Lesson 1: FACING YOUR FEAR IS YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH
When Musemo (Mo) Handahu lost her full-time job in 2010, it pushed her to pivot from employee to entrepreneur. Within a year, this former HR consultant had expanded her side hustle (a line of clutch purses), opened an online store and launched fashion/lifestyle blog The Lion Hunter. The blog was like a fairy godmother for this real-life Cinderella: faster than you could say Bippity-Boppity- Boo, Handahu was well on her way to being a digital content strategist and seriously popular fashion influencer. Today, she has almost 43K Instagram followers (on par with Hilary Farr, the tough talking co-host of HGTV Canada’s Love It or List It), was named one of Canada’s Best Dressed by The Globe & Mail in 2017, and has covered South Africa Fashion Week and Cape Town Fashion Week for Essence Magazine.
Despite what her bold blog name suggests, Handahu confesses that it was launched with the confidence of a lamb (and that lion hunter is literally the translation of her last name). “I was definitely scared when I started blogging. My first shoot was in my apartment and elevator. I wasn’t ballsy enough to shoot outside yet. I was still working on my self-esteem and I wasn’t ready for all those eyeballs to be on me.”
Asked about challenges she’s faced, she says she’s had to deal with social hang-ups about her being “a woman, fat, a woman of colour and African.” And while those attitudes have hurt (“it still hurts and will always hurt”), she says she’s gotten to the point where “the hurt is monumentally outweighed by my desire to ride this sucker ‘til the wheels fall off, to be the best role model I can be and to create a life that’s happier than my Instagram feed.”
“Being a blogger partly saved me, and partly helped me be my best self.”
Lesson 2: IDENTIFY THE HOLE IN THE (CHEESE) MARKET AND FILL IT
After resigning from her high stress UN job at 61 but not yet ready to retire, Lyndell Findlay’s thoughts turned to… cheesemaking. She’d been interested in it for a while, but had never done anything about it. Perhaps, she thought, the time was ripe for her to follow the fromage.
A series of fortuitous events saw her interning with Brian Schlatter of Canal Junction Farms in Ohio for four months during the summer of 2012. Concurrent to that, she took a number of courses at the University of Vermont Cheese Institute. “By the end of the summer, I not only had the four months of intensive experience, I also had the technical and theoretical cheesemaking knowledge, the chemistry and so on, from the courses.”
The internship gave her practical experience making eight different types of cheese. Ironically, none of them was the one cheese she felt compelled to make, the one she had discovered wasn’t being made by any of the other local cheese makers in Nova Scotia: blue cheese.
Recognizing that many people say they hate blue cheese because of its robust flavour, Findlay believed she could win them over with a very mild, creamy version before introducing them to other variations. “I thought people could be educated a little bit about how wonderful blue cheeses are and how diverse they can be.”
Decision made, Findlay used her savings to buy a cottage in downtown Halifax and began a nine-month renovation needed to turn its 1,900 sq. ft. into an urban cheese manufacturing plant. A bonus of the extensive renovation was that it gave her the time to learn how to make artisanal blue cheese. “I was making cheese at home in my kitchen, doing test batches of two kilos at a time and experimenting. I did test, after test, after test until I finally got a cheese that I was satisfied with.” She also used that time to prepare her marketing materials and find customers who’d be interested in her high end product.
Findlay’s first cheese sold in January 2014 and it was a quick hit with Maritime palettes. She’s had exponential year-over-year growth and expanded outside her Halifax cottage via a federally licensed cheesemaker in New Brunswick who makes her product for her under license. Now she’s taking it a step further: Findlay is in the process of building her own federally-licensed processing plant, which means Blue Harbour Cheese will be available across Canada in 2019.
Lesson 3: BEING PASSIONATE MAKES FOR THIRSTY CUSTOMERS
Sonja Mills and her wife, Alicia MacDonald, were living in Nova Scotia when that province’s craft beer scene really started to boom—and they loved it. Mills says visiting the various breweries and trying different ales was one of their favorite activities. So much so that Alicia began making her own home brew and volunteering with some of the established commercial breweries.
When they made a physical move to Newfoundland in 2015 to be closer to Mills’ family (she’s originally from Clarenville), they transitioned careers as well. Though Mills had been working as a lawyer and MacDonald as a nurse practitioner, they say they were entrepreneurs at heart. And their entrepreneurial instincts were telling them that Newfoundland was untapped territory.
Getting started, however, was easier said than done: regulations, taxes and building permits were a struggle for government departments and agencies that hadn’t dealt with a craft brewery in their area before. The capital city region had had Yellowbelly, Quidi Vidi and Storm breweries for over a decade, but there wasn’t anything like that in Clarenville. Still, Mills and MacDonald persevered and Port Rexton Brewing was born—to the eternal gratitude of thirsty locals and visitors alike.
Mills says she and MacDonald were “pleasantly surprised” by the appetite for their products, and give some of the credit for their success to the aforementioned predecessors. Those businesses, says Mills, had introduced Newfoundlanders to craft brews and people were excited to try something new. “Craft beer in general is exciting to people who have not really tried other beers before, but they’re interested in this new wave of breweries as a thing to do—to come and check out the brewery and the taproom and so on.”
The buzz has been building: from social media and high end restaurants to their seasonal taproom in Port Rexton and year-round retail store in St. John’s, Port Rexton Brewery’s cup runneth over. What are they planning to brew up next? Building a new facility in their diminutive 350-resident rural community is high on their wish list.
As it was in the beginning, however, the secret ingredient continues to be Mills’ and MacDonald’s passion for the business. While there are nine products available on a regularly rotating basis, this innovative duo continues to thirst for new flavours and styles. This year, they even collaborated with Split Rock Brewing Company in Twillingate, N.L. to create Next Generation, a reportedly thirst-quenching double dry-hopped saison. “You will have something different from us every month at least,” promises Mills.
Lesson 4: THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH RESEARCH
Try to imagine the complexity of the regulatory hurdles that come with being a novice producer for the medical cannabis industry. Now layer it with the responsibilities inherent in overseeing a subsidiary R&D company developing proprietary aquaponic technology that ensures your production methods use less water and less energy than your competitors. Just for fun, toss in an intricate checklist of requirements for achieving Clean Green Certification—proof of your reduced carbon footprint and organic production. And don’t forget an overall corporate commitment to supply the local market, while also fielding interest from European clients. Finally, ensure that patient-focused values and vision are inherent in all that you do. Conquer all of that, and you’ll begin to understand what Myrna Gillis has accomplished with Aqualitas Inc.
Gillis credits her experience as a lawyer for enabling her to build the business she helped found (her official title is CEO). “The fact that I have the critical thinking skills to be able to not only make my way through the regulations but also interpret those regulations in a way that can anticipate what the regulator is looking for, even when they don’t necessarily put it in black and white,” has, she says, been “very helpful.”
Helpful is an understatement. Since its launch in 2014, Aqualitas has captured considerable attention from the international investment community. Almost six million dollars worth of attention, to be exact—and that’s just from Arcview, the largest deal flow network of accredited investors in the cannabis industry in North America. Then there’s the other $25-million-plus from efficiency rebates, carbon exemptions, nonconventional financing, National Research Council funding and clean energy awards. Bottom line? It pays to do your homework.