By Karen van Kampen
As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Evelyne Nyairo would contemplate how she could make a difference in the world. “There was always a need to aspire to do more,” she says. Evelyne’s father would ask what she wanted to be when she grew up, encouraging Evelyne to write down her ideas. Her list included becoming a diplomat and being the “world’s greatest scientist.”
“I was curious about chemistry,” she says. “I was curious about reactions.”
In 2012, when Evelyne began creating formulas for Ellie Bianca, an all-natural skincare line, she discovered an opportunity to combine her love of science with her passion to make a difference. Evelyne created an environmentally sustainable business that supports and empowers women. “I felt like my bigger ‘Why’ was born,” she says.
As founder of Ellie Bianca, Evelyne was the recipient of the 2021 Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub Micro-Business Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours entrepreneurs who own and operate a small but impactful business. “We are more than our brand,” says Evelyne. “I always say, be intentional.” This is a philosophy that guides her socially conscious business.
Looking back, Evelyne says, “I have always had a curious mind, and science feeds that curiosity.” After moving to Canada by herself at the age of 16, Evelyne earned a triple major in biology, chemistry, and environmental science at The King’s University in Edmonton. Before graduating, Evelyne got a job with an environmental water lab and became interested in quality management.
In 2004, she joined an engineering company. Evelyne’s role grew as she worked on many projects in oil and gas and took on the role of quality manager. After the company was sold, Evelyne joined another engineering company that focused on oil sands projects, gaining amazing experience for her career. In 2008, Evelyne started her own engineering company and worked on oil and gas projects globally.
“How do we find an opportunity to empower women? How do we build a connection with empowered women? The product gave us an opportunity to do that.”
In 2012, Evelyne went to Chad to support one of her Canadian clients that was exploring for oil and gas. One day, Evelyne was doing a water quality assessment. It was very hot out, and she was getting hungry. “I’m standing in a wild forest full of mangoes,” she says. “I’ve been smelling them the whole day.” There was a family selling mangoes. The woman and children picked some fruit for Evelyne. She wanted to pay the woman for the mangoes, but Evelyne’s guide indicated that the man should be paid as a sign of respect. “I saw the opportunity to support women,” she says.
Evelyne returned from Chad with a bottle of shea butter and began formulating her first product. With Ellie Bianca, Evelyne wanted to create change. “How do we find an opportunity to empower women? How do we build a connection with empowered women? The product gave us an opportunity to do that.”
Since the beginning, Ellie Bianca has worked with women-run co-ops that supply some of their ingredients and women-run businesses including the designer and printer of their packaging. “Whether it be in Africa, whether it be in North America, there is still work to be done. And I can no longer just be talking about it,” she says. “I need to be active about making a difference.”
Evelyne created Ellie Bianca’s first product, a lip balm. She was very particular with the ingredients and formula being used and wanted to ensure that it was 100% natural. “I didn’t want to just pull a formula off the shelf,” she says. “I wanted to be involved. It’s that curiosity that my father instilled in me.”
Leading up to the launch, Evelyne was still running her engineering company. Then in 2014, as her oil and gas projects started to slow down, she focused on her skincare line. In 2015, Ellie Bianca launched, and Evelyne discovered it was a very crowded space. To understand the industry, she attended the Canadian Health Food Association trade show that showcased organic and natural health products.
The main buyer for Canada’s largest distributor of natural health products stopped at Evelyne’s booth. Evelyne had a few products on display, but didn’t have any samples to offer. The buyer told Evelyne that he expected to see her only once and that she would never return to the trade show. Undeterred, Evelyne said that he would keep seeing her and would start distributing her products soon.
“Oftentimes, we let fear take control. The fear of the unknown. We let it hold us back. All that fear goes away when you challenge yourself.”
After the event, Evelyne emailed the buyer to say, “You challenged me, and I love a challenge. I thrive.” He told her that he had never seen someone so confident starting out, and started to support Evelyne by offering tips on the industry.
At the same trade show in 2017, “magic happened,” she says. The VP for Whole Foods stopped by the Ellie Bianca booth. Admiring the packing and ingredients, the VP commented on the uniqueness of the products and offered to list them in Whole Foods.
Evelyne contacted the buyer who had given her advice, letting him know that she had secured a listing with the distributor’s largest client. It was February 2018, and Evelyne worked the entire day — on her birthday — packaging and boxing her first big shipment.
Today, Ellie Bianca’s 38 products are sold in more than 500 stores, including Sobeys, Nature’s Emporium, and The Bay. Ellie Bianca has its own store in Calgary, providing a place for women to attend events and explore a variety of topics including health, wellness, and finance. “In Africa, we often sat around the fire and had conversations, so I wanted a place to represent that,” says Evelyne. “We talk about empowering topics including, How do you show up to be your best? How do you embrace being a woman and not apologize for it?” Men also join events, says Evelyne, as they are key stakeholders.
Evelyne continues to pursue her curiosity that was instilled by her father. “I’m always fascinated about learning,” says Evelyne, who is working on a PhD in business management with a focus on strategy and innovation. Evelyne says it’s important to learn all aspects of a business. “Oftentimes, we let fear take control. The fear of the unknown. We let it hold us back,” she says, highlighting the importance of learning. “All that fear goes away when you challenge yourself.”