Summit – Building businesses with a conscience: alumni marketplace

Building businesses with a conscience

Alumni marketplace

Words by Valerie Berenyi
Photos by Chao zhang, christina riches, mike poon

With a median age of 36.7, Alberta is Canada’s most youthful province. And according to the government of Canada’s 2016 Key Small Business Statistics document, we also have the most small- and medium-sized businesses.

In this leading-edge environment, it’s no wonder many Mount Royal University graduates are opting to start their own enterprises. Meet four local entrepreneurs who are thriving on their own terms by incorporating sustainability and a commitment to community into their business plans, all while contributing to a diversifying economy.

Facing the elements

honubelle.com

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Our mission is to create an empowered feeling of freedom and contentment just like you get when riding the wind and the waves.

“When I started wearing swimwear that made me feel sporty and sexy, it helped me embrace not just my body, but my uniqueness and the person I am. The confidence stays with me and I apply it to how I hold myself in everyday life.”

— Julia Barnes

Alumna Julia Barnes is making a splash with Honubelle, a swimwear brand dedicated to women who love wind and water sports. Barnes graduated from MRU in 2006 with a Bachelor of Business Administration — Accounting, and says being part of that program “gave me the tools I needed and opened my world to doing this.”

Barnes grew up windsurfing and is part of an avid outdoor community in Calgary that goes kiteboarding and surfing (rivers and oceans) whenever possible. A creative person, she started Honubelle in her spare time in 2009, melding her twin passions of water sports and fashion.

“When I got to go to Maui for the first time — it was in 2008 when my husband and I got married there — I saw these incredibly talented, strong and graceful windsurfing women, who wore little bikinis and walked with such pride and power that it became clear to me, it was them who I wanted to be like.”

Barnes researched how to manufacture swimwear and rash guards on contract with a company in Bali, and launched her first collection in 2014.

“When I started wearing swimwear that made me feel sporty and sexy, it helped me embrace not just my body, but my uniqueness and the person I am. The confidence stays with me and I apply it to how I hold myself in everyday life.”

“When I started wearing swimwear that made me feel sporty and sexy, it helped me embrace not just my body, but my uniqueness and the person I am. The confidence stays with me and I apply it to how I hold myself in everyday life.”

— Julia Barnes

Honubelle is sold online and in shops. Barnes will also accept appointments for personal consultations. Made from sustainable Econyl, a fabric spun from regenerated nylon waste such as fishing nets, and knitted with stretchy Lycra, the suits are highly durable and sunscreen and chlorine resistant. “(The fabric) has a nice, soft feel on the skin, with better shape retention,” Barnes says, adding the high-quality garments last for years, thereby reducing waste. Pieces can be mixed and matched to help reduce consumerism.

She sees Honubelle as a tool to help women feel strong and confident and tackle unrealistic body standards. Her online catalogue features regular women and athletes as models. “My swimwear is for anyone. You don’t have to be a certain size or shape to wear it.”

After a few years, Honubelle finally became a full-time business. “Funding is always a challenge, especially for the product/makers sector. You need to have funds to pay for product before you put it on the market.”

That said, she believes the province has become “more vibrant” with small businesses and makers. “Small businesses are more limber and creative and can address gaps in the market more quickly. They also keep the rest of Canada and the world interested in Alberta.”

crafting jewelry with a purpose

Alora.ca

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Each piece of jewelry Alora makes improves our people and our world, from the materials and labour all the way to the proceeds.

“My dream was to be master of my own destiny, do my own thing and not work Fridays. It’s also a dream to be able to create meaningful jewelry that people enjoy wearing.”

— Jameela Ghann

Much like the parts of a bracelet, Alora, a Calgary-based jewelry company, is linked to family, MRU and the community.

While she was still at university, alumna Jameela Ghann, who graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration — General Management in 2011, and her mother Emilyn Ghann — also a Mount Royal grad (1984) — took a jewelry-making class together and began handcrafting earrings, bracelets and necklaces from recycled glass beads and brass.

“People started wanting to buy our things,” Ghann says. “It grew organically from a hobby into a business.”

Around the same time, Ghann met her future husband, Peter Njongwe, a computer science grad (2013), in MRU’s old library. “I guess that’s dating ourselves,” she says with a laugh, adding that her parents also met on campus “back in the day” when Mount Royal was a college.

Ghann initially worked in insurance, but after having the first of two daughters she decided she didn’t want to return to her job. “That was not going to work for the kind of lifestyle I wanted,” she laughs.

“My dream was to be master of my own destiny, do my own thing and not work Fridays. It’s also a dream to be able to create meaningful jewelry that people enjoy wearing.”

— Jameela Ghann

In 2013, Alora co-owners Ghann, her mother and her husband turned their kitchen-table hobby into a full-fledged business, one that now supports her family. Mostly wholesale, Alora sells to 70 stores in Canada and 10 in the U.S., with a plan to be in 125 stores in total by the end of 2018. They also market online and at events.

The company salvages brass from estate sales and old doorknobs, and sources recycled glass beads handmade by women in Ghana, the West African country where Ghann’s now-deceased father came from. Five per cent of every sale goes to help women transition out of poverty and homelessness. Alora also creates limited editions, donating $10 from each original item to organizations such as the Women in Need Society. And they provide free jewelry workshops to clients at women-focused charities.

Ghann describes small business as Alberta’s “economic engine,” one that brings innovative products and services, diversity and interest to market. There are headaches, but numerous rewards, too. Ghann loves it when customers tell her they wear her jewelry when they want to feel powerful and courageous.

Alora, or “my dream” in the central African language of Bantu, is an appropriate name.

“My dream was to be master of my own destiny, do my own thing and not work Fridays,” Ghann says. “It’s also a dream to be able to create meaningful jewelry that people enjoy wearing.”

Flying the YYC banner

locallaundry.ca

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The driving force behind Local Laundry has always been about building community and having a positive impact on that community.

“I’m taking what I’ve learned here [at Local Laundry], from MRU and at ATB, and offering strategies and advice to new entrepreneurs.”

— Dustin Paisley

Mount Royal University alumnus Dustin Paisley got a head start at learning how to build a business even before graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration — General Management in 2015.

During his time at MRU, Paisley made his mark as student entrepreneur-in-residence with the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As president of Enactus, a global organization of student entrepreneurs who address social issues with business solutions, he spearheaded a successful financial literacy program to help former sex workers, in turn garnering grants from ATB Financial. For MRU’s JMH LaunchPad Pitch Competition he developed a completely inflatable tent (mattress and poles, too), upping the camping comfort quotient by a large margin.

Then Paisley met Connor Curran, who had the idea of making T-shirts to show their deep appreciation of living in Calgary. Together they started Local Laundry, a community-building clothing company, in October 2015.

Their first T-shirt design, the letters YYC divided by an X with a graphic of two mountains beneath it, is cleverly simple and very popular. Their second collection was developed using CAN for Canada. Now, nearly three years later, the lifestyle brand’s product line includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, toques and other forms of streetwear, all 100 per cent Canadian-made.

The Giving Toque is extra special. For every toque sold, Local Laundry donates another one to area homeless shelters. So far, nearly 700 have been given to those in need.

“I’m taking what I’ve learned here [at Local Laundry], from MRU and at ATB, and offering strategies and advice to new entrepreneurs.”

— Dustin Paisley

Each month, 10 per cent of the company’s profits go to a charity chosen by Local Laundry customers, who can nominate and vote on which one gets the donation. They have given away more than $15,000 across Canada so far.

Curran works full time as CEO and the company’s public face, and manages relationships with 12 wholesale partners in five provinces. Paisley is “chief laundry operator,” responsible for the financial systems and the never-ending worries of cash flow. He’s part time with Local Laundry, juggling those responsibilities alongside a full-time job with ATB Financial as an entrepreneur strategist.

“I’m taking what I’ve learned here [at Local Laundry], from MRU and at ATB, and offering strategies and advice to new entrepreneurs,” Paisley says.

Local Laundry has two other part-time employees, both graduates of MRU’s public relations program. Briare Crawford tackles social media and Kathleen Smiley is devoted to building community.

Local Laundry’s gear has been spotted everywhere from Australia (Aussies are big fans) to the base camp at Mount Everest, and Paisley is happy to be getting Calgary’s name out there. And, as a small-business owner, he’s proud to be contributing to YYC’s prosperity and diversification.

brewing An aromatic adventure

calgaryheritageroastingco.com

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From left, Jamie Parker and Mike Wenzlawe

It’s time you tasted coffee as wild as you are.

“Our company is a means to foster connections and genuine opportunities that have a lasting impact for those involved.”

— Mike Wenzlawe

Mike Wenzlawe’s path to co-owning a craft coffee-roasting business is best described as organic.

A former member of the national water polo team, Wenzlawe is a nature lover and alumnus of MRU’s ecotourism and outdoor leadership program, graduating in 2013 with a Bachelor of Health and Physical Education. He has journeyed widely, plus worked in the travel industry and as a wildland firefighter in Alberta. But it all came together during a hunting trip to the Willmore Wilderness Park in the Rockies near Jasper.

There, as his firefighting buddy (and co-founder) Jamie Parker, who also attended Mount Royal, roasted some coffee beans over a campfire, a business idea began to percolate. Nothing tastes better than coffee in the wilderness, so they decided to try to re-create that experience in the city.

With no experience or capital, the friends agreed to start with e-commerce, and launched the Calgary Heritage Roasting Company (CHRC) website in November 2015. Today, the lifestyle-branded enterprise is thriving.

CHRC specializes in roasting high-quality, premium craft coffee beans as well as retailing green unroasted coffee beans for DIYers. They also look to give back to the wilderness they love through the Tall Timber roast, a collaboration with TreeEra that plants one tree for every bag sold.

“Our company is a means to foster connections and genuine opportunities that have a lasting impact for those involved.”

— Mike Wenzlawe

Additional revenue streams include selling wholesale to restaurants and retailers who source locally such as Community Natural Foods, Sunterra Market, Blush Lane and most recently Calgary Co-op. Presently, CHRC are operating a pop-up coffee shop in collaboration with UNDRCARD Boxing Studio to gain experience running a retail storefront. This knowledge will be valuable as they work towards opening their flagship roaster and coffee shop located in the historic C.C. Snowdon Building in Ramsay in early 2019, when they will finally live out and manifest the tangible experience that sparked their passion for coffee.

The environment and community are infused into CHRC. For example, to encourage urbanites to develop an appreciation for exploring nature, CHRC runs Bubba’s Buds, a program that trades bags of coffee for blog posts about personal outdoor adventures. Bubba is the grizzly bear on the company’s logo.

“We’re trying to build resources of places to go, get people out there and build community,” Wenzlawe says, who is a past-president of MRU’s Outdoor Adventure Club.

“We have always been drawn to the idea of legacy. Our company is a means to foster connections and genuine opportunities that have a lasting impact for those involved.

“We are so thankful for taking the leap into entrepreneurship. It is truly the most rewarding decision we have ever made.”

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