Since starting her career in 2001, Ashley Brewsmith has worked as a hairstylist on everything from film productions to fashion shows, was a featured stylist on OUTtv’sShine True (a series celebrating the trans and gender non-conforming community by helping them to present the way they feel), and has been a salon owner since she was 23. In 2010 she moved Toronto locations and opened The Proudest Pony, which offers gender-free pricing and an LGBTQ-safe environment. Already a partner with Green Circle Salons — who divert hair clippings and salon product packaging and waste from landfills —in May 2021 Ashley launched a line of eco-friendly Proudest Pony Shampoo + Conditioner Bars,that are plastic-free, paraben- and SLS-free, and made in Canada with plant-based ingredients.
My first job ever was… in a kitchen at a restaurant.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I like setting my own rules.
I founded Proudest Pony because… I saw a way to do haircare products better.
I’m passionate about sustainable hair care because… I care deeply about the impact our choices have on the planet and the creatures we share the planet with.
My proudest accomplishment is… surpassing 10 years of running a successful business.
My biggest setback was… losing my first supplier for my shampoo/conditioner bars and all the work I did to establish that relationship.
I overcame it by… powering forward with my vision for the product line.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… don’t overthink — do!
“The future excites me because there has been so much innovation in creating sustainable alternatives for everyday products, and this gives me hope.”
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… to carve out time for yourself, separate from your career,
The thing I love most about what I do is… connecting with like-minded individuals.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be…an optimistic outlook.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I have way too many hobbies that I bounce in and out of.
I stay inspired by… following my passions and not getting hung up on details.
The future excites me because… there has been so much innovation in creating sustainable alternatives for everyday products, and this gives me hope.
My next step is…introducing The Proudest Pony products to as many people as possible! And inspiring people to make the switch away from plastic packaging — one of our bridgeable shampoo/conditioner bars is equal to three regular sized plastic shampoo/conditioner bottles (and most of what’s inside these is water).
Rachael-Lea Rickards is a self-described Artsy Fartsy Toronto Girl, with a creative brain that never shuts off. She’s a playwright and published author, acted in the musical theatre production ‘da Kink in my Hair, and also comes with a background in corporate training and leadership. All of this experience has helped with her business, Real Talk Candles, but the spark that got her started on her entrepreneurial journey was actually a traumatic event: while waiting for an Uber, she was randomly hit in the face by a stranger. Candle-making helped her deal with the anxiety it caused, and once she added in her writing skills to create hilarious ‘scent’ descriptions, her hobby turned into a business — and took off.
My first job ever was… Canadian Tire. I was and still am terrible at math, so when the man who wanted me to ring through 20 million nuts and bolts at the register glared at me when I lost count, I knew very quickly, this wasn’t for me!
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… It fits my lifestyle and personality. I tried to fit into the corporate world, but then soon realized I needed to create a work environment where I can sing, dance, and create. It’s important to love going to work every day. And I can switch it up if need be; I’m not a stranger to a really beautiful tailored suit for important meetings, but I function just as well in a pair of yoga pants and some really great music playing in the office.
I founded Real Talk Candles because… It was born out of trauma. About a year ago, I was decked in the face by a complete stranger. Just standing there waiting for an Uber. And like most women, we just figure, “ah, it’s no big deal. I’ll get over it!” Well, it wasn’t that easy. The candle making was a way to relax and work through that anxiety.
I’m also a writer, so I bridged the two worlds together. My audience was thirsty for “Real Talk” and I think that’s why they continue to do so well. The pandemic brought a lot of fear and uncertainty, and I believe women just needed to laugh. And who doesn’t love candles, right?
I get my candle ideas from… I want to say research, but really, they just come to me (I spend a lot of time talking to myself in the shower!). I am my audience, and my audience is me. I’m your average 40-something who has friends both younger and older. I always say, my candles aren’t for everyone; you must have a dry sense of humour.
My proudest accomplishment is… a tie between starting Real Talk Candles as well as dealing with anxiety and PTSD — that was one of the hardest things to do, and it is a continual effort.
“I tried to fit into the corporate world, but then soon realized I needed to create a work environment where I can sing, dance, and create. It’s important to love going to work every day.”
My biggest setback was… I think my setbacks have allowed me to grow. We used to be located near St.Lawrence Market, but our building neighbours at the time complained about the scents. The building loved us being there, and told us we could stay — but the caveat was that we couldn’t make candles. We were flabbergasted. I knew we had to move.
I overcame it by… I called on community. I asked for patience from our customers, as we had to halt candlemaking until we could find a new space. We had to move literally overnight. But because of that, we were able to open a front-of-house retail store in Leslieville. We’ve been welcomed into a space that celebrates who we are and the neighbourhood agrees. This would have never happened if we were still at our old location.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Don’t wait. You’ll never truly be ready. Look after your finances and know what you’re spending. Know your audience and sell to them. If you don’t know who they are, then you’re wasting your time. Engage with your customers, not just when you need them. Social media content is key!
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Work-life balance. It’s so important to carve out that time to step away from the business. Do something not related, stop talking about it, go and swing on a swing or walk in the grass with no shoes or socks on in the summertime.
The thing I love most about what I do is… I’m able to make people happy — primarily women. I make them laugh, think, and start conversations by the candles they buy. I’m so proud to be able to do that. And I can be unapologetically myself with what I create.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… A strong team. My company culture fosters open communication and support. With that, I feel just as supported.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… That I can be shy. If you googled me, you’d think the opposite. I’m a powerful speaker and the stage doesn’t frighten me at all. But have a cute boy cross my path, and I’m a babbling fool! (Any matchmakers out there?)
I stay inspired by… Continual learning. Not getting too comfortable with what I know. Surrounding myself with like-minded women who have walked the walk before me, who inspire me to be bigger than my circumstances or current position.
The future excites me because… There is one. As simple as that sounds, the pandemic has really made me grateful for every day that I’m able to breathe and live. And with that, it’s another day to inspire and create. I love watching my business grow and I see the Real Talk Brand expanding triple fold by next year.
My next step is… I’m already in the beginning stages of expanding the home décor side of Real Talk Candles. Soaps are our latest venture and they launch next week. We are also working on a line of “not so polite, but so honest” greeting cards.
On my bucket list is… a TEDx talk by the end of 2022. I claim it!
Charlene Li is the co-founder of EATABLE — a Toronto-based company that creates small-batch gourmet popcorn infused with wine, spirits, and cocktails. Frustrated by the lack of clean yet flavorful snacks on store shelves, Charlene and her husband left their corporate jobs and worked for over a year to perfect recipes, collaborating with professional pastry chefs to learn the art of traditional confectionery and chocolate making to create the “perfect pairing” of their two loves: A good snack and agood drink. Now their gourmet popcorn inspired by Happy Hour is sold in over 200 retailers in the USA and Canada, earning plenty of press accolades and a spot on CBC’s Dragons’ Den.
My first job ever was… working at a donut shop. Sweets and coffee have always been a big part of my life!
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to live life on my own terms, and create something that brought joy to the world in some way.
I founded EATABLE… to create a unique snack that helps people “savour” everyday moments in their lives. After all, food and drink is the heart of our celebrations. We wanted our snacks to bring people together and allow them to share a moment of indulgence, anytime, anywhere.
I’m passionate about the food & snack sector because… there is so much room for innovation, especially by women- and minority-owned businesses. The customer packaged food space has traditionally been dominated by large mass-market players with high barriers to entry. With more consumers moving towards online shopping with an appetite for discovering new better-for-you brands, the landscape is opening up opportunities to level the playing field for innovative, socially conscious, small companies to break through the noise.
My proudest accomplishment is… Being a mom of two young kids (aged 2 and 6) and finding a way to live through the day-to-day chaos of balancing my entrepreneurial life with my family life.
“If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be an acute awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses — it has helped me understand my own limits, and to start building a team that fills in the gaps.”
My biggest setback was… experiencing intense burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was so challenging finding ways to pivot throughout the rapidly changing business landscape, and there was immense pressure to have everything figured out. I quickly learned that putting self-care on the backburner during these times took a massive toll on my physical and mental health.
I overcame it by… In order to continue being fully present in my business and in my family, I had to make self-care a priority. I found ways to carve out extra time to rest, took up meditation, and established firm boundaries between work time and family time.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… not to waste time chasing perfection before launching your idea. We spent over a year tinkering with our initial popcorn recipes before we found the confidence to release them to the market. Over time, we learned that nothing beats seeking continuous feedback for your product, and listening to what your customers tell you — they know best!
The thing I love most about what I do is… seeing people’s reaction when they taste our bestselling “Pop the Champagne” popcorn — the look of surprise and delight on people’s faces when they feel the popping sensation never gets old to me!
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… an acute awareness of my own strengths and weaknesses — it has helped me understand my own limits, and to start building a team that fills in the gaps.
I stay inspired by… reading books and listening to TED talks from great leaders and public figures that focus on the importance of keeping a positive mindset and always daring to think bigger.
Founded by Katie Derrick, Fern & Petal was born out of her difficult search to find high-quality, all-natural products that were made locally. From essential oils to bath products to room sprays, her small, family-run business puts quality first. All of their handmade products are free of dyes, fragrances, and synthetic preservatives, and are bottled locally in Vancouver, BC. Plus, with every order they make a donation to plant a tree — with their efforts so far reaching over 20,000 trees in Canada, which works out to roughly 3 million kg of carbon taken out of the atmosphere every single year
My first job ever was… Nannying for these two amazing children. What an incredible journey it has been to see these kids grow into the young adults that they are today. They have become family and I still speak with them regularly. They even stop by once in a while to help out!
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I’ve always wanted to feel good about what I’m doing and help to improve our community; even if it’s with small wins. Starting Fern & Petal has allowed me to follow my dreams and achieve these small wins with some incredible people and organizations. I am so blessed to have such an amazing opportunity to do things that I truly care about.
I founded Fern & Petal because… Health and wellness are so incredibly important, especially these days. I have always cared about finding trustworthy products that I can use in my daily routine, but it’s been challenging to find brands that stick to their ethos. With Fern & Petal I really focus on being authentic and only using natural ingredients that anyone can understand.
I’m passionate about Fern & Petal because… I love being able to flex my creativity and create products that I want to use myself. The first essential oil blend we sold was Feel Good. I created it over a year before starting Fern & Petal and it was always my go-to because of how great I always felt when diffusing it, so it was a natural first choice! Since then, all of our products have come from something similar; each product shows a different side of who I am and things that I love!
My proudest accomplishment is… I am deeply humbled by the community and support we have. Hearing our customers’ feedback and seeing our customers speak passionately about the products we have made makes me excited to get up every day.
I am also so proud about what our community has helped us achieve. We have planted over 20,000 trees in Canada which works out to roughly 3 million kg of carbon taken out of the atmosphere every single year. And we have so much more to go!
“You don’t need to be an instant, overnight success; start small and grow your business organically. Our first sale was at a tiny market and our first year was a collection of small wins.”
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Be realistic. Entrepreneurship isn’t about wealth; there are plenty of easier ways to get that. It’s about building your own journey and creating small wins that mean success to you.
Start small. You don’t need to be an instant, overnight success; start small and grow your business organically. Our first sale was at a tiny market and our first year was a collection of small wins.
Don’t give up. We instinctively want things to happen overnight and when they don’t happen, we can get discouraged. Good things take time; just keep at it and you’ll find your success when it’s meant to happen.
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Stay focused and organized — which will help you achieve your goals faster. I often get side-tracked and end up doing things that can be put off until later, which can often derail me from finishing the things I want to do that day.
The thing I love most about what I do is… My community — the people who support us, the kind feedback and sometimes the honest feedback we receive, has helped us become what we are today. Every single email we get wepersonally read and respond to. We love giving back to organizations and helping improve our community as a whole. I love ending every day feeling like I have helped do something special.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… My family has been such an incredible support. They have been there every step of the way and helped us grow the business. Even early on, my mom sat next to me at every single market and helped us without hesitation. We have grown to be a fully family run business. Without the family, I don’t think we would be where we are today.
The future excites me because… We want to continue to do these small things that can become big changes over time. I can’t wait to look back in five years and see the positive impact Fern & Petal has made!
Erica Gilmour is the co-founder and President of Hummingbird Chocolate, a bean-to-bar chocolate maker based in the small town of Almonte, Ontario. With a background in International Aid and Development, Erica was a teacher and librarian in the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe and traveled extensively working for non-profits to improve livelihoods in places like Lebanon, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Her love of eating chocolate and interest in assisting farmers to access markets led to the founding of Hummingbird Chocolate with her husband, Drew. Since launching in 2012, they’ve won over 85 international chocolate awards for their products — all made from cacao sourced directly from farmers at better than Fair Trade prices, grown sustainably, and farmed ethically and humanely.
My first job ever was… as a cashier at a grocery store.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I saw an opportunity to be involved in something that I knew I would love and that could make a difference for cacao farmers. Hummingbird is one of just a handful of craft chocolate makers in Canada, ethically sourcing cacao beans from small farms and co-operatives and going through a 10-step process to craft fine chocolate bars.
I founded Hummingbird Chocolate because… it’s a very delicious way to make a difference. We source fine flavour cacao beans from small farms and co-operatives, paying higher than fair trade prices. And I’ll never get tired of watching people try their first bite of craft chocolate and realizing that the mass-produced stuff they’ve been eating all of these years is a pale comparison.
I’m passionate about craft chocolate because… it makes people happy and brings joy. I work with an amazing team of creative and passionate people. I feel that we can make an impact on how we all view the value of food and agriculture.
My proudest accomplishment is… growing this business from just myself and my husband making chocolate in our basement to a team of 17+ people who care as much as we do. And winning the top honours from the Academy of Chocolate in the UK — the Golden Bean award — was pretty amazing too.
“I founded Hummingbird Chocolate because it’s a very delicious way to make a difference. We source fine flavour cacao beans from small farms and co-operatives, paying higher than fair trade prices.”
My biggest setback was… being an early entrant into the craft chocolate world and needing to introduce the concept to our customers. The idea of bean to bar chocolate is still not commonly understood so there’s been a lot of education on our part to explain how we’re different, why people should care, and why our products are a bit more expensive than what they’re used to (and why it’s worth it).
I overcame it by… providing samples at every opportunity and having as many conversations as possible with customers.
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… do your research, but don’t be too focused on a specific plan or path. Be open to evolving circumstances and opportunities as they come.
The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… to not be so busy working in the business that I don’t have time to work on the business. Sometimes it’s hard to get out of the weeds and look out on the vista.
The thing I love most about what I do is… dreaming up new product ideas and bringing them to reality.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… flexibility and, apparently, a pretty good palate for chocolate.
I stay inspired by… interacting with our customers in our store and on social media. Hearing their ideas, impressions and feedback motivates me to try to continue to improve.
The future excites me because… we’re soon moving into our new, larger facility where we’ll have a larger retail store and café and more equipment to expand our offerings. I’m excited that we’ll be able to source more fine cacao beans from our partners and create new, delicious offerings!
Leigh Joseph (ancestral name Styawat), is an ethnobotanist, researcher and entrepreneur from the Squamish First Nation. She contributes to cultural knowledge renewal in connection to Indigenous plant and land-based relationships, and adds an Indigenous lens to her field of study. As founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals, Leigh brings together Indigenous science and self care, providing gentle and effective skincare products that draw from the ceremonial aspects of plants. Incorporating sustainably harvested and sourced botanicals, Sḵwálwen unites ancestral traditions with modern beauty rituals, empowering people to connect to themselves and the natural world.
My first job ever was… Leading outdoor trips for kids at a summer camp.
I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I wanted to follow my passion and entrepreneurship offers me opportunities to do this.
I founded Sḵwálwen Botanicals because… I wanted a creative outlet for my community-based research with cultural knowledge renewal in connection to Indigenous plants.
I’m passionate about beauty and wellness because… through creating skincare products, I am able to explore my own reconnection to culture through learning about plants as well as share the stories and experiences of this through an Indigenous lens. I am also increasing Indigenous representation in the beauty and wellness space which is very meaningful for me.
My proudest accomplishment is… growing a business that employs Indigenous women from my community and facilitates the renewal and reconnection to land-based experiences and learning with culturally important plants.
“I love sharing my passion for this area of knowledge with others and contributing to the broader cultural knowledge renewal taking place in my, and other, Indigenous communities.”
My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Take the time to find something you are passionate about as this will fuel you through all of the challenges of entrepreneurship as well as bring a deeper meaning to the work you do.
The thing I love most about what I do is… That it is so aligned with my own journey of reconnecting to culture and to the land. I love sharing my passion for this area of knowledge with others and contributing to the broader cultural knowledge renewal taking place in my, and other, Indigenous communities.
If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… Finding support networks and mentors. Having the guidance from experts and leaders in the field is integral to the success and growth of my business.
If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… that I am a mother to two wonderful and spirited kids who inspire me every day!
I stay inspired by… spending time on the land, sharing knowledge and experiences, and finding ways to put beauty into the world from an Indigenous perspective.
The future excites me because… Indigenous business is on the rise with representation increasing across many sectors. With this comes increased opportunities, visibility, and agency for Indigenous Peoples.
My next step is… To continue to grow Sḵwálwen in the luxury skincare space and be a leader in my industry. To partner with major retailers at the same time as expanding our direct-to-consumer business to continue driving growth. As Sḵwálwen evolves I will continue to ground the business in Indigenous land-based knowledge and teachings.