes twinkle as she launches into a story. "How many of you believe in Santa Claus?" the energetic businesswoman asks about 130 young children and their parents at an elementary school "Family Science Night." Only a few raise their hands. "Well, Santa Claus exists, he really does," Hoffmann insists. "He has a toy factory at the North Pole. And he has a demand and supply problem - there are more good children in the world than there are toys."

That combination of childlike wonder and entrepreneurial spirit is typical of Hoffmann, the visionary president and chief executive officer of I. Hoffmann + Associates Inc., which in less than a decade has evolved from a tiny one-woman operation into one of Canada's leading multimedia training, consulting and production firms. From her headquarters in a historic three-storey gingerbread Victorian house in downtown Toronto, she presides over a high-tech empire that is growing by leaps and bounds. This summer, one of her firm's many divisions, ABCDs, released the first in a series of 16 animated educational CD-ROMs for four-to-eight-year-olds, inspired by bedtime stories she shared with her only child, Nikolai, now six. "I always encouraged his participation," says Hoffmann, 37, sounding more the nurturing mother than the shrewd deal maker. "It was very interactive."

The CD-ROM release followed a deal with Ottawa-based Corel Corp., a leading developer of computer graphics software, to distribute her original and interactive Nikolai's Adventures series in 60 countries. She also negotiated an agreement with Apple Computer Inc. to package Nikolai's Trains - the first of the CD-ROMs featuring Nikolai and his bumbling friend, a toy cat named Neow-Neow - with Macintosh's new Performa line of home computers. Since it first appeared on the shelves in August, the popular CD-ROM - which helps kids learn to read and spell - has sold more than 100,000 copies, making it a runaway best-seller in the children's market.

Raised in Switzerland and Portugal, Hoffmann moved to Canada in 1976 to study astrophysics at the University of Toronto after the Portuguese universities closed amid political turmoil. But because of her difficulties with English, she switched into mathematics, which posed fewer language barriers. A gifted scholar, she graduated with distinction and taught mathematics at the university while completing two master's degrees: one in computer science, the other in measurement evaluation and computer applications. A self-starter with little patience for bureaucracy, Hoffmann grew frustrated with academia and established her own computer consulting business in 1985. Six years later, in a unique private-sector partnership with the University of Toronto, she landed a contract to set up and administer its new Information Technology Design Centre, a division of the school of architecture. Hoffmann still serves as director of the facility, now recognized as one of the world's leading training centres for computer-assisted design. Her husband Uno, meanwhile, acts as vice-president and creative director of her firm.

An accomplished pianist whose favorite composer is Chopin, Hoffmann tries to play at least half an hour a day to "help clear my mind." That may appear to be a welcome respite in an age when many people are suffering from information overload. But Hoffmann contends that the new technology is nothing to fear. "The beauty of living right now is that everything is chaotic," she says. "You can shape it, you can create it. For me, the most important thing is being able to tell my stories - and allowing others to tell theirs."

Maclean's December 18, 1995