Catherine Choi overcame addiction — and it inspired her to create her international lifestyle goods company, SoYoung.
She shares how she built a brand known for sustainable lunch bags, backpacks, and more.
By Sarah Kelsey
In 2011, when Catherine Choi first launched her sustainable and stylish lifestyle goods company, SoYoung, her biggest goal was to see her products on the shelves of key retailers like Indigo, Whole Foods Markets, and Anthropologie.
Today, not only do the lunch bags, backpacks, and travel cases grace the shelves of her goal stores, they’re in some of the trendiest boutiques around the world, and available internationally online. They’ve also been covered by Teen Vogue, Today, Esquire, The Oprah Magazine, and others.
“Everything snowballed in 2019 — when Anthropologie took notice, others did, too,” she says. “We didn’t realize how many eyes were on the trends spotted by the retailer. It was a blessing for our company.”
If you ask Catherine about her journey to success with SoYoung, she points to a time long before they made it into Anthropologie, over a decade before she founded the brand.
Having been raised in an abusive environment that caused her to feel deeply insecure and unworthy in Montreal, and a series of poor choices led her to becoming addicted to heroin. She spent four years living with addiction before going through a medical detox in 1997. What ensued, Catherine says, was the beginning of her “journey of personal healing.”
“I had lived a lot of my own life believing in my own inadequacies, that I wasn’t good enough,” she says. As part of her recovery, she began studying shiatsu massage and came to realize she wasn’t fulfilled by her current career path. “I wasn’t passionate about my role in the financial software and banking industry. My husband at the time was much more free-spirited than I was, and kept encouraging me to quit. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
“I had lived a lot of my own life believing in my own inadequacies, that I wasn’t good enough.”
Fast forward a few years, and Catherine had “an epiphany moment.”
As a result of the birth of her son, she had started to spend a lot of time researching baby products. She was looking at the bag options she had for carrying around all of his necessities and thought, I can do better, “So that’s what I decided to do.” Catherine set her sights on creating a diaper bag, pushing through the lingering voice inside her that said she “couldn’t do this.”
It took almost three years to bring her first product to market, and though it was a flop — “People liked the bag, but it was too niche!” — the experience led Catherine to design and create a kid’s line of lunch bags and backpacks crafted from natural and eco-friendly materials and featuring simple and stylish designs. In 2018, they expanded into the adult category with a stylish lunch box called the Lunch Poche (French for ‘pocket’), and continued to grow the line from there.
There have been ups and downs, but it’s all part of the journey for Catherine. “I now consider my very difficult battle with addiction a gift that allowed me to experience the power I have within, and I have no regrets about my life.”
Catherine says she’s had a lot of support along the road to building her business. Beyond family assistance (her husband jumped in to do all of SoYoung’s digital marketing, for example) and putting the initial investment into product development, it was support from Canadian trade ecosystem partners, including TD Bank, Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Export Development Canada (EDC), that helped propel her business forward.
“I was very lucky to have formed a strong friendship with my BDC rep,” Catherine says, “so I leaned on them for just about everything.”
BDC helps to create and develop strong Canadian companies through financing, advisory services, and capital. But when it came time to expand her business beyond Canada’s borders, her BDC rep put her in touch with Export Development Canada (EDC). The Crown corporation helps Canadian companies succeed on the world stage by offering trade knowledge, financing solutions, equity, insurance and connections required to grow their business. The impact of exporting has made a huge difference for Catherine’s business
“Exporting to the U.S. and internationally has been instrumental for brand recognition and the overall growth of the business.”
Working with her financial institution, Catherine leveraged EDC’s Export Guarantee Program (EGP) to extend her line of credit. This supported the company’s growth and allowed her to say yes to new opportunities.
“Exporting to the U.S. and internationally has been instrumental for brand recognition and the overall growth of the business,” Catherine says. “The opportunities for growth in the US in particular are greater, and the increased volume lends itself to cost efficiencies in production as well as significant media and PR exposure.”
Given the company’s success and the ongoing pandemic, Catherine says she’s currently spending some time reevaluating what’s next for the organization.
“As opposed to growing mindlessly, I want to assess opportunities, which takes a lot of patience and strength. I could just keep striving to hit a number of sales, but I don’t want to do that,” she notes. Prior to the pandemic, Catherine had planned to deepen the SoYoung product offering vertically into coordinating lunch containers and snack accessories, but strategically decided to pivot into other categories in order to weather the global crisis.
In addition to reassessing her company’s direction, Catherine says she’s taking some time to focus on family and giving back. SoYoung actively supports organizations across Canada that help empower women and youth, and those that bring about the mental health supports — and in particular, a solid meditation practice — that have helped her through very challenging times. Current beneficiaries are the Give to Give Foundation, Good to Be Good Foundation, The Good Challenge, Trails Youth Initiatives, Yonge Street Mission, and Canada Helps.
When reflecting on her entrepreneurial journey, Catherine says that SoYoung has helped her thrive — and not just professionally. “I don’t feel like I’m a natural born entrepreneur,” she says. “It takes up every ounce to believe in yourself and the resilience you have, especially if you have an idea you want to bring forward. My business has helped me overcome myself and to do things I never thought would be possible.”
Aware of how much the lessons from having a business has impacted her life, Catherine has the same hope for anyone who her message speaks to, from employees to customers. “My hope is that my products will inspire and empower people. If I’m doing that, that’s all I can ask for.”