Announcing the 2022 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards Finalists!

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We are proud to announce the 2022 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards finalists.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the program which received over 10,000 nominations for women entrepreneurs from across the country. After an intensive judging review, 21 finalists were selected across seven categories. An additional five recipients were chosen to receive the Ones to Watch Award, which recognizes entrepreneurs who have launched businesses that have made an incredible impact in fewer than three years.

The women business owners and leaders in this shortlisted group were selected for their accomplishments in a wide range of industries including AI, Cleantech, Civil Construction, Food and Beverage and Cyber Security.

“This year as we celebrate the milestone 30th anniversary of the program, we are honoured to recognize the accomplishments of our 2022 award finalists,” says Alicia Skalin, Co-CEO, Women of Influence. “The awards celebrate the entrepreneurial spirit of our country and the incredible women making it happen. Our finalists share a strong vision and a relentless passion in pursuing their dreams.”

The winners will be announced and celebrated in-person at the 30th Annual Awards Gala, on Wednesday, November 23. Women of Influence is thrilled to host this prestigious red-carpet event where nominees, corporate executives, dignitaries, and notable industry guests will come together once again for a delectable evening of inspiration, style, and meaningful connection with business leaders from across the country.

The RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards recognize women business owners from across Canada who make impressive and substantial contributions to the local, Canadian, or global economy. These awards recognize businesswomen and leaders of non-profits from three major regions across Canada: East, Central, and West.

“For over 30 years, the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneurs Awards has shone a spotlight on the incredible women business owners who are leading change in their industries, driving growth in their communities and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs,” said Greg Grice, Executive Vice-President, Business Financial Services, RBC. “This year’s program continues this tradition, uncovering countless stories of women-led innovation and achievement among our 2022 award finalists. We’re honoured to showcase and support this growing force of women entrepreneurs in Canada, and to be a part of this 30-year journey alongside Women of Influence and the remarkable women leaders who have made up the heart of this program.”

All nominees are required to submit thorough applications, which are reviewed and judged by a panel of prominent business leaders and subject to a due diligence review performed by KPMG.

For more information, view the press release.  |  Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse

The 2022 Recipients of the Ones to Watch Award are:

The 2022 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award Finalists are:

Micro-Business Award
Start-Up Award
RBC Momentum Award
Social Change Award: National Impact
Social Change Award: Regional Impact
Innovation Award
Excellence Award

les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2022 sont annoncés

Nous sommes fiers d’annoncer les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2022.

Cette année marque le 30e anniversaire du programme, qui a reçu plus de 10 000 candidatures d’entrepreneures de partout au pays. Après examen approfondi, 21 finalistes ont été sélectionnées dans l’ensemble des sept catégories. Cinq autres candidates ont été choisies pour recevoir le prix Entrepreneure prometteuse, qui vise à récompenser des entrepreneures qui ont lancé des entreprises ayant connu un succès étonnant en moins de trois ans.

Les femmes propriétaires d’entreprises et les dirigeantes finalistes ont été sélectionnées pour leurs réalisations dans un large éventail de secteurs, notamment l’IA, les technologies propres, l’ingénierie civile, les aliments et les boissons et la cybersécurité.

« Nous avons reçu un nombre record de demandes en cette année qui marque le 30e anniversaire du programme, et nous sommes honorées de célébrer les réalisations de nos finalistes de 2022, a affirmé Alicia Skalin, cochef de la direction de Femmes d’influence. Les prix soulignent l’esprit d’entreprise de notre pays et la contribution de femmes incroyables. Nos finalistes sont des visionnaires et font preuve d’une détermination à toute épreuve afin de concrétiser leurs rêves. »

Les gagnantes seront annoncées et célébrées en personne lors de la 30e remise annuelle des prix, le mercredi 23 novembre. Femmes d’influence est ravi de présenter ce prestigieux événement, où des candidates, des dirigeantes d’entreprise, des dignitaires et des invités de marque de l’industrie se réuniront une fois de plus pour une soirée d’inspiration, de style et de relations significatives avec des dirigeantes de partout au pays.

Les Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC rendent hommage à des femmes propriétaires d’entreprise partout au Canada qui retiennent l’attention en raison de leur importante contribution à la vitalité des économies locale, canadienne ou mondiale. Les prix sont accordés à des femmes d’affaires et à des dirigeantes d’organisme sans but lucratif des trois grandes régions du Canada : l’Est, le Centre et l’Ouest.

« Depuis plus de 30 ans, les Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC mettent en lumière les incroyables femmes propriétaires d’entreprise qui changent leur secteur d’activité, stimulent la croissance dans leur collectivité et inspirent la nouvelle génération des entrepreneures, a déclaré Greg Grice, vice-président directeur, Services financiers à l’entreprise, RBC. Le programme de cette année perpétue cette tradition, en dévoilant d’innombrables histoires d’innovation et de réussite par nos finalistes de 2022. Nous sommes honorés de présenter et d’appuyer cette force grandissante d’entrepreneures au Canada, et de participer à ce parcours de 30 ans aux côtés de Femmes d’influence et des dirigeantes remarquables qui ont constitué le cœur de ce programme. »

Les candidates doivent présenter un dossier de candidature étoffé. Les candidatures sont ensuite évaluées par un jury composé de chefs d’entreprise réputés, et sont soumises à un contrôle diligent effectué par KPMG.

Pour plus d’information, visitez le communiqué de presse. 

Voici les lauréates du prix Entrepreneure prometteuse 2022:

Voici les finalistes des Prix canadiens de l’entrepreneuriat féminin RBC 2022:

Prix Micro-entreprise
Prix Nouvelle entreprise
Prix du dynamisme RBC
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence nationale
Prix de l’évolution sociale : Influence régionale
Prix de l’innovation
Prix de l’excellence

Eleanor Lee and Angel Kho grew LOULOU LOLLIPOP from a side hustle to an international brand. Here’s how.

Eleanor Lee and Angel Kho

By Sarah Kelsey 


What’s in a name? If you’re a small business owner—a lot. But its importance goes beyond the moniker of the company as Eleanor Lee and Angel Kho, co-founders of LOULOU LOLLIPOP, found out. 

When it came time to expand their sustainable baby accessories company beyond Vancouver, BC, they ran into issues because of their intellectual property (IP)—or lack thereof. 

“When we were coming up with the company name, we liked lollipop because it was like a soother, or a candy as a sucker. It was sweet and very fitting,” says Angel. “But it was too generic. We liked French style, and anything related to France, so we started looking for extra inspiration.” 

The duo landed on the word LouLou, a common French term of affection for children. “The name kind of rolled off the tongue.” 

The only problem was, despite the uniqueness, various individuals owned the rights to use the name in Europe and China, meaning the sisters had to “buy the branding” so they could sell internationally. What ensued was a three-year legal battle, a whopping price tag, and a key takeaway for fellow entrepreneurs: “Make sure you register your IP and the trademark early,” says Eleanor. “Do the research and dig deep. Sometimes a name can be taken in other markets. Make sure the name is protected.”

Before the sisters dealt with branding, exporting, and the legalities of intellectual property, LOULOU LOLLIPOP began as many other businesses do—with an entrepreneur trying to solve their own problem. It was in 2015, when as a first-time mother, Eleanor noticed her teething daughter enjoyed tugging and chewing on her necklaces. 

“I started to realize I didn’t know what they were made of,” Eleanor explains. She began searching for teething products that were silicone and free of harmful chemicals and couldn’t find any. “Out of necessity, I started to look into creating something for myself.”

“We knew we could make an impact; we could respond to a need for all parents. So, we bought $100 worth of supplies and began beading.”

Realizing she had stumbled onto a unique business idea, she brought it to her twin sister, who immediately saw the potential in the concept. “Even though my kids were older at the time, I found the idea intriguing. When my kids were young, there was nothing like that on the market,” says Angel. “We knew we could make an impact; we could respond to a need for all parents. So, we bought $100 worth of supplies and began beading.”

The duo made their first product, a pastel-coloured doughnut teething necklace, as a sort of side hustle. Eleanor worked on LOULOU full-time, and on her days off from her part-time job, Angel worked on the business. While both women were busy juggling mom duties, they’d start their “shift” with a “Tim Hortons coffee and a doughnut” until they had enough product to start selling on Etsy and at local pop-up shops. 

“It was so much fun in the beginning because we were working so hard together on traditional things, like cold calling. It all came naturally,” says Angel. And then the pair received their first big purchase from West Coast Kids. “It was unreal. We were so excited. We worked all night to fill seven large boxes for the company. Our husbands were happily forced to join in the building of everything,” laughs Eleanor. 

Interest and demand for their products grew and today, LOULOU LOLLIPOP can be found in 37 countries and thousands of stores, including major retailers like Nordstrom, Anthropologie, and Crate and Barrel. Traffic on their online store has also exploded, prompting the sisters to expand their product lines with sustainable Tencel Lyocell kids apparel and eco-friendly silicone tableware. 

Impressively, every item LOULOU LOLLIPOP sells is made of earth-friendly, non-toxic materials. A big part of the twin’s mission is to make sure their business has minimal impact on the planet, especially for the children who use their. They also ensure the factories that supply their items are Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) compliant, ensuring fair wages, ethical business practices, and healthy and safe working conditions. 

“We’ve heard from others that ‘it’s so easy and all you did was string some beads and sell products at a pop-up,’ but starting a business is more than that,” says Angel. “We may have made it seem simple, but what we achieved was not an overnight success. There were many late nights and heartaches and challenges.”

“There will be challenges and mistakes along the road, there were for us. They’re stepping-stones. Don’t dwell on them.”

Eleanor adds, as entrepreneurs, failing is a part of the process. “There will be challenges and mistakes along the road, there were for us. They’re stepping-stones. Don’t dwell on them.” The sisters maintain this mindset: “Learn from what sucks.” 

They also advise entrepreneurs to tap into organizations and networks that offer resources, webinars and coaching on how to build a business from scratch. For them, that meant leaning on Small Business BC and WeBC when they were first starting, and then Export Development Canada (EDC) when they were ready to branch out into global markets. 

EDC offers knowledge and financial solutions and partners with the Trade Accelerator Program (TAP), which provides a series of online workshops with trade and industry experts to help enterprises unleash their export potential. This support was essential for Eleanor and Angel to build relationships in key markets. Even today, the sisters rely on EDC for financial and knowledge support, as well as its resources such as webinars

“LOULOU LOLLIPOP is a great example of the creativity and innovation driven by Canadian women-owned and -led businesses in the retail sector,” said Catherine Beach, National Lead, Women in Trade, EDC. “To support its rapid growth, the company turned to RBC, who in turn tapped into the Trade Expansion Lending Program (TELP). This program, offered in collaboration by EDC and the company’s financial institution, helps exporters access additional working capital so they can take advantage of international opportunities. EDC is proud to partner with financial institutions including RBC, to enable high-growth companies to maintain their momentum, and to help develop Canada’s export trade.”

Their ultimate goal is to build LOULOU LOLLIPOP into a world leading baby accessories brand. They want to strengthen their position in markets by expanding their sustainable product collection even further, and they want to be a Canadian brand people recognize globally.

“Whether in the United States or Australia, we want people to recognize our children’s products as trusted, safe and sustainable,” says Eleanor. “We want to be a global children’s brand. We want our brand and name to stand out.”

Thembi Bheka founded a digital marketing agency without a business background — here’s how.

By Sarah Kelsey


Thembi Bheka is on a mission to empower one million women by 2025. 

“Our studies have shown that if you empower one woman, they, in turn, empower those around them,” Thembi says. “And the best way to eliminate and reduce poverty is not just to educate, it’s to empower. With hard work, we will reach this goal.”

The “we” Thembi refers to is the team she’s built as the founder of Digital Marketing on Demand (DMOD), a unique organization that seeks to connect talent from developing countries with global work opportunities, specifically in the digital marketing space. 

A service provider can reach out to DMOD for assistance on any number of needs, including creating high-converting landing pages to managing website updates. An assessment of the company’s needs are performed at the outset by DMOD, and the specific task is then assigned to a team member with the right set of skills to deliver the project on time and on budget. All of this is done virtually by someone in the developing world, mostly Africa. 

To date, more than 4,200 services have been completed by the company’s team members. 

“These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’” 

The idea for DMOD came to Thembi after she immigrated to Canada as a refugee. Originally from Zimbabwe, she fled an emotionally and mentally abusive relationship, eventually settling in Montréal with her daughter. Though she studied and worked as a registered nurse, she continually felt the pull toward entrepreneurial opportunities. She dipped her toe into the entrepreneurial world as a real estate investor and even founded a course, Real Estate Real Riches, that taught women how to invest in housing. As her real estate business grew, she found herself in need of assistant-level help, and instead of hiring in-person, she turned to a virtual assistant (VA) in Kenya for help.

“At the time, no one knew what a VA was or what they did,” she says. “I found mine on Upwork and eventually returned to Zimbabwe, realizing there was an opportunity to train people to be VAs. I started to meet incredible women — lawyers, doctors — who were all unemployed and in abusive relationships, similar to my situation before I left for Canada.”

She adds: “These women didn’t have the confidence to search for or apply to jobs, even after extensive education, so I thought, ‘I’ll connect them with opportunities.’” 

That’s how DMOD was born. Today, Thembi and her team have been recognized for the work they’re doing by a number of high-profile organizations, including Stanford’s Seed Transformation Program. Thembi was also selected as a Coralus (formerly SheEO) Venture in 2021, giving her access to the financial support and coaching needed to expand her business. 

“I have a podcast where I interview women entrepreneurs, and one of my speakers asked me whether I had heard of SheEO and convinced me to apply,” Thembi says. “Until then I had been bootstrapping my business. I had even started to sell my real estate holdings to accelerate the growth of DMOD. Being selected as a SheEO venture not only gave me the funding I needed to build my business, but it also connected me with a community.”

That community, she says, is something she leans on regularly for support when facing challenges in her business, joking, “your friends don’t want to hear about that employee issue you have, but like-minded leaders do.” 

“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”

The funding was also valuable because, as an immigrant, Thembi says she found it hard to access funding through traditional means. 

“When you’ve been in Canada for a long time, you’ve learned the system, like what a credit score is or even how to register a company. Most people don’t live in cultures where business is done like it is in Canada or North America. Education is key.” 

She says that until she joined SheEO, she didn’t even know that she had to pay herself a salary. “There needs to be more and greater educational supports to help immigrants and refugees learn certain systems so they can succeed.” 

That’s also one of her lasting messages for women who want to dip their toes into entrepreneurial life: get educated. 

“I didn’t have a business background, nobody taught me how to be a businessperson. I’ve had to learn as I’ve grown. I’ve struggled with management and leadership. I’m not a born leader, but I’m now mentoring people,” she says. “Just do it. Don’t wait. There are so many things I waited on. I look back and think about having been able to do stuff. Whatever you want to do, just do it.”

And most importantly, do something that inspires you. 

“When you do what inspires you, you can empower people. That can help them better themselves and rise above any situation they face.”

Vanessa Marshall turned a hobby into a business that has kept more than 500,000 plastic bottles out of landfills.

Vanessa Marshall

By Sarah Kelsey 


When Vanessa Marshall decided to launch her now highly successful sustainable haircare company, Jack59, in 2015, she was wrapping up a degree in dentistry. After some reflection, her instincts swayed her away from this path and towards an entrepreneurial one, despite not having any formal business training. 

It all started when she stumbled into the world of soap-making after watching her sister create sudsy bars in her spare time. “I started researching how to do it myself, learning the chemistry, and recorded myself making my first batch,” Marshall recalls. “It was a disaster, but it was thrilling. I was hooked.”

It was during a trip to Mexico that her “very expensive hobby” turned into something more. A fan of the sustainability of shampoo bars, she was travelling with one from an all-natural brand — but it was making her scalp so dry, itchy, and irritated that she had to go purchase a bottle of liquid shampoo. Later, while lounging on the beach, she had an aha moment: The pH level of the soap bars had to be off. If she could balance the pH, she could make and sell shampoo and conditioner bars that everyone would love. 

And that’s how Jack59 was born.

When she returned home to Edmonton, AB, Marshall bought a bunch of ingredients to make her first paraben-, silicon- and cruelty-free hair care products. The company now offers a broad range of sustainable and effective hair products using unique combinations of natural proteins, oils, and extracts, all based on slight variances in the pH levels of different hair types. 

“You don’t get to choose to be an entrepreneur,” Marshall jokes. “When you talk to an entrepreneur like me, they likely can’t stop talking or thinking about their business — no matter how out there their ideas may sound. And my idea may have seemed pretty out there to some.”

“Jack59 is now recognized as a unique, sustainable, and Indigenous-owned and woman-led beauty brand.”

And as for the ‘out there’ name? It’s in honour of a lost dog that wandered into the family’s yard, and was named Jack59 by her then four-year-old daughter. A year later, when Marshall was getting her company ready for launch, her daughter asked if she could call it Jack59 in remembrance of the stray. She realized the name embraced the reason she wanted to be an entrepreneur in the first place — to be able to spend more time with her family. 

Jack59 is now recognized as a unique, sustainable, and Indigenous-owned and woman-led beauty brand. “Our mission is simple,” says Marshall. “Increase the number of good hair days you have while decreasing your carbon footprint. From the responses we get from our customers, to how we’re helping the environment — I know we’re having an impact.” 

The proud owner says her company has prevented more than 500,000 plastic bottles from clogging landfills because of its wasteless, plastic-free packaging — their bars are so long-lasting, they can replace about three traditional liquid shampoo bottles or five liquid conditioner bottles. Jack59 also has a 100 per cent plastic-free production process, and uses 100 per cent recyclable packaging. From a social good perspective, Vanessa has built the company so it gives each employee the work-life balance she wanted when she was initially raising her kids.

“When you’re a child, you’re given the ability to dream. And there are no limitations to that. Whatever you saw yourself being, you believed you could do it, you believed in daydreams,” she says. “And at some point in our lives, there are fears and expectations that get instilled. There’s self-sabotage. If you can fight your way through that, you can do anything. You can make a dream a reality. I have.”

Access to capital is one of the main barriers to growth of women-owned and -led businesses. To level the playing field, targeted programs and support exist for women entrepreneurs to address the unique needs of their businesses.

Two organizations that have helped Marshall along her journey include Coralus (formerly SheEO) and Export Development Canada (EDC)

Selected as a 2022 Coralus Venture, the honour came with a zero per cent interest loan, coaching, and access to a global community of support. Coralus connected her with a network of “radically generous” women and non-binary people, who helped her with resources to grow her company — from finding the right accountant to supporting distribution and marketing. 

EDC taught her how to expand her business into other countries, put her in touch with other trade partners, including the Trade Commissioner Service (TCS), by facilitating an introduction to a local trade commissioner, and increased awareness about grants she could apply for.

Organizations such as Coralus, EDC, and the TCS exist to help entrepreneurs realize their potential — the key is gaining awareness of the available resources and tapping into them.

“At a certain point, I realized I wasn’t going to be good at that stuff. It was essential I put the right people in place to do those things for me, so I could focus my attention elsewhere.”

Today, Marshall helps other entrepreneurs narrow down their company’s philosophy, so they can focus on generating results and solving problems quickly. She also suggests they figure out their weaknesses early on in the start-up process, so they can outsource tasks that eat up their time and mental capacity. 

“I have no managerial experience, for example, and I don’t have business experience,” Marshall says. “Before I built my team, everything was about putting out fires, learning how to do taxes, etc., and at a certain point, I realized I wasn’t going to be good at that stuff. It was essential I put the right people in place to do those things for me, so I could focus my attention elsewhere.”

Today, Marshall and her team of 10, including her sister who’s the company’s chief operating officer, are working hard to make Jack59 a household name. In addition to their own storefront in Edmonton, they are in various boutiques and retail locations across Canada and into the United States, and they ship globally through their online store.They’re focused on creating new products and looking to expand the business into more countries. 

Marshall says she knows there’s an incredible opportunity for the products they make given the current concerns about the climate and sustainability. By expanding more, not only will she be able to help others and educate them about how to choose environmentally sustainable products, she can employ more people on a local level and expand economic growth in her community. 

“We already sell internationally through e-commerce. We’ve had orders in Oman and Europe. I want to break into South America next — largely because I love the people and culture. It’s very exciting.” 

When reflecting on her journey, Marshall offers up this piece of advice to entrepreneurs: “If your dream scares you, it’s probably worth doing. Especially, too, if it scares other people when you tell them about your idea. Trust the journey and the road you’re on. It’s always worth it.”

Lessons Learned: My first year of building a business as a personal stylist.


By Cheryl Nomdarkhon


I’ve had a love of fashion since I was a teenager. I grew up watching Jeanne Bekker from Fashion Television interview the original 90’s Supermodels, trailblazing designers, and household names backstage during fashion week — New York, Paris, Milan, London — every week on CityTV

She would have access to the most coveted runway shows, and intimate conversations with everyone and anyone in the industry. Apart from watching FT, I collected numerous fashion magazines like Mademoiselle and Glamour. I especially liked the before & after photos and fashion do’s and don’ts.  

Fast forward 25 years to March 2020, and I found myself laid off from my full-time job for a global training & development company. It was a time to reflect and reinvent myself and start over. I’d worked in several industries, from IT to health and wellness, but nothing came close to what I wanted in a truly fulfilling career. I wanted to have a real work-life balance and a job where I could make a lasting difference with people.  

“It didn’t take too long to realize that the thing that I always wanted to do was create a career in fashion — specifically personal styling.”

While I was decluttering at the start of the pandemic, I found a black and white picture of my dad in my photo album. I was struck by memories of my dad, who passed away in December 2001. It was a photo of him sitting on a bench, probably at the time when he worked for the Jamaican Customs. He sat crossed legs, his pants starched and crisp, his black shoes polished and shined. 

I remembered his clothes, his closets. He always kept his clothes in immaculate condition even though he wore a uniform to work. On his days off, he always looked sharp. When we first moved to Canada, he took us to the Eaton Centre to go shopping. It didn’t take too long to realize that the thing that I always wanted to do was create a career in fashion — specifically personal styling. My dad significantly influenced my decision to embark on my new journey.   

Getting Started as a Stylist.

Starting my business, Uncover Your Style, during the pandemic meant that marketing and networking would look very different from my past business as a holistic nutritionist ten years ago. I made it my goal to share what I was up to with the people in my life — family, friends, past work colleagues, and my connections on social media. I attended weekly networking events over Zoom and had coffee Zoom meetings with other business owners and female entrepreneurs. Last year I joined an online organization for Black stylists called Black Women Who Style. Although I’m the only member from Canada, the group’s organizer, who’s been styling for five years, is very gracious. She’s created a platform where stylists help each other, not bring each other down.  

As the pandemic meant moving back and forth between lockdowns and re-openings, the most realistic way to conduct my business was virtual. The handful of clients that I had was through word-of-mouth. To gain experience, I practiced with family and friends doing consultations over Zoom, including closet/wardrobe edits. I had a few inquiries from my website, but nothing significant.  

“How I looked and how I sounded became critically important. I never had to contend with this when I worked in the corporate world as an employee.”

I also had to learn to navigate and use social media, like Instagram. Because what I do is visual, I had to learn how to present myself to people. How I looked and how I sounded became critically important. I never had to contend with this when I worked in the corporate world as an employee. I was always the one working behind the scenes in my job. There were opportunities for me to speak in front of large groups of people and present myself as someone professional and knowledgeable, but being out there and having people ‘watch and judge you’ anywhere in the world was very unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

I’m still not 100% confident and used to putting myself out there. I sometimes overthink what I will create on Instagram and TikTok and how I come across on camera. Is what I’m presenting educational, informative, and fun? Will people get it? Imposter Syndrome comes up a lot. Another pitfall is that I automatically compare myself to other stylists and how many ‘likes’ they get and how great their content is compared to mine.

My Lessons Learned. 

One of the biggest mistakes in my first year in business was signing up to advertise for a Yelp promo account. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I registered to use several hundred dollars in (Yelp credits) to advertise personal shopping for the holiday season.  After six weeks of ad promos, there were no new clients or leads. I cancelled right away when I saw my bill the following month. Sometimes things may sound enticing, but it doesn’t automatically lead to success for your business. I learned this the hard way financially. I still get solicited to advertise, and I politely decline the offer.

I made the other mistake of saying “yes” to everybody for styling. There were times when I said yes to working with a client who was very difficult. Early indications were that the client wouldn’t be fully ‘coachable’ or agreeable, but I ignored my inner voice. I now know the importance of vetting and interviewing potential clients before we agree to work together. 

My Goals For The Future.

One of my goals for the future is to create a one-stop-shop experience for clients — like a boutique image consulting service with other stylists, designers, make-up artists, and photographers.

Sometimes, I pinch myself and wonder how I got here. I’ve spent the past 18 months hustling — giving away my time, knowledge, and expertise to get somewhere. There are many times that I’ve been disappointed about not booking that client, not getting that opportunity on a grand scale. There are also days when I feel like giving up on my dreams. The conversation in my head is that “It’s too hard, nothing is working, nobody wants what I have to give.” The biggest challenge is having that winning mindset and keeping it going, no matter what. I belong to a Mastermind group and a meditation group that helps during those difficult times.

The truth is that I haven’t yet achieved the publicity, notoriety, and good client base that I want to commit to being financially and personally fulfilled yet. I’ve created action plans and revised my business plans and goals for 2022, and I continue to plant the seeds for the next chapter — and I’m looking forward to what I will harvest in the next few months.

Cheryl Nomdarkhon

Cheryl Nomdarkhon

Cheryl Nomdarkhon is a Certified Personal Stylist and founder of Uncover Your Style, a Toronto-based style consultancy offering both in-person and virtual services. After 10 years as a Training & Development Manager, Cheryl was inspired by her late father’s style sense and her own love of fashion to pursue her new career, launching her business in 2020. Believing it is never too late to reinvent yourself, her aim is to help people discover their style sensibility, and dress easily and confidently. Connect with her on Instagram and for style advice and to book a personal session.

Tatiana Estevez Carlucci’s cleantech startup is revolutionizing where we can get our water from.

Permalution Tatiana Estevez

By Sarah Kelsey


If you’re like most people, when you see a cloud of fog rolling in, you probably think about waterproofing your wardrobe for the day. But if you’re someone like Tatiana Estevez Carlucci, all you see is possibility. 

“It was right after graduation and it was my dream to go backpacking in California, so I landed in San Francisco,” she says, arriving at a time when the state was going through a historic drought, costing the economy billions and devastating the mental health of farmers. “I was looking out the window of my Airbnb, and as I watched the fog roll in, it hit me: fog is a huge source of water. What if that water could be harnessed to solve problems like drought?”

The result of that brainwave is Permalution: a revolutionary cleantech organization devoted to creating and leveraging technology to harvest water droplets from fog. Tatiana’s goal is to support local ecosystems and contribute to environmental conservation. 

“By definition, fog or clouds are made up of tiny particles of water that are suspended in the air, so we developed technology that allows us to predict where fog will occur, the amount of water one can yield from a specific fog patch, and collect water droplets from fog as it passes over one of our units,” Tatiana says. 

“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it.”

The fireproof, ready to assemble modules have an integrated IoT system and allow her team to collect 150 to 400 litres of water per day — or an amount that can support a family of four to six.

“We want to democratize fog as a new water source, and we need to introduce the technology in a way that allows everyone to access it while abiding by the water regulations in each state, province, and country,” she says. 

Based in Sherbrooke, Quebec, the first-of-its-kind fog organization has received several recognitions and grants since launching in 2015, including one of BMO‘s Celebrating Women Grants in 2021

Tatiana says she’s eternally grateful for the support and recognition, especially because she had no formal business or engineering education when starting her company. She took some electives in environmental engineering in university and went on to teach herself about all things sustainability; what she knew was that she ultimately wanted to work with water and in the cleantech space. 

“I started little by little,” Tatiana says, adding that every small step has led her to the road she’s currently on, from landing in Silicon Valley for a period of time to working with the Canadian Government on environmental matters. 

“The support of others, patience, and tenacity has been key to getting Permalution where it is today,” she says. Believing in the end result of what the technology can offer the world has also been key. “All entrepreneurs need to believe what they’re bringing to the table is very important and worth taking the risk and chance on.”

“What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”

Tatiana keeps a book of accomplishments to flip through when she feels she or her organization have hit a wall; this empowers her to move forward when it feels like the universe is against her. 

“Women need to get rid of the fear of failing in order to get to where we need to go. We have to fail fast and hard, but keep going,” she says. 

Up next for Tatiana and Permalution is a new website so the organization can make more noise (a dream would be to attract attention from the likes of Greta Thunberg) and an advancement of plans to commercialize their products. Tatiana and her team want to increase output and recently started working with the University of Toronto to develop and launch a backpack-sized module that will, hopefully, bring water to displaced populations.

“We’re working on so many cool innovations that will help us bring this technology to where there is no fog or even few clouds so we can address the climate and water challenges of today,” she says. “What we’re doing really has the power to change the world.”

Katie Callery couldn’t find maternity clothes to wear — now she owns her own brand that constantly sells out.

Katie Callery

By Hailey Eisen


When Katie Callery found herself pregnant and unable to find anything nice to wear, she did what many an entrepreneur had done before her — she solved her own problem. Sonday the Label – a Toronto-based company that designs contemporary maternity and nursing wear – was born out of Katie’s frustration with maternity clothing and the desire to do better by expecting and new moms. 

“I’ve always loved fashion and been interested in it as a consumer, and when I started shopping for maternity clothing, I was kind of shocked at how hard it was to find pieces that were stylish, functional and comfortable,” she recalls. 

Katie grew up in a house with two successful business owners as parents. Sonday wasn’t her first foray into the world of entrepreneurship either — it followed a three-year stint running a bed & breakfast in Prince Edward County. 

“I started talking to a lot of pregnant women who, it turns out, felt the same way I did about the maternity category,” Katie says. “I decided that the best solution would be to design a few pieces myself.” 

Katie didn’t know how to design clothing, but that didn’t stop her. It was 2020, she was on mat leave with her son, and the COVID pandemic had hit. The timing was right for Katie to take up a new project — one that would become more successful than she’d ever imagined.

She enrolled in online fashion and sketching courses, and enlisted the support of notable Canadian designer Linda Lundström, who would go on to mentor and consult with her virtually for the better part of that year. “Linda taught me everything about fabric, sourcing, sketching and sizing, and she opened my eyes to how intricate the design process is,” Katie recalls. 

In the Spring of 2021, Katie launched a two-piece collection, a small run that included a functional black v-neck dress and T-shirt, both which could be worn while pregnant and nursing. “I wanted to find out if there was a market for these pieces which were more versatile, thoughtful, chic and affordable,” Katie says. 

Her first run sold out quickly, as did her second. “It was then that I decided to sell my B&B and put everything I had into our first collection.”

“I had always wanted to see if I could do something on my own, so I decided to look into programs that would help support that dream.”

Katie credits her success with Sonday in part to the experience and access to expertise she gained while completing the Master of Management Innovation & Entrepreneurship (MMIE) program at Smith School of Business. 

She’d been working in marketing for nearly a decade when she felt what she describes as an ‘itch’ to go out on her own and start a business. That was 2016. “I had always wanted to see if I could do something on my own, so I decided to look into programs that would help support that dream.” 

The MMIE program at Smith was only a few years old at the time and proved to be exactly what Katie was looking for. She describes it as a crash course in everything from finance, to marketing, to operations, with a focus on corporate innovation and entrepreneurship. “I left my job with BMO and moved to Kingston to start the program,” she explains. “It was such a great year in so many ways.” 

Upon graduation, Katie went to work for a fintech start-up, gaining experience in grassroots marketing and working closely with the company’s founder. “I was taking everything I learned at Queen’s and applying it, but I still had that bug,” she recalls. 

In the MMIE program Katie says she was exposed to many entrepreneurs, most of them  Queen’s alumni of varied degrees that went on to start their own businesses. “Many of those entrepreneurs have become my network…through their stories, I came to believe that this could be done.”  

Katie became familiar with Prince Edward County during her time travelling between Toronto and Kingston for the one-year program. So, when she came across an old property for sale, she decided to take her first stab at entrepreneurship. “It was 2017 and I spent the summer renovating that property with help from friends and my folks,” she says. “We were busy from the get-go, and I also found it really interesting navigating the regulatory side of things. I got really involved in the County.” 

When she became pregnant in 2019, she recalls needing clothes that would allow her to attend meetings feeling both comfortable and confident. She was excited to go shopping for maternity clothes, but what she found were outdated styles, ill-fitting pieces and busy patterns. And the items she did find that were trendy and chic were quite expensive. The idea to launch a venture focused on re-imagining maternity and nursing wear began to percolate.  

“We are a Toronto-based, Canadian-made, female-founded company, and we continue to listen to women and moms and make decisions based on their needs and wants.” 

The name of the business came to Katie a few months prior to the arrival of her son, Sam, who was due on a Sunday. “Sunday is a nostalgic day from my childhood. It was always family day, we’d go for breakfast and long drives, and with my son being due on a Sunday, the name just came together.” 

Her clothing line is still quite small, extremely versatile, and true to Katie’s commitment of being priced as reasonably as possible. “We are a Toronto-based, Canadian-made, female-founded company, and we continue to listen to women and moms and make decisions based on their needs and wants.” 

The Sonday line is manufactured at a sister-owned studio in Scarborough and all of the fabric comes from a supplier in Vancouver. “Pricing has been one of my most interesting challenges given the price of fabric has gone up three times since last August,” Katie says. That being said, she’s committed to supporting local production and jobs and is willing to pay a little more to continue doing so. “It’s a constant balance.” 

Only a few new pieces are put out each season and Katie is intentional when choosing what to design next. “We aren’t trying to be at the forefront of trends. We want to create pieces that work for women now and extend for the long-haul, that they can wear through multiple pregnancies and after as well.” 

And when Katie isn’t sure what direction to take with a design, she taps into her community. “In designing a sweater for the winter, I wasn’t sure if we should do a crew neck or a cardigan, but hands down the cardigan was people’s favourite, so that’s what we are going with. The response we’ve had has been beyond incredible.” 

Most recently, Sonday signed on with two Toronto retailers. “Carry Maternity in Yorkville just started selling the Sonday line a few weeks ago, and already they’ve re-ordered more items,” she says. “The mother-daughter duo who run the store told me that they have women fly in to shop with them from the east coast of Canada and as far as Bermuda, all because they simply don’t have maternity options where they live. That just shows how hard it really is to find good pieces when you’re pregnant.” 

“Whether you’re going to work for yourself or just make a huge career leap, it’s a big personal decision, and while many people will step up to offer advice, you really need to take time with yourself in order to really go with your gut.”

While she says she was nervous making the pivot into fashion, and at times felt a bit like an imposter, Katie is feeling more and more comfortable and confident in her brand. “Honestly, becoming a mother is such a beautiful but difficult challenge, but it gave me a lot of confidence as well.”

For now, Katie is doing almost all of the work for Sonday on her own: packing orders, designing, marketing and sales, with help from one part-time virtual marketing assistant. Her girlfriends are her models for photoshoots, her family has been wildly supportive, and she still relies on the network she formed at Queen’s for advice and inspiration, as well as access to pitch competitions and funding opportunities. 

“Whether you’re going to work for yourself or just make a huge career leap, it’s a big personal decision, and while many people will step up to offer advice, you really need to take time with yourself in order to really go with your gut.”

For Katie, the decision was quite obviously the right one, and she’s very excited to see what’s next. “In many ways, the pandemic was the perfect storm for change; it really shook things up and allowed for flexibility in new ways,” she says. “I’ve been in my basement for the past two years, and now coming out into stores and seeing the confidence others have in what we’re doing, that’s been a lovely and welcome surprise.”

How Janét Aizenstros turned her digital consultancy into one of the fastest-growing companies in the Americas.

By Karen van Kampen


Growing up in Guelph, Ontario, Janét Aizenstros was exposed to “a lot of goodness” within her community-focused hometown. “I grew up in an environment where I was free to be myself, which being a woman of colour, given the current social narrative, isn’t always true for many women of colour,” she says. 

As Founder and CEO of Ahava Digital Group, a women-led digital consultancy, Janét has built a conscious media company that provides ethically sourced and verified data to help companies connect with women consumers. What began as a one-woman operation in 2011 is now one of the fastest-growing companies in the Americas, with revenues over $1.5 billion (USD). 

Like other entrepreneurs she has connected with over the years, Janét discovered early in life that there was something uniquely different about herself. “In childhood, I felt very present,” she says. “That level of presence, that level of insight is what has been able to carry me through life.” Janét’s high level of empathy has benefits as well as detriments, she explains. “You feel things on a totally different level.” 

Janét was exposed to business in her teens when her mother started her own cleaning company. Janét would accompany her mother to commercial buildings and chat with owners about their business. “I was very fascinated by what they did,” she says. 

Moving to Toronto at the age of 17 cultivated Janét’s passion to become a business person. She graduated high school early and got a retail job at the Eaton Centre, where she worked alongside many strong women. “I spent a lot of time walking the streets, seeing the business people, the hustle and bustle,” she says. 

At 19, Janét completed a program called Master’s Commission, an intensive discipleship program. Her interest in spirituality began as a young child. “I was once an aspiring pastor,” she says. Yet Janét came to realize that entrepreneurship was the right path for her. 

“It started as a woman who had many gifts that she wanted to share with the world.”

After many years building a professional career in banking, management consulting, and advertising, Janét left the corporate world to focus on her family. For 18 months, she stayed home with her two children — both under the age of three. She launched her one-woman creative agency, Ahava Digital, from her basement. 

“It started as a woman who had many gifts that she wanted to share with the world,” says Janét, “And life circumstances — that I wanted to shift — which presented challenges that I would have to navigate and pivot cautiously through,” she says.

Influencers became interested in Janét’s work. Demand continued to grow as she worked with companies and then larger organizations. In 2013, as Ahava Digital focused on social media, Janét began connecting with her professional network. “This path led me to introductions to influential people I’ve known over the years that gave me an opportunity and opened doors for me,” she says. 

In 2016, Ahava Digital became more data focused as clients sought pinpointed metrics on their ideal customers. At the time, Janét was working on her dissertation for her PhD in metaphysical sciences while  simultaneously completing her executive MBA. While gathering data for her PhD research, Janét discovered an American data centre that was looking for an investor. In late 2017, Janét acquired the data company and its technology, and started on a growth path. Today, Ahava Digital Group has a presence in more than 15 countries with more than 550 employees, and their National Intelligence File contains data on 197 million American households — all ethically sourced and verified.  

Ahava Digital has gained the moniker of conscious business, which Janét embraces. “Canadian values are what shaped who I am as an entrepreneur, especially as an employer,” says Janét, which includes putting people first and focusing on environmental, social, corporate governance, and sustainable development goals.  

She carries those values beyond her company, too. In 2020, Janét established scholarship programs at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo to support people from marginalized communities who wish to pursue careers in business and engineering. Money can be a barrier to entry, dissuading many people from even applying, she says, adding, “Money should never be the reason why somebody does not fulfill their dreams.” 

“We have to offer value in any situation that we walk into and understand that we should be expectant of receiving value as well.”

Janét says it’s important to focus on how we can give back in life — but it’s also healthy to expect reciprocation. “We have to offer value in any situation that we walk into and understand that we should be expectant of receiving value as well,” she says, adding, “Understanding those that pour out also need to be poured into.” 

For Janét, giving back also includes mentoring other women entrepreneurs through an American organization that focuses on leadership from a biblical perspective. It’s about leadership, wellness, and mindset. “Honestly, it’s the best work I’ve ever done in my entire life,” she says. 

Reflecting on a key takeaway for other women entrepreneurs, Janét says, “Successful women are not afraid of being themselves. I want to stress this concept to women.” In the beginning, Janét had people trying to steer her path, and if she had listened to them, Ahava Digital Group would not be what it is today. “It takes a very strong personality to stand alone and be that lone wolf,” she says.

Her approach has clearly worked. Among her many achievements, Janét’s company was ranked twelfth on Canadian Business’ 2020 Growth List, with Janét being the first Black Canadian woman sole founder to be recognized within the list’s top 20. That same year, Janét was also the first person of colour to win the Canadian Business Employer of the Year award. In 2021 she became the first Black woman to receive the Excellence Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an entrepreneur who has built and managed a successful business over a decade through timely innovation, strategic thinking, and smart execution.

Looking to the future, Janét is excited to focus on her legacy initiative — the institute that she created to support the wellness of women in business. The Wholly Living Research Institute focuses on emotional intelligence around business and explores leadership from a wellness perspective, providing a safe space for women to share experiences. 

“Leadership is the place I was meant to be,” says Janét. “I come alive when empowering women. It gives me joy.”

How Michele Romanow is equalizing access to funding with Clearco — a global leader in the venture capital industry.

By Karen van Kampen


For 15 years, Michele Romanow has disrupted industries with her innovative business ideas. At 28, the serial entrepreneur became the youngest Dragon on Dragons’ Den. By 35, she had been named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, and had six business launches under her belt. Her latest venture, Clearco (formerly Clearbanc), has been shaking up the venture capital industry with its revenue sharing model since 2015. The tech unicorn is the world’s largest e-commerce investor, with a valuation over $2.5 billion. 

“If you want to change something in this world, the best way of doing that is becoming an entrepreneur,” says Michele.

As Co-founder and CEO of Clearco, Michele was the 2021 winner of the Innovation Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours a forward-thinking entrepreneur who has demonstrated outstanding leadership within her company and industry while setting standards for originality, quality, and successful management.  

Michele has been leading change since launching her first venture in 2006 as an engineering student at Queen’s University. Curious about sustainability in business, she decided to take a high margin product like coffee and see if she could remove all of the waste. Michele used giant composters with red wiggler worms — that eat 10 times their body mass every day — and sold the soil from the coffee grounds to local farmers. Everything was biodegradable or compostable. The Tea Room was North America’s first zero-consumer-waste café. 

“Running a small business and running a big business are really not that much different.”

It was an amazing learning experience — from building the café, to hiring, managing, and motivating 80 student employees, and responding quickly to crises. “Running a small business and running a big business are really not that much different,” says Michele. 

In spring 2008, Michele had just graduated from her MBA when she discovered the worldwide supply of caviar was down by 95%. With approximately $100,000 in winnings from business plan competitions, Michele and her business partners, Anatoliy Melnichuk and Ryan Marien, launched Evandale Caviar. They drove to Canada’s East Coast and built a fishery from scratch, “which is everything it sounds like,” says Michele. “Boats, Fisherman. My hands knee-deep in fish.” 

Then in the fall of 2008, the recession hit. “I’m 21 years old and I’m selling the world’s most unnecessary luxury product,” she says. Michele took a job for a year as director of strategy for a large retailer. Then in 2011, Michele co-founded the e-commerce platform Two years later, she co-founded Snapsaves, an app that she sold to Groupon in 2014. It was her first big break as an entrepreneur. 

In 2015, Michele became the youngest judge on Dragons’ Den, bringing a unique perspective on potential investments. “I am the closest to the picture, because I am still starting and building businesses,” she says.  

Michele began to question why founders were using equity, the most expensive capital, to fund ads and inventory, which had a fixed return. It sparked an idea: Instead of taking 10% of the company, she suggested 10% of revenue until her capital was paid back, plus 6%. “We invented the category of revenue sharing,” says Michele, which disrupted the venture capital industry. 

This became the first Clearco deal. Today, Clearco has invested $3.2 billion in more than 7,000 different founders in 10 countries around the world. 

Michele understands how difficult it is for founders to secure capital. For the first 10 years, she says no one would fund her. With the Clearco 20-minute Term Sheet, no personal guarantee is required — the numbers speak for themselves. Rather than going through the lengthy fundraising process, founders are provided a term sheet within minutes that sets out the amount and terms of capital. 

“The narrative has always been women don’t build enough companies or their companies are not successful. What we’re showing is if more than half our portfolio is women, they are out there and they are building great businesses.”

The process eliminates bias in the venture capital decision-making process. “We are just using data to make our decisions. We don’t hear your pitch. We don’t know what gender you are,” says Michele. “As a result, our portfolio looks so much different than the conventional VC portfolio.” 

A third of Clearco founders are BIPOC, and a large percentage of its founders do not have a post-secondary education. “We really believe that if you have data and a great business, then you should have democratized access to capital,” says Michele. 

Clearco backs 25 times more women than the VC industry average. “The narrative has always been women don’t build enough companies or their companies are not successful,” says Michele. “What we’re showing is if more than half our portfolio is women, they are out there and they are building great businesses.” In 2017, Michele co-founded the Canadian Entrepreneurship Initiative — with Sir Richard Branson as the entrepreneur-in-residence — which encourages and supports women entrepreneurs.  

In addition to founder-friendly capital, Clearco provides business-building tools and resources to help companies grow. This includes ClearX, that introduces founders to potential buyers. Clearco has sold 12 of their founders’ companies within their portfolio.

Michele’s passion for entrepreneurship is also passed on to Clearco employees — approximately 20 companies have been launched by former staffers. “We call our onboarding school Founder School,” says Michele. “We believe that when you come to Clearco, you should learn everything it takes to be a founder. Our mission is to help founders win.” 

Michele’s best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Start now. It’s never going to feel like you’re perfectly ready,” she says, comparing launching a business to jumping into a swimming pool. “You know you’re going to jump in that water, and it’s going to be cold. And you have to jump. You have to be cold, because as soon as you start swimming, you figure out how to do it.”

How Anna Sainsbury built GeoComply — a global leader in cybersecurity.

Anna Sainsbury

By Karen van Kampen


Anna Sainsbury has always been a problem solver, passionate about bringing function to dysfunctional things, no matter how big or small. “I take as much satisfaction in loading a dishwasher as I do solving a major compliance issue in a jurisdiction or building a new product,” says Anna. “Really whatever it is that needs doing, I can be passionate about the end result.” 

While working in testing and compliance in the gaming space, Anna discovered a problem that needed solving: How do you use technology to confirm someone’s true location when they are interacting online? She met the challenge — and then co-founded and became CEO of GeoComply, a cyber security company that is a global leader in geolocation compliance solutions for fintech, iGaming, and online broadcasting. 

A decade later, Anna was honoured as the 2021 winner of the RBC Momentum Award, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that recognizes an entrepreneur who has created a responsive business that can adapt to changing market environments and leverage opportunities for continued growth. 

Becoming an entrepreneur happened very organically, says Anna. Her dad had his own business and she was close to the founder of her first employer, so there were a lot of business owner-related conversations around her. 

“As an entrepreneur or even as a young person, you’re trying to find your stride and decide what you want to do,” she says. Committing to a 30-year career path can seem too much, says Anna, while having internal flexibility and seeing how to contribute to the bigger picture can open up more doors. “I’ve just been naturally curious to have conversations and enjoy the ride.” 

“It was a struggle. But I personally love struggles.”

For five years, Anna worked in testing and compliance in the gaming industry, gaining experience in the European and Asian markets. The U.S. was seen as the next big market to come online, yet iGaming was challenging. Transmission of gaming data between states was banned, so it was imperative to determine the accurate location of players. This was difficult, with tampering tools being used to mask people’s locations. GeoComply solved the problem by creating compliance-grade virtual fences. 

Founded in 2011, it took two years to launch the geolocation compliance software — which proved more challenging than Anna had imagined. “It was a struggle,” she recalls. “But I personally love struggles.” 

GeoComply was ahead of its time, which made it difficult to provide solutions to a problem that many clients weren’t yet aware of.  “All these hero stories of what it’s like to set up a strong tech company or a unicorn make it all sound so easy,” says Anna, explaining that the reality was quite different, “when doors are being closed in your face and people don’t get what you are saying.” 

There were people who tried to dissuade Anna from pursuing the innovative idea. When deciding who to turn to for advice, Anna says it’s important to have a trusted group of advisors who aren’t conflicted or have a reason for you to fail, and are also qualified to give an opinion. “Really look at what incentivizes someone to give advice,” says Anna, “and why might their advice be advantageous or not for you to listen to.”

It’s also important to celebrate all the little wins along the way. When first starting out, “There may be all sorts of personal things that come up, like imposter syndrome,” she says. “But once you make that first sale or you get that little win in a meeting, it’s so rewarding.” 

GeoComply began as a small, four-staff operation and has grown steadily to become a global leader in cybersecurity with more than 375 staff and offices in the United States, Canada, Poland, and Vietnam. It provides geolocation compliance services for clients including Amazon Prime Video, BBC, and FanDuel. GeoComply’s product is installed on more than 500 million devices worldwide. 

The company is also focused on social responsibility, and is helping to create a sustainable and safe gaming industry. It set up Conscious Gaming, an independent, non-profit organization that provides tools for users to self-exclude from sports betting and casino gaming. It’s like a lock on your fridge, says Anna, which prevents people from placing bets if they wish to take a break from online gaming. The organization works with gaming operators, regulators, and advocacy groups to promote responsible iGaming. 

GeoComply also donates software and works with regulators and non-profit partners, including the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children and the Child Rescue Coalition, to enhance online safety, protecting children and combating child exploitation. 

“There is a lot of effort that goes into creating the pipeline so we can reach that diversity across all of our teams at all levels.” 

Within the organization, they have set a goal to maintain 50% of women in roles from middle management to the board level. It is an interesting challenge, says Anna, as many women may not consider career paths in privacy and mobile development. “There is a lot of effort that goes into creating the pipeline so we can reach that diversity across all of our teams at all levels,” says Anna. This includes providing scholarships and return-to-work programs for women who have paused their careers or left the workforce. 

Once women are brought to the table, “we take responsibility for nurturing them,” says Anna, by providing learning and development courses in order to have women move into more senior seats. Having both women and men at the table “brings balance to the conversation,” she says. 

The learning and development of its employees is an area of focus for GeoComply. Anna wants to ensure that “people feel like we are giving them enough inspiration to be diving in and getting to commit to the career path they dreamed for themselves,” she says. One of their professional development initiatives is the G-Force Oxford Strategic Leadership Program, a one-year program that has individuals participate remotely through interactive learning seminars, and work directly with instructors and tutors from Oxford University. There’s an in-person final module and graduation ceremony on the Oxford campus. 

At such a high-growth company, the challenges are relentless, says Anna. “You’re constantly out of your comfort zone and scaling to a place that you’ve never been before,” she says. “A lot of people who work for us are like hungry activists wanting to make change.”  

The ever-changing digital industry also requires constant problem solving, adaptation, and ingenuity to protect against geolocation fraud and geo-piracy. “It is a challenge of innovation and a good Tom and Jerry Show — cat and mouse,” says Anna, explaining that there is innovation on both sides. “Fraudsters are innovative. They push the boundaries,” she says. “We have to be more innovative and follow these trends. That’s the exciting part.”

Jill Nykoliation left a corporate career for advertising — now she runs one of Canada’s best (and most creative) agencies.

Jill Nykoliation

By Chris Powell

It’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. After all, it’s comfortable and safe. But Jill Nykoliation, CEO of ad agency Juniper Park\TBWA in Toronto, is acutely aware that everything inevitably reaches a conclusion. Perhaps more importantly, she’s content to let it happen. “Don’t use up energy trying to hold onto something that maybe is done,” she says.

It’s how Jill knew when to call time on what had been a hugely successful early career with Kraft Foods and step into the unknown world of advertising—first as one of the partners of the agency Grip Limited, and then two years later as a founding partner of Juniper Park, now part of the global TBWA network, headquartered in New York City.

Nearly two decades and multiple professional and personal accolades later, her decision appears prescient. But she remembers her colleagues at Kraft being mystified. She had attained so much success, they said, and was highly regarded within the organization. She’d regret it, they warned.

But for Jill, the move into the Mad Men world of advertising after 10 highly successful years as a marketer represented an opportunity to again create her own path through what she calls the “tall grass”—the unmarked territory that presents both opportunities and maybe even the occasional pitfall.

“I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft, and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go.” 

There was still so much she didn’t know when she first set foot into this new environment in 2005. Yet that step into the unknown brought with it the frisson of excitement that had been missing as her previous role reached its natural conclusion. “I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft (where she helped launch and oversee the company’s data-led CRM efforts, years before such things became fashionable), and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go,” she says. “The part I was uniquely good at was wrapping up, and that’s when I went to the agency side of the business.”

The tall grass is a concept that Jill keeps circling back to when describing her professional life. It isn’t for everyone, but she delights in metaphorically hacking her way through, uncovering new insights and approaches. “I’m very much a tall grass person, and we’re a tall grass agency,” she says. “We attract people that love to carve out new spaces.” It’s not for the timorous, but Jill is convinced she’ll find her way through to the other side, usually with a breakthrough idea. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll have something to show for it,’ ” she says. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I will.”

Powerful signal

That willingness to intrepidly venture into uncharted territory has enabled Juniper Park\TBWA to thrive while creating high-profile work for major Canadian and global brands including Apple, CIBC, GoDaddy, Nissan and PepsiCo.

The agency has grown from six employees since its formation in 2007 to 150 today, while adding to its capabilities with new divisions. They include the design studio Le Parc; a precision marketing arm called Scalpel; and a content production division called Bolt Content. Most recently, it launched Trampoline, an incubator and accelerator for small BIPOC businesses and emerging creatives.

While many Canadian offices of global ad networks often find themselves relegated to repurposing work created in New York or Los Angeles, Juniper Park\TBWA prides itself on being at the forefront of its clients’ marketing plans. “A satellite office would be a paved road,” says Jill. “What’s the global standard? We’ll do the Canadian version of that. We say, ‘No, we’ll create and launch [our own ideas].’ ”

There’s perhaps no better embodiment of that approach than 2020’s “Signal For Help,” a simple yet highly effective creation developed for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The secret communication device for abused women arose out of one of the agency’s regular Thursday staff meetings—known internally as “pirate huddles”—during the pandemic’s early days.

“I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness.’ ”

That day, the conversation circled around to the rise in domestic violence due to women being trapped at home with an abusive partner. “I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness,’ ” says Jill. The American Sign Language symbol for “help” was too obvious, and texts or phone calls could be spotted or leave a digital trail for the abuser.

Like so many of the best communications, the idea put forth by Juniper Park\TBWA’s chief creative officer Graham Lang—folding a thumb into the palm of a hand, and closing the fingers over top to silently convey the message “I’m trapped”—was simple and easy to comprehend. Buoyed by widespread sharing on social platforms like TikTok, Signal For Help eventually travelled around the world, leading to news stories such as one out of Kentucky late last year in which a missing 16-year-old girl was rescued after using the gesture to indicate to passing motorists that she was being held captive. (A 61-year-old man was arrested.)

Jill says it’s a powerful feeling to know something she had a hand in creating proved so impactful. “I woke up that morning to a message from a girlfriend that read ‘Isn’t this your work?’ and I cried,” she says. “I’m proud beyond words.” Along the way, Signal For Help joined a select few Canadian-made ad campaigns that have travelled beyond the country’s borders, joining the likes of Always’ powerful “#LikeAGirl” and “Dove Evolution.”

Unlocking potential

Two decades since taking her first steps into the agency world, Jill is a highly regarded and acclaimed agency leader and CEO, notable accomplishments in a male-dominant business such as advertising. She is fluent not only in the masculine language of business, which tends to prioritize things like performance and innovation, but has oriented her agency around softer traits like empathy, vulnerability and collaboration. “I’m really good at saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help.’ There’s no shame in that,” she says. “I can be as smart as I want, but if I show up [with an] authoritarian style, it doesn’t matter because I’m unintentionally shutting people down.”

She describes her leadership approach as “leading from the feminine.” Shifting the business to be more supportive and collaborative unlocked the dormant potential within the agency. “I’ve learned that you can be a high-performance and forward-leaning organization, and do it with kindness, generosity and gratitude,” she says. “Performance doesn’t have to be cutthroat, and kindness doesn’t have to be at the expense of performance.” That’s borne out by the fact that, during what has been an incredibly difficult two-year period for the advertising industry, Juniper Park\TBWA had its best years from both a revenue and an output perspective in 2020 and 2021.

Ken Wong, marketing professor at Smith, says Jill has consistently demonstrated that profitability and moral integrity aren’t mutually exclusive. And she’s done it while never losing sight of the fundamental role agencies play in furthering their clients’ business objectives. “She is constantly inventing new services and refining old ones to keep her clients on the leading edge of marketing practice,” says Wong. “It should come as no surprise that her agency has been performing at record-breaking levels.”

Last year, Jill was named one of Canada’s three most powerful CEOs by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). The annual award recognizes three women leaders considered “trailblazers in their field, [who] advocate for workplace equality and display vision, strong foundational character, a sense of integrity and the ability to elicit public trust.” Jill calls the accolade “humbling,” but is quick to share credit with her staff and the people who influenced her. “It’s a team award for me because nobody does anything alone,” she says. “It’s an amalgamation of all the people who have been brave and generous and kind enough to work alongside me.”

Jill Nykoliation

A Queen’s family

While there was no specific moment that Jill decided to pursue a career in marketing and advertising, the roadmap was in place from an early age. She learned about business from her father, Dennis, a successful executive who came up through the marketing side and held president and/or CEO roles with companies including Black & Decker Canada and Cambridge Towel.

“It was almost like I was doing classes at the dinner table,” she says. “I learned about branding in service to business all through my childhood. It was all very natural.” The Jills are a Queen’s family, with all four children attending the university. Jill’s twin brothers Brent and Bryan earned Commerce degrees in 1992, followed by Jill in 1993. Her other brother Michael graduated with a degree in life sciences in 1994.

“My parents always said ‘Jill, you can be anything a boy can be,’ and I believed them,” she says now. “I did well [coming up] through masculine industries and organizations, but now I look back and say, ‘How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?’ ” Jill says that leading from the feminine has unlocked so much untapped potential within the agency—from elevating the calibre of the work and the insights that fuel it, to the makeup of the agency’s staff.

“How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?”

When agencies looked to achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Juniper Park was already well ahead. “We’ve been ahead of the curve so many times,” says Jill with a hint of pride. Today, more than half (54 per cent) of Juniper Park\TBWA’s staff is made up of women, while 32 per cent are BIPOC and 47 per cent come from outside of Canada. Lang and executive creative director Jenny Glover both hail from South Africa, for example, while president David Toto is from France.

“We want the sharpest talent possible. Who cares where they come from?” says Jill. “Our culture is borderless, which brings the freshest minds and most creative ideas. It is borderless in hiring international talent and how we assemble our teams.”

As a CEO, Jill is acutely aware of the power she wields in inspiring the next generation of female leaders. Early in her career, she was granted weekly access to famed Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld. It would shape her approach to strategic thinking. “I remember thinking, I am going to learn so much in her presence,” says Jill. “This is going to be a transformative project, and I can’t believe nobody’s fighting me for this. It will change me and rocket forward my learning.”

Working alongside Rosenfeld shifted Jill’s opinion of what a mentor should be. Today, she urges staff to sign up for projects that she’s involved with and simply watch how she works. “I could sit down with you for half an hour, or, like with Irene, I just decided she was going to be my mentor,” she says. “I thought, I’m going to do this work, but I’m also going to study her.”

Tall grass

When Jill was a young girl, her mother taught her how to sew. Fabric was her first creative canvas, and the more she learned, the more curious she became about how things were put together.

In many ways, that curiosity became a guiding principle of her career. “You dismantle brands, and you say ‘Oh, we can get rid of this and that, and this new piece comes in and then we’re going to build it back,’ ” she says. “And that’s what we do for every brand that comes in.”

It’s an approach that has helped distinguish both Jill and Juniper Park\TBWA in a highly competitive and occasionally cutthroat industry. Even the best runs eventually come to an end, of course. By then, Jill will likely have already recognized and accepted that it’s ending, and grabbed her metaphorical machete in preparation for the tall grass of whatever comes next.

Meet the Mustafa sisters, founders of Sabreen Cosmetics, a clean brand for women of color.

Sabreen Cosmetics

Saliah, Kareemah, and Najiyyah Mustafa are the Co-Founders of Sabreen Cosmetics, a safe, non-toxic, luxury cosmetics brand. Deeply impacted by the passing of their aunt Nabeehah Sabreen, these sisters had the idea to launch a beauty brand that doesn’t sacrifice quality or safety while representing Black women and women of colour in the luxury beauty space. Today, Saliah, Kareemah, and Najiyyah honor their aunt and continue to celebrate her life by inspiring other women to live a life full of elegance, wellness, and luxury.

Each Mustafa sister brings their own unique perspective and skills to the Sabreen Cosmetics brand. As CEO, Saliah handles the daily management decisions and execution of the brand’s short and long term goals; Kareemah manages the marketing, PR, and business development initiatives of the company as COO, and Najiyyah leverages her understanding of fashion, consumer trends, and beauty to keep the brand tapped into the changing beauty landscape as CCO.


My first job ever was… 

Saliah and Najiyyah: At Dance Place in Northeast Washington, D.C. Dance Place is a dance studio founded by Carla Bloom. We were able to learn how to effectively manage a dance studio, from front of the house to production. We are honored to have learned so much from Dance Place, as it provided first-hand experience in business operations.

Kareemah: My first job was at a private medical practice as a medical biller. The experience taught me the importance of finance and accounting in a business. 

We decided to be entrepreneurs because… we are passionate about making a positive impact in the world. As entrepreneurs, we are able to utilize our knowledge and creativity to fill gaps in the beauty industry for our patrons. In addition, we are able to honor our aunt in the process. As a legacy brand, we are building our business to be able to pass it down to future generations.

We founded Sabreen Cosmetics because… we wanted to honor the life and legacy of our beloved aunt Nabeehah Sabreen. Losing our aunt so quickly at the ages of 16, 15 and 13 affected us tremendously in different ways. However, through embarking on this journey, we were able to turn a tragedy into something positive to keep our aunt’s legacy alive.

“During our research, we made a shocking discovery: Almost 75% of products marketed to women of color have potentially harmful ingredients.”

We’re passionate about clean cosmetics because… we know the impact that clean cosmetics will have on women of color. During our research, we made a shocking discovery: Almost 75% of products marketed to women of color have potentially harmful ingredients. Many beauty products are formulated with toxic synthetics, petroleum-based ingredients, and heavy metals such as lead, aluminum, and chromium. These ingredients are often linked to a myriad of health complications such cancer, hormone disruption, and developmental and reproductive damage. We are honored to aid in delivering products that are safe for use and safe for the environment without sacrificing luxury, quality, and performance.

Our proudest accomplishment is… creating healthy, safe, and luxury products that our consumers are proud to use as well as building a community where women of color can be represented in the luxury clean beauty industry.

Our advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to ensure you truly understand and embrace your brand’s mission, your consumers, and their pain points. Understanding your ‘Why’ will serve as your motivation and give you the resilience needed when obstacles occur throughout your business journey.

The thing we love most about what we do is… that it does not feel like work at all. We love everything about our company, and working together as sisters is truly one the best feelings in the world. It has allowed us to form even stronger bonds amongst each other and it is something that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Additionally, we love the process of critically thinking about the pain points of women of color and developing products that truly meet their needs.

If we were to pick one thing that has helped us succeed, it would be… the life lessons that our parents instilled in us as children. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… 

Saliah: I enjoy collecting vinyls at local record stores in my free time.

Najiyyah: I am a lover of all things luxury and have an extensive sneaker and shoe collection.

Kareemah: I am a lover of luxury handbags.

The future excites us because… the landscape is quite vast for our niche and we are excited to be curators of luxury, elegance, and wellness in the space. Women of color deserve to have access to luxurious, safe products with nuance. 

Our next step is… to continue to inspire women of color to live a divine life of luxury, elegance, and wellness — now and for future generations.

Meet Graydon Moffat, vegan chef turned superfood-inspired beauty brand founder.

Graydon Moffat

Graydon Moffat is the founder and superfood mixologist behind Graydon Skincare, a leading indie beauty brand based out of Toronto. Her previous culinary skills as a vegan chef and background in holistic wellness inspired her unique take on skincare — she started formulating topical products with superfood ingredients, resulting in a powerful and natural line of face, body, and hair products. At Graydon Skincare, you’ll find only plant powered ingredients including botanical retinol, collagen, peptides, vitamin C, probiotics, and even gemstone crystals. All of Graydon’s products are hypoallergenic, non-irritating, vegan and cruelty-free.


My first job ever was… Working at Canada’s Wonderland. It was a humbling experience and gave me an appreciation for customer service. 

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I guess I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Before I started Graydon Skincare, I ran a small vegan meal delivery business called Divine Dishes. I created mouth-watering, nutrient-dense meals and delivered them to my customers. 

I founded Graydon Skincare because… I was mixing up superfood skincare creations in my kitchen and sharing them with my friends, yoga students and an esthetician friend of mine. That friend used my “eccentric smoothies” on her clients and noticed impactful results. That’s when I had my aha moment and realized that I could take my superfood skincare to the next level.

I’m passionate about clean beauty because… Skincare empowers people to look and feel their best. Through clean beauty, I have the opportunity to disrupt conventional beauty and make beauty better. I’m so proud to be one of the small companies that inspires the beauty giants to follow suit. That is meaningful work to me. 

My proudest accomplishment is… As an entrepreneur, I’ve accomplished many things that I’m proud of. I’d say my proudest accomplishment so far is aligning with one of Canada’s favourite dragons, Arlene Dickinson. 

“I had a lot of fear about the cost associated with bringing people on board. Eventually, I had to have faith that my ideas and products were good enough and I didn’t need to be afraid of the financial commitment required to build a team.”

My biggest setback was… Trying to do this on my own. I started out as a one woman team, attempting to do everything myself. Starting and growing a business on your own is not an easy task. 

I overcame it by… Hiring my first employee. I had a lot of fear about the cost associated with bringing people on board. Eventually, I had to have faith that my ideas and products were good enough and I didn’t need to be afraid of the financial commitment required to build a team. 

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… Don’t try to do it all on your own. Hire people who can help you and have faith in your business!

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… Make time for self-care! It’s so important but self-care always seems to take a backseat to other things that we think are more important. I have to continually remind myself that taking the time to relax in the tub, do yoga or meditate is beneficial in the long run. 

The thing I love most about what I do is… It’s simple; I love giving people good skin days, every day! 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… Besides hiring, networking has helped me succeed. Feeling the support of other entrepreneurs and like minded people is helpful even if they’re in another industry because all small businesses tend to have similar challenges. 

If you googled me, you still wouldn’t know… Many years ago, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. 

I stay inspired by… My kitchen. All Graydon Skincare products are inspired by superfoods and every single one started as a concoction that I whipped up with my trusty blender. 

The future excites me because… I can see the changes in beauty happening! The divide between clean, indie brands and conventional, legacy brands is starting to converge and beauty will be a better place with more transparency around ingredients and packaging.

My next step is… Continuing with product innovation! I love blending superfood ingredients and finding the perfect balance between ingredient efficacy and cosmetic chemistry to develop clinically proven products that nourish the skin.

Meet Jessica Sheppard and Rhaelyn Gillespie, founders of the world’s first oil-based breath mint.

Mintier founders

Mintier is a first of its kind product solving a universal problem: bad breath. When founders Jessica Sheppard and Rhaelyn Gillespie learned that sugar is the main ingredient in traditional breath mints, they questioned what that does to your oral health. It turns out sugar feeds the oral bacteria in your mouth, making your breath worse and at an accelerated rate — so they created a 100% natural alternative that is the world’s first oil-based breath mint. Since inspiration first hit in 2019, the duo has participated in Arlene Dickinson’s VenturePark Labs accelerator program, were fully funded on Kickstarter in less than 24 hours, and now Mintier is available in over 100 stores and online, both in Canada and the US. 

My first job ever was… 

Rhaelyn: Subway Sandwich Artist… Yes, that’s what we were called. Subway is where I learned to work hard and that hard work turns into money. I would often ask to extend my shifts and stay late for my coworkers to pull 12-hour days because I just liked making my own money.

Jessica: Walmart cashier! I met so many great people working here and some I still keep in touch with. It taught me how to be accountable, how to work hard (even when you don’t want to), and how to prioritize my time.  

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… 

R: It partially runs in my blood, with entrepreneurial roots through two of my aunt’s and also through my dad. Although they cautioned me about the amount of work, stress, time, and luck it takes, it still felt like my calling. Plus, I was fortunate enough to meet the most perfect cofounder to embark on this venture with.

J: I was searching for a breath mint that would actually work and could not find one. I really could not find something that would freshen my breath while I was on the go, and would be good for my oral health. After meeting Rhae and brainstorming this idea further, it was a no-brainer that we had to do it. It’s been an exciting journey creating a product we believe in so much.

I founded Mintier because…  

R: This was a problem that needed to be solved, and a category that dare I say it, needed to be disrupted. Bad breath is a universal problem that we all experience, and it blew our minds to learn that sugar feeds the oral bacteria in your mouth and that traditional mints and gum are primarily composed of sugar. A little counterintuitive right? We thought so, and sought to create a breath mint that was entirely sugar-free and sugar alcohol free. The only way to do this was to create the world’s first oil-based breath mint, Mintier.

J: It was a problem I personally needed a solution to. Mintier is a game changer because it’s convenient to bring with you on the go while giving you long lasting fresh breath. It’s everything we needed and more! 

“I’ve found a lot of my confidence in business and when I look back at how long it has taken to get to this moment, I’m genuinely very proud of myself for not giving up.”

I’m passionate about our product because…

R: Natural products are a part of my everyday life and routines, and to find a product that fits into that, solves a serious problem, and gives me fresh breath I can help others be confident in is a serious passion 

J: Oral care is a part of our self care. Taking care of my body through natural products has always been important to me and having a product like Mintier that truly makes a difference in my everyday life is something I am very passionate about.

My proudest accomplishment is… 

R: When we presented for a demo day my aunt streamed it to our TV and my 92-year-old Nonna went over to my parents house, the house I grew up in, to watch. My mom later told me that my Nonna grabbed my mom’s hand while we were presenting with tears in her eyes, and now she thinks I’m famous. She is the coolest, smartest, most magnetic woman to be around and I’m so proud to make her proud. 

J: Starting this business. I’ve found a lot of my confidence in business and when I look back at how long it has taken to get to this moment, I’m genuinely very proud of myself for not giving up. I owe a lot of that to having Rhae as a co-founder to lean on, learn from and just have a good friend by my side through some of the harder days. (We’ve had lots of them!) 

My biggest setback was… 

R: Delays delays delays, and it was so frustrating. 

J: Trying to make a sugar-free breath mint in my kitchen. Some of the best founder stories I’ve heard were started by the founder making it in their kitchen — and I couldn’t make this idea work! Little did we know that you needed some type of sugar or sugar alcohol to bind the mint into the solid form. Although it was a pivotal moment for Rhae and I, at the time it felt like a set back.

I overcame it by…  

R: Focusing on what we could control was what got us through it. Shipping delays, supply chain issues, and manufacturing delays were out of our control, but launching a crowdfunding campaign, participating in an accelerator program, and strategizing our launch were in our control so we decided to focus on that. It all worked out in the long run!

J: Trying to figure it out! It’s really just as simple as that. We spent a lot of time researching. At the end of the day we wanted to create a breath freshener that worked and was completely free of sugar and sugar alcohols and we did just that.

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is…  

R: Don’t delay, get started as soon as you can! There’s so much to learn on the go, and so many inevitable mistakes to make, the sooner you get started the sooner you can learn and grow. We actually started a health & wellness focused business a year ago as we were planning and preparing Mintier. They now operate as sister companies!              

J: If you feel like you have it in you to be an entrepreneur — just go for it! It’s a cheesy saying, but better to try and fail than fail to try.                                     

The one piece of advice I give that I have trouble following myself is… 

R: Work/life balance. Honestly my work is my life and my life is my work but it’s very hard to separate the two. I’m not even sure that I want to at this point in my life, but I’m sure as time goes on and my priorities shift, there will be some changes I need to make.

J: Time-block your day. Although I always plan my day the night before, and some days I have great time management skills, there are many days right now that seem like there’s just not enough hours in the day!

“We are so devoted to this business and see the potential in Mintier. We traded in the 9-5 lifestyle for a 24/7 lifestyle and I absolutely love it.” 

The thing I love most about what I do is… 

R: The reactions people have to something we’ve created is so humbling. It’s really what gets me through the tough days.

J: Seeing Mintier in the hands of our customers and retailers carrying it in their store. It still feels very surreal some days! 

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be…  

R: My work ethic. We are so devoted to this business and see the potential in Mintier. We traded in the 9-5 lifestyle for a 24/7 lifestyle and I absolutely love it. 

J: I’ll second what Rhae said — quitting our stable 9-5 jobs and giving our all to Mintier has already proven to have been the best decision we’ve made for the health of the business.

I stay inspired by… 

R: Consistently reflecting on my “why”. This is an exercise that a manager asked me to complete and it really shifted my perspective on work, goals, and the alignment of my day-to-day work towards those goals.

J: Taking time, even if it’s just walking my dog, to unplug and take a step back. Taking a step back really helps me see the full picture when I feel like I’m caught up in a busy day.

The future excites me because… 

R: Mintier has so much potential because bad breath truly is a universal problem. Plus, I get to build a business with one of my best friends. How cool is that?!

J: We are just getting started! We have a lot of work to do but I’m really just so excited for this journey we are on together. 

My next step is…  

R: Getting Mintier into a store near you! For now though you can order on our website to try the new standard of Fresh Breath!

J: To change the way you experience a breath mint and the way you think of fresh breath. Mintier is a game changer and we can’t wait for you to try it! 

This entrepreneur is bridging cultural gaps by educating and empowering children.

Dr.Lloydetta Quaicoe

By Karen van Kampen


Lloydetta Quaicoe learned from a young age the importance of helping and caring for others. When Lloydetta’s mother prepared a meal, she would tell her daughter, “You should always leave something at the bottom of the pot for strangers,” for anyone passing by who was hungry. Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, Lloydetta would give up her bed for the night when someone needed a place to stay. 

“We talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion. That was very much a part of my upbringing,” says Lloydetta. “Diverse groups of people came to our home and were welcomed equally. They were provided for, whether it was food, shelter, or clothing.” 

After moving to Canada, Lloydetta became concerned about the school experience of immigrant and refugee children who struggled with gaps in learning, racism, and social isolation. To help children find a sense of belonging, Lloydetta launched Sharing Our Cultures, a non-profit organization that provides opportunities for children to share their voice, culture, and history through mentorship, programs, and events.

As founder and CEO of Sharing Our Cultures, Lloydetta was the 2021 winner of the Social Change Award, Regional Impact, a category of the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards that honours an exceptional leader of a registered charity, social enterprise, or not-for-profit who is dedicated to their unique brand of social change. 

With a PhD in Education from the University of South Australia, Lloydetta’s passion for learning was instilled by her parents. The youngest of six children, Lloydetta says, “My parents felt that if you had a good education, you would always be able to work at a good job and take care of yourself.”

“I always say that play is a child’s best school.”

At 19, while working for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service, Lloydetta recognized a gap in children’s programming. She proposed and went on to create a TV show for children that was entertaining as well as educational. “I always say that play is a child’s best school,” she says. Lloydetta invited elementary school children to the studio where they read personal essays, listened to stories, and engaged in fun, educational discussions. 

In 1982, Lloydetta moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where her husband was hired by the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Memorial University. Aware of the challenges experienced by immigrant and refugee children at school, Lloydetta got permission from the department of education and the school district to conduct a study of the psychosocial needs of immigrant and refugee children in the school system. 

Lloydetta interviewed students from grades 4 to 12, teachers, administrators, and parents. She learned of children’s experiences with bullying and racism. “New students didn’t have the language or the vocabulary to report to teachers, or they were too scared to do so,” says Lloydetta. Students struggled to communicate and connect when there were no other students with the same cultural background and they were unfamiliar with the language. 

The ESL program, which focused on the transition in learning from one language to another, posed difficult for children who had the additional challenge of gaps in their education. Some children’s education was interrupted after living in refugee camps.

On March 21, 2000, the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Lloydetta presented her findings to leaders in education including individuals from the Department of Education, Memorial University’s Faculty of Education, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association as well as the Department of Canadian Heritage. Some of the student participants in Lloydetta’s research shared their schooling experiences and were brought together with local students. After the event, newcomer students wanted to continue to meet regularly, and Sharing Our Cultures was born.  

“I realized that this was what I wanted to do,” says Lloydetta. “To help immigrant and refugee school children find ways in which they could build that sense of place and belonging, and that they could work with local students to make that happen.” Through programs and events that are held in five regions of Newfoundland and Labrador, Sharing Our Cultures connects culturally diverse students and celebrates the identities, cultures, and experiences of all children. 

“I realized that this was what I wanted to do. To help immigrant and refugee school children find ways in which they could build that sense of place and belonging, and that they could work with local students to make that happen.”

The first Sharing Our Cultures event was a drama production about a student from Afghanistan who was being bullied. Students from local schools attended the production, and their teachers wished there had been an opportunity for the audience to interact with the young performers. Lloydetta came up with the idea for an annual trade show to create an inclusive space for students to interact and learn about each other’s cultures.  

For five years, Lloydetta ran Sharing Our Cultures by herself, going from school to school to meet with students and help them work toward showcasing their cultures at the annual event. “What I do, I do with all my heart,” she says. “Someone said, ‘compassion is feeling somebody else’s pain in your heart.’ I see some of the students struggling. They don’t have a lot of social networks when they are new here, and I feel that is important.”  

Sharing Our Culture’s annual program runs from September to March, culminating in a four day event in St. John’s with the first day open to the public and the remaining days attended by grade six students with 200 students per session. Sharing Our Cultures fits well with the grade six social studies curriculum that explores world cultures. “To be able to interact with someone from the culture you’re learning,” says Lloydetta, “it’s a lot better than learning from a textbook or watching a video.” 

Sharing Our Cultures has a partnership with St. John’s Memorial University that provides meeting space and workshops on presentation and time management skills. There are also mentorship opportunities for high school students who are matched with international students with similar cultural backgrounds. 

Today, the organization has eight part-time staff across Newfoundland and Labrador who are hired annually based on funding. Lloydetta remains the only full-time employee when there is sufficient funding, and volunteers her time when there isn’t funding. “What I do is not a solo job,” she says, explaining that it’s important to look to people with the necessary resources and expertise. “Bring people in who will help you find solutions and make the difference that you want to make,” she says. “Get people around you and share your heart with them, and if they catch the vision, you’ve got it made.”

In 2021, Sharing Our Cultures launched the social enterprise Impactful Gifts to provide high school students an opportunity to learn business, retail skills, and gain work experience to help them find a job. Through Impactful Gifts, high school students make and sell reusable bags at local markets, and the bags are also available for purchase online. Lloydetta hopes to expand the initiative and include local products in bags that could be distributed by corporations at conferences.   

The first cohort of students in the Impactful Gifts program graduated in September 2021. Lloydetta believes strongly in lifelong learning. “That has come back full circle for me because that is how I grew up. My parents were always learning and helping us see the value and importance of a good education,” she says. “That’s something that will always stay with me.” 

Meet Nisha Grewal, founder of luxury skincare line, Ambari Beauty.

Nisha Grewal

Nisha Grewal is the founder of Ambari Beauty, a Vancouver-based luxury skincare brand that blends ancient ingredients with modern innovation. Growing up in a proud Indo-Canadian home, Nisha and her family leaned into herbs, spices and adaptogens (healing herbs and mushrooms) for skin health benefits and pain relief. Seeing the added benefits of visits to medical spas, Nisha was inspired — she worked with a research team to create her line, combining clinical actives, smart adaptogens, and broad-spectrum oil. Launched in February 2021, in its first year Ambari Beauty built a loyal customer base across North America, landed Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman as retail partners, and Kourtney Kardashian as a fan. It’s now a multi-million dollar brand. 


My first job ever was… a kickboxing instructor and lifeguard.

I decided to be an entrepreneur because… I loved business and was passionate about product research and development.

I founded Ambari Beauty because… I wanted to create products that delivered instant professional-level results from the comfort of your home.

I’m passionate about skin care because… taking care of my skin helped to build my self-esteem and self-confidence. Being able to leave the facialist or derms office with glowing skin and no makeup on gave me a great sense of pride. I want my customers to feel just as proud of their skin after using our products.

My proudest accomplishment is… my formula, the Modern Blend, and all of the amazing feedback we’ve gotten about it from retailers, celebrities, and influencers. The Modern Blend combines smart adaptogens, clinical actives, and broad spectrum oil to give you overnight results.

My biggest setback was… launching Ambari during a global pandemic and trying to secure investments and retail distribution during a time when many brands were going out of business.

I overcame it by… showing how our unique value proposition of professional-level at home skincare served a growing consumer demand, and eventually securing retail distribution with two of America’s biggest luxury retailers, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus. 

“Learn as much as you can about whatever industry you’re trying to break into. That might mean taking on an internship, or getting a mentor. From there, it all comes down to long-term planning, hard work, and determination.”

My advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is… to learn as much as you can about whatever industry you’re trying to break into. That might mean taking on an internship, or getting a mentor. From there, it all comes down to long-term planning, hard work, and determination.

The thing I love most about what I do is… receiving messages from happy customers and seeing how my products have transformed their skin.

The most exciting moment for my business so far has been… partnering with Kourtney Kardashians brand, Poosh!

If I were to pick one thing that has helped me succeed, it would be… my work ethic, drive and dedication. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if my parents hadn’t instilled these values in me from an early age.

I stay inspired by… looking at other female entrepreneurs. I personally know how hard it can be to manage a business, be a mother, and find time for everything else in between. I respect strong females who are making a difference to shape their industries and act as role models for other young aspiring female entrepreneurs.

The future excites me because… it is full of new and exciting opportunities for growth!

My next step is… to expand Ambari’s product line into new markets internationally.

This entrepreneur followed her curiosity and built a skincare brand that’s now sold in over 500 stores.

Evelyne Nyairo

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.”

Meet Ashley Brewsmith, a renowned stylist with an inclusive and sustainable mission.

Ashley Brewsmith

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’s Shine 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).

Meet Rachael-Lea Rickards, founder of hilarious-to-heartwarming Real Talk Candles.

Rachael-Lea Rickards

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!

Meet Charlene Li, co-founder of EATABLE, a gourmet popcorn brand with Happy-Hour-inspired flavours.

Charlene Li

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 a good 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.

Meet Katie Derrick, founder of Fern & Petal, offering all-natural essential oils and bath products with a sustainability mission.

Katie Derrick

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 we personally 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!

Meet Erica Gilmour, co-founder of Hummingbird Chocolate, an ethical and sustainable bean-to-bar brand.

Erica Gilmour

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!

Meet Leigh Joseph, ethnobotanist and founder of Indigenous self care brand, Sḵwálwen Botanicals.

Leigh Joseph

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.

These food entrepreneurs went from their kitchen to national grocers while focusing on nutrition and sustainability.

Remix Snacks began in a home kitchen with an idea for a recipe and a desire to make a change in the industry. And while co-founders Jamie Lee and Isabelle Lam were cooking up their idea for nutritious and sustainable treats, they were also students in McGill University’s Bachelor of Nutritional Sciences, Dietetics program. 

“Through our education we recognized two gaps in the food and beverage industry. First was the lack of healthy snack options that contained protein and fiber, and the second was the amount of food waste being produced by this industry,” Jamie explains. “When Isabelle and I chatted about wanting to start a business, we agreed that anything we developed had to focus on nutrition and environmental sustainability.” 

At the time, their idea was more of a project than a business plan. “We thought it would be fun to start a business, but we never imagined that it would take off in the way it has,” Isabelle says. 

In 2018, Jamie and Isabelle, who were roommates at the time, started playing around with recipes for a trail mix product that would contain dehydrated beans, fruit, and chocolate. “Beans were new in snack foods at the time, but they had a great nutritional profile with protein, fiber, and iron,” Isabelle said. 

In class, they learned that 58 percent of food produced in Canada is wasted and 45 percent of that comes from imperfect produce. Eager to solve this issue, Jamie and Isabelle decided that their product would use upcycled fruit – the stuff with bumps and bruises that often finds its way to the landfill. “In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves,” Jamie recalls.

“In the early stages we’d go to farmer’s markets and ask to purchase the items they typically couldn’t sell, and then we’d take them home, cut them up, and dehydrate them ourselves.”

Being students at McGill helped Isabelle and Jamie access a few invaluable opportunities that propelled their project forward. They entered McGill’s start-up competition, Dobson Cup, and their snack idea won two innovation prizes which helped fund their first year of business. 

They also followed a lead to audition for a student themed episode of CBC’s Dragons’ Den, and not only did they get onto the show, they even received an offer from two of the Dragons on air. They later decided not to go through with the offer because they were at such an early stage of their start-up, and had found other forms of funding that allowed them to keep full ownership of the company, rather than giving over 35 percent.  

The early days of Remix were very hands-on, with Jamie and Isabelle doing everything themselves. They ordered packaging from amazon, designed a logo on Canva, printed stickers at a local print shop, and assembled snack bags one by one. Their friends were their taste-testers. 

Since then, the product has had 10 to 12 iterations, taking it from a homemade bag of trail mix to where it is today – professionally prepared and packaged chocolate bark made with dark chocolate, a proprietary black bean recipe, and upcycled fruit. 

Remix Snacks went from a home kitchen project to being produced in a commercial kitchen with a small production team to using a co-packer to do their manufacturing. The product was first sold in a few Montreal stores that the duo reached out to and managed directly and is now available across Quebec and Ontario in Loblaws, Metro, and some Sobeys stores. Despite their growth and plans to keep growing, they’ve stayed committed to their original values when it comes to sustainability. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of new challenges came up for Isabelle and Jamie, but overall, it has not deterred them. When the first lockdown hit, they were en route to a food expo. “We literally had to turn around after spending a night in the hotel, and forfeit the fee for that event,” they recall. “Everything changed after that.” 

“Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking — encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating.”

From there, the way they marketed their product began to shift. “Much of our sales came from interacting with buyers and customers and offering samples,” Isabelle says. “We had to pivot from in-person marketing to e-commerce, focusing on ads and social media – but we adapted.” 

With more people working from home and snacking on the rise, having a healthier option for chocolate with nutritional benefits proved to be a very good thing. “Since COVID, we have shifted our focus to mindful snacking – encouraging people to pause and take a break, tune in to their bodies, and focus on what they’re eating,” they explain. “This is something we really believe in, and it’s become our third mission after nutrition and the environment.”

They’ve used the same practice of mindfulness to grow their business, one step at a time, focusing on small actions to achieve results. And while it hasn’t always been easy, they’ve remained committed to making it work. 

“Within the food industry, many of the big players happen to be older, white men – and so coming in as young, Asian women was challenging in that we had to build a rapport and have the others believe that we were a business to be taken seriously, not just a student project,” Isabelle explains. “Thankfully, with COVID, there seems to be more support for women and BIPOC-led businesses like ours available. And we’ve been connected with some great grant programs willing to support us and give us that extra leverage.” 

Most recently, Remix Snacks was chosen as a recipient of a $10,000 grant through the BMO Celebrating Women Grant Program — an initiative that gave $120,000 in grant funding to 18 Canadian, women-owned businesses that are contributing to social, environmental, or economic sustainability outcomes. “We are so thankful for programs like this that have helped us fund and grow our business.” 

Another opportunity that came about during the pandemic was an accelerator led by York University’s YSpace to help Ontario business owners with products in the market to scale up rapidly during COVID. “Working with nine other companies all going through similar challenges as we were, helped us learn so much and answer so many questions as we continued to grow,” Jamie explains. 

“You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses — which can be hard in the age of social media — but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.”

Jamie also credits her dad’s entrepreneurial journey with providing inspiration for Remix Snacks. “My dad moved to Canada from Hong Kong and started a food company, and in a way, I feel like I’m walking in his footsteps. He’s always been a big mentor to me, and we’ve asked him a lot of questions along the way.” 

For other entrepreneurs looking to make a go of it, Jamie and Isabelle have lots of advice to share. “Don’t let fear get in the way, and don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Isabelle says. Jamie agrees, “Something we’ve come to learn and practice is that when an opportunity presents itself, there’s no harm in going for it, even if you’re not sure what will come about as a result.” 

And while they’re so thankful for all the advice they’ve been given along the way, they emphasize the importance of not getting too caught up with what others are doing. “You don’t want to worry about comparing yourself to other businesses – which can be hard in the age of social media – but rather, trust that it’s your own journey and you get to choose what’s best for your business.” 

Venture capitalist Brittany Davis is helping underestimated founders get funded.

Brittany Davis

If you ask Brittany Davis how she chose her career — she’s a General Partner at Backstage Capital, a venture fund investing exclusively in women, people of colour, and LGBTQ founders — she’ll point to the systemic barriers these entrepreneurs face in accessing capital. 

However, her origin story is a lot more personal.  

While doing her undergraduate business degree, Brittany completed an independent study project on Black Wall Streets: prosperous enclaves of Black Americans, served by and supporting Black-owned businesses. The one in Tulsa, Oklahoma was well known on account of its size (more than 35 square blocks, with hundreds of businesses) and its demise (The Black Wall Street Massacre, one of the worst race riots in the history of the United States, which had its 100th anniversary this year), but Brittany learned there were several Black Wall Streets operating in the early 20th century, including one in her home state of North Carolina.  

“The takeaway from the project was that we do need to have a concerted effort on funding,” says Brittany. “There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.” 

At the time, she wasn’t thinking specifically of venture capital — she knew about it structurally, but didn’t know anyone that had a career in the field — but saw the need for a separately managed pool of equity or debt-based financing for Black-owned businesses. She brought her pitch to Bank of America, where she ended up working for five years in a traditional finance role. 

Then, after earning an MBA from Harvard, Brittany launched her own startup building AI software for fashion ecommerce. Runway Technologies ultimately failed, but it sparked an interest in supporting other people’s visions — she kept meeting fellow founders of color that were struggling to get funded and felt compelled to help.

“There were a lot of Black business owners that had really thriving businesses, and they were able to get them up and running with that first infusion of capital. I wanted to be that person that could catalyze other businesses.”

“That’s when I was actually looking for roles in venture based on this diversity thesis. I was interviewing with a lot of mainstream funds. Just coming out of Harvard Business School, I had a company, I worked in finance, I also spent some time in tech. These are all of the things that I’m explaining that I can do. I have that background, but what’s going to make me unique is that I’m bringing a lens of let’s invest in more women and people of color,” explains Brittany. “I interviewed quite a bit without finding a real landing. Most VCs I did not hear back from after I explained, ‘This is what I’m trying to focus on at your fund.’”

It was a long road. Brittany interviewed for about five months, eventually finding her way in by focusing less on big, traditional funds and moving to more early stage investments. Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, had a similar story. “The reason she started the fund was that she could not find a job in venture, even as an apprentice” says Brittany. In fact, she sent over 100 emails applying to apprenticeship roles, and got no’s from all of them. “Her road was actually trying to find a job.”

Brittany first met Arlan in 2016, when they were both on the judging panel for a Black founder’s pitch competition. At the time, Brittany was working at a fund called Village Capital. Though her role didn’t have an explicit diversity lens, their model allowed for a personal focus on finding and investing in more women and people of color. 

Arlan, on the other hand, was just getting started with Backstage Capital, which she had launched in September of 2015. “I’d heard about this woman putting together funds for underrepresented founders,” says Brittany, “but this was Arlan before she started doing public speaking. She was very reserved and quiet.” 

At the end of the competition, Arlan ended up investing in the top five founders. It was a lightbulb moment for Brittany.  

“I thought I had to do it within funds, and then to see how her approach was, ‘Let me actually get some funds and do it myself,’ I was like, ‘Okay, that fast forwards my plan of having to work for years and years and see if I can change the industry from the inside,’” explains Brittany. “I remember thinking, one way or another I’m going to find a way to work with this woman, because this is exactly what I’m doing.”

That opportunity came in early 2018. Arlan was looking to build out the investment team, and she brought Brittany on as Head of Deal Flow. In a typical venture firm, a lot of that role would be finding new companies to invest in. At Backstage, the deals were coming to them. In addition to having built a strong brand and presence in the ecosystem, Backstage had launched open applications for investment through a form on their site. It was a groundbreaking idea within venture, explains Brittany, because the model had always been that you had to network your way in. 

Over a thousand founders applied. Brittany oversaw that inbound deal flow — not only managing the investing that Arlan wasn’t doing herself, but also figuring out how to build a framework that captured the way Arlan thinks about investing, so that Backstage could scale beyond its original founder. 

“I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.” 

“She explained some of her first investments, and how she thought about deals,” says Brittany. “I was really passionate about figuring out how to take those unique things that I loved — a lot of the investing that Arlan was doing was a lot of the same companies that I would have invested in — and create a basic framework that other people could learn and adopt, but with the freedom to bring in their own perspective.” 

Using the criteria she identified, Brittany and her team went from seeing about 450 companies to investing in five. Her next big project, the Backstage Accelerator, added another 24 companies to the portfolio. Launched in the spring of 2019, the 12-week development program worked with founders in four cities — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, and London — to help build their community and network and prepare them for future investment. 

“The core of our thesis is investing early with underrepresented founders, so that we can catalyze their progress in getting additional capital,” explains Brittany, adding that they’ve been the first investor for over half their portfolio. “A lot of times we’re catching them before they have something to really evaluate in a quantitative sense; a lot of it is thinking about future potential.”

That means their investing framework must be less metrics-driven (x number of users, or x dollars of revenue, for example). The evaluation used by early-stage funds often includes criteria like who is on the team, what’s the potential market size, and what makes the product unique. Many investors also use pattern matching, which means looking for similarities with founders that have already been successful, such as the schools they went to or the companies they worked at. 

“When you hear the term pattern matching, it’s always usually looking for that Mark Zuckerberg type,” says Brittany. “That’s just going to get you more of the same. Arlan used to say she pattern matched for grit.”

So, Brittany added grit into their scorecard, which enabled recognition for what the founders had accomplished with the limited resources they’d had. She even added that gut feeling — the spark or connection with a founder — because it was something Arlan often described when talking about her investments. 

“We’re really talking about some of this stuff because for a lot of our founders, the journey can be a long one, especially not getting adequate resources,” says Brittany. “We look for where they can push past those things, and the founders that have done the best in our portfolio essentially have demonstrated a lot of that grit. I was trying to build that into how we think about investing so that we’re not just using the same standard metrics. We’re using something very specific to Backstage, and so it’s authentic to us.”

“Yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”

Creating a scalable version of Arlan’s investing process was foundational for Backstage — but it was just the beginning. Brittany wants to build a firm, not just a single fund, and ultimately enable more people to get involved in venture.

“I think that’s core to the end outcome of getting more resources to the founders,” she says. “That’s something that I’m always thinking about and was passionate about to begin with in my career. I have seen that journey through Backstage, and yes, we really are just getting started. There’s a lot of work we can do to help diversify who’s investing and who gets investment.”

The work they’ve already done to provide access, resources, and education for people who are interested in investing has been varied, from sharing lessons through Arlan’s book, It’s About Damn Time, to offering an introductory course on Investing as a Catalyst, to helping with a Harvard Business School case study that, in Brittany’s own words, sends a message to the world about who business leaders are and who they can be. In October they launched a pilot Apprenticeship Program, bringing on 20 would-be investors for a three-month stint working with the investment team on deal flow review, as well as being taught the Backstage philosophy on investing, how to build a fund from scratch, and more. 

Their biggest effort, however, came earlier this year, in the form of a crowdfund. Recognizing the need for operational capital — Backstage now supports 180 companies — as well as the potential of an engaged community that understood the importance of their work, they saw an opportunity to not only bring in resources, but also to further their mission of exposing a broader group to venture capital investing.  

Typically, a fund raises capital from accredited investors, which limits the pool to about 2% of the wealthiest individuals. In 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) brought in a rule called Reg CF, or Regulation Crowdfunding, that opened the door to non-accredited investors. In their first crowdfunding round, Backstage reached the max of $1 million in about eight hours — the fastest equity raise ever on Republic, the investing platform they worked with. In March, the SEC changed the rules of Reg CF to allow for up to $5 million annually, so they opened it up again. A total of 6,755 investors — Brittany included — purchased the equity available, the majority of whom had never invested in venture or private companies before. 

“That was the best way to share a piece of what we’re doing with the people who really want to help build the organization that we have,” says Brittany. “Then they in turn get a lot of exposure to venture. Long-term, hopefully, they’re getting a return on this too, and I believe that they will, but I do think the huge benefit is the exposure to venture.” 

And that is the long game — a more inclusive population investing will result in more inclusive investment, whatever the source. On that front, things are looking up: Since Backstage launched a little over six years ago, several other funds with a diversity-focused mission have entered the space (over 70 in the US, by Harlem Capital’s count), and they often come with a collaborative attitude — which all serves to reduce the time of getting resources to founders.

In the broader venture capital ecosystem, Brittany says the biggest change over the last few years has been a growing awareness of and conversation around the issues that underrepresented founders face. “One thing that’s helping is data points. I’m seeing a lot more of the numbers being shared,” she says. “I couldn’t actually point to the lack of venture capital in dollars for different demographic groups when I was starting.”

I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.” 

There’s also more data on the opportunity cost, whether that’s studies highlighting the benefits of diverse leadership teams, or estimations of the amount of money being left on the table (according to Morgan Stanley, the inequity in funding for multicultural and women business owners is costing the US about $4.4 trillion in GDP annually). 

“It hasn’t fully moved the needle on the outcomes. Black founders still get less than 2% of venture capital; women founders are the same,” Brittany points out. I still think we have a ways to go with creating that real fear that you’re missing out if you’re doing what you did 5, 10 years ago — which is just looking around you, most likely at people in similar networks, similar schools, similar demographics as you.” 

Brittany believes the missing piece for more traditional VCs is representation at the success level, which would essentially create the opportunity for a new pattern match. “But I want people to understand what it takes to get to the Mark Zuckerberg point. If you’re not getting resources early on, it’s really hard to get there.” 

Simply put, these underrepresented, underestimated, and underfunded founders have a longer road to returns compared to those who haven’t faced the same barriers. 

“The timeline might not be the same, but I think the outcomes could actually exceed some of the businesses that are getting more funding,” says Brittany. “It’s just that there is a bit of time for them to get the capital and get to work. There’s a starting runway that you need that these companies didn’t have.”  

That leaves a chicken and egg situation; the founders need proven success to get mainstream funding, and they need funding to achieve big success. So, what happens in the meantime? 

“You have people like Arlan who are saying, ‘I can do this, and whether you believe it or not, I’m going to take the steps and prove a thesis.’ She’s doing the things that a lot of people told her she couldn’t do,” says Brittany. “Being successful with what we have, I think we’ve proven a lot.”


Meet Leora Barak: from multilingual interpreter to nutritional therapist

For Leora Barak, growing up in three different countries was most definitely not easy. She remembers the difficulties of having to adapt to a new culture and to a new language every time she moved. But looking back, this only made her respect and appreciate people of all backgrounds and their particular ways of life. It also expanded her knowledge and love of languages. And so, the ease to learn languages became her strength, and part of her journey. From interpreting to diplomatic officials and vicious criminals in court, language training became part of her life. She then went on to have a family and three children. When one of her children became ill, her path took a different turn. She returned to school to study nutrition and its power on healing chronic disease. Today, as a reputable and well respected Nutritional Therapist, she works out of three clinic locations in Toronto, guiding, teaching and helping others discover that ‘Food is Medicine.’ She proudly offers her services in five different languages.


My first job was… a salesperson at a bathroom fixture & tiles store.

I decided to be a Nutritionist because… In 2010, one of my daughters started experiencing serious gastrointestinal issues. After months and months of seeing her suffer from severe pain, we were told that the next step would be “aggressive” medications and, eventually, surgery. As I was not yet willing to take that route, we decided to explore natural medicine a bit further and so adopted a nutritional protocol into her life. To my surprise, within a few short weeks, she started getting better and her improved symptoms slowly became more consistent. We were overjoyed, but what astounded me most was how simple, everyday foods could have such a significant impact on her improvement. I had suddenly realized that the starting point to her healing was right in my own kitchen. I knew that I had to ‘pay it forward’ and help others understand the power of food. And so I decided to go back to school and went on to complete an intensive program at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition. And so, today, here I am. I feel blessed to be able to provide my clients with the understanding and use of proper nutrition combined with appropriate lifestyle/mindset changes and stress-reducing techniques as a means to address health concerns and even, heal disease.

My proudest accomplishment is… without a doubt, my family.

My boldest move to date was… at 19, when my parents decided to move back to Brazil and I decided to stay in Canada all by myself. I lived under difficult conditions, struggled to fend for myself and my mental health suffered tremendously. Somehow, with the help of amazing and supportive friends, I made it through.

I surprise people when I tell them…that I’m an introvert. My time alone is precious.

My best advice from a mentor was… from my first boss, who became my second mother and my best friend. She taught me that overthinking doesn’t get you anywhere. She also taught me that to be truly successful in business, you must stay authentic and humble.


“The future excites me because it’s unknown. My whole life I had to learn to adapt and I trust that, whatever comes my way, I’ll manage.”


To me, nutrition is… the strongest weapon we have and the first line of defence against chronic disease.  

I would tell my 21-year-old self… that it’s not about that exam that you failed at 19, or that tropical vacation you would take at 25, or that trendy outfit you would wear at 35. It’s about the people who will have the most impact on your life, the lessons they teach you, the memories you will make with them, your accomplishments and the legacy you will leave behind. And, yes, you will find the love of your life, and you will get married.

The most fulfilling thing about my job is… when someone tells me that they haven’t been able to get out of bed for months and that I gave them their life back…

The hardest thing about my job is… each of my clients becomes a mission for me. When I focus on their personalized health plans, I sometimes forget my limits and can sometimes sit and research for hours until I find the best, most sustainable solutions for them. It almost becomes an obsession and it sometimes gets in the way of my family life. I know I need to keep reminding myself of my boundaries. But, to no avail — I have to give it my all, that’s just who I am.

I stay inspired by… the power of nature — it absolutely fascinates me. Notice how nature is so patient and yet everything gets accomplished.

If I had an extra hour in the day, I would… bake more and walk more.

Through it all, I’ve learned that… even in the most unpredictable moments of life, we do, at the very least, have autonomy over our health. In spite of the ups and downs, the good and bad days, the perfect and imperfect moments, if we try to eat well and stay active, think positively and learn to relax, create and maintain healthy social connections, we may just have a better chance of growing old gracefully. And when we do, let us embrace old age and remember that the lines and wrinkles on our ageing face are there because of the people that we’ve met and the places that we’ve been along the way. They tell a story. They’re what makes us, us.

The future excites me because… it’s unknown. My whole life I had to learn to adapt and I trust that, whatever comes my way, I’ll manage.

My next step is… getting a group of women in their 50’s together, women who have accomplished much in their lives, tackling a variety of topics together relating to women’s health and wellness, inspiring and empowering one another. After all, we, women, need to stick together.