3 female founders share their plant-based journeys — and their tips
3 female founders share their plant-based journeys — and their tips
Meet the passionate salesperson, the risktaker and the innovator. ‘Just start. Just do it.’
By Keri Sweetman
Women-led small and medium businesses are “on the cusp of a great breakout” in Canada, according to a 2019 report from Visa called The State of Canadian Women’s Entrepreneurship.
At present, only about 16 per cent of Canadian SMBs are owned by women. But those businesses already contribute $148 billion annually and employ 1.5 million Canadians, says Start-Up Canada.
In May, the federal government announced a $5-billion Women Entrepreneurship Strategy aimed at doubling the number of women-owned businesses by 2025.
The plant-protein industry is one of the fastest-growing agri-food sectors in Canada, offering plenty of opportunities for female – and male – entrepreneurs. To encourage that conversation, Plant Protein Alliance of Alberta held a webinar with three female founders as part of Small Business Week.
Below, meet the three prairie entrepreneurs who have very unique journeys.
Ten years ago, Hailey Jeffries hardly knew a fava bean from a jelly bean.
Now she can talk your head off about the fava bean’s nutritional value, the fact that it’s high in protein and fibre, and especially about its unique characteristic – it doesn’t taste ‘beany’ when milled into flour or added to recipes.
She wants to make fava a darling of the plant-protein industry on Canada’s prairies. That’s why she founded Prairie Fava three years ago in Glenboro, Man., 45 minutes southeast of Brandon.
The young company has been so successful, it has attracted the attention of Protein Industries Canada and the French company Roquette, which will partner with Prairie Fava on a $19.2-million project to increase fava bean processing and development on the prairies. “It’s incredible to have that validation, that major players in the marketplace see fava as a big part of the future,” says Jeffries.
Jeffries, who grew up in Brandon, always knew she wanted to run a business. That desire took her to Toronto for a business degree at George Brown College, followed by her first sales job at a medical device company.
Her husband Cale, who she met in high school, had also gone east for his education, studying agricultural economics at University of Guelph. Initially, they planned to stay in Ontario, but the lure of home became too strong. They returned to Manitoba in 2014 so Cale could join the fifth-generation family farm.
“Glenboro, Manitoba is not the ideal place for a corporate sales rep,” Jeffries laughs, “so it was a huge career change for me. It was a great opportunity for Cale’s career but what was I going to do?”
While Jeffries was exploring her options, her mother became ill with ovarian cancer, and suddenly “health and wellness and nutrition became really important to me,” she says. She began looking for healthier food options and alternative protein sources for her mother. Cale mentioned that local farmers were interested in growing more fava beans but they didn’t have a consistent market.
A light went off in her head and Jeffries started doing market research on fava beans. By 2017, Prairie Fava was in business, processing locally grown fava beans, aiming initially at the bulk and ingredient market. With a team of seven employees and contractors, they now sell bulk whole beans, split beans and wholesale fava flour across North America, with some export sales to Japan, Vietnam and Belgium. (Sadly, Jeffries’ mother passed away before she could see the success of Prairie Fava.)
The young company is eying the consumer market and hopes to have fava flour, dry pizza crust mix and other pantry ingredients available online before the end of the year. The timing is earlier than Jeffries originally envisioned, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot more people are baking and cooking at home, she says, and they’re looking for healthy ingredients, higher in fibre and protein, but with no compromise on the flavour side. Prairie Fava’s flour is also grain- and gluten-free.
Jeffries is the majority owner of the company, although she has received financial support (in exchange for an equity share) from District Ventures, a business accelerator program run by Calgary business leader Arlene Dickinson. Financing has not been an issue so far. “We are very lucky to live in a country that is so supportive of women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs, in general, especially in the agriculture and food space. There are so many great programs and resources – it’s just a matter of navigating them.”
Asked about advice for other would-be entrepreneurs, Jeffries offers her “three Ps.”
“Find something you’re passionate about and want to make a difference with. If you’re passionate, it will fuel you to be persistent, because you have to be persistent. There’s a lot of ups but there’s also a lot of downs.
“And be patient with yourself and your business. Things take time. Trust me, I’m saying these words to you now, but I actively preach them to myself. Nothing worthwhile comes easy.”
When Angela Oladiwura arrived in Regina from the U.K. in 2014, her plan was pretty simple: Finish her maternity leave, then find an engineering job in the oil and gas industry in Saskatchewan.
With a chemical engineering undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in petroleum engineering from two top London universities, plus 10 years of experience in the industry in England and Scotland, she was confident it wouldn’t take her long to find a job in Canada. Then world oil prices plunged 70 per cent and the industry went into a two-year tailspin, shedding tens of thousands of jobs.
It was almost impossible to get an engineering job. “So I sat back and basically looked at the opportunities around me in Saskatchewan and I looked at what I was passionate about,” says Oladiwura.
That passion turned out to be healthy food, driven by her own experience and family history. When she was pregnant with her daughter in London, she developed gestational diabetes, not surprising considering her family’s predisposition to the disease. Throughout her pregnancy, Oladiwura struggled to find staple foods that were low in carbohydrates to help manage her blood glucose levels.
In Regina, she realized that the solution – and the opportunities – surrounded her. Local farmers were growing pulses and oats that would be the ideal ingredients of a line of alternative plant-based food products that are low in carbohydrates, sugar and fat but high in protein and fibre.
Oladiwura incorporated the company, Prester Foods in 2017, and has spent the last three years developing, testing and patenting the line of all-natural, plant-protein food products, under the brand Vegscrumptious. Products include pasta, cereals, pizza crust, cookie, flatbread and pancake mix, vegetable-based rice, and African Swallow, a staple common in West Africa, where Oladiwura’s parents originate from.
She expects to begin selling her products online and in grocery stores next year. She had hoped to launch in 2020, but the pandemic made that difficult. “Realistically, it made no sense to do it in 2020,” she says. “We are not yet where we want to be but we’re getting there.”
Oladiwura has collaborated with the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre to develop her products. The company has received some provincial support, including money from the Saskatchewan Agri-Value Initiative Funding program, and a federal grant from the Industrial Research Assistance Program.
But Oladiwura has financed most of the company’s initial development herself. “I’ve taken a big risk,” she says. But “I’ve always been a bit of a risktaker.” One of her U.K. oil and gas jobs involved new business acquisition, and analysing oil and gas assets worth fifty million dollars. The risks of entrepreneurship don’t scare her.
Indeed, becoming an entrepreneur was always in the back of her mind. “I always said to myself, I want to work in the oil and gas industry, make a lot of money, and then go and invest it into my own business.”
Her advice to beginning entrepreneurs is to always keep a positive mindset, despite what might be going on around you. “Times are hard now because of COVID and people are in situations they’d never imagined they’d be in. I don’t know how you find it, but you have to find that positivity somewhere.”
And when you’re looking for business opportunities, “look around you at the problems your environment faces. You need to find a problem that you can solve.
“Then, just start. Just do it.”
Laura Incognito was a born entrepreneur. She just didn’t know it until recently.
Growing up in Perth, Australia, she always wanted to be a writer. She took a master’s degree in broadcast journalism and was offered her dream journalism job on graduation. But before it started, she and a friend embarked on a three-month trip to the U.S.
She ended up in Canada and did the “typical Australian thing,” working on a ski hill. “I fell in love with the people and the country and the mountains and decided to stick around.”
After moving to Calgary in 2015, Incognito decided it was time to find a job in journalism. Unfortunately, she quickly realized that her strong Australian accent would make it difficult to get into radio. That setback planted the seeds of the vegan snack food company she now runs in Calgary, called Little Tucker (“tucker” is an Australian slang word for food.)
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise because it pushed me into thinking what I really wanted to do with my life. After a bit of brainstorming, I decided that food was the thing I was most passionate about. I grew up in a big Italian family and being in the kitchen was second nature to me.”
As a vegetarian and a health-food advocate, she wasn’t thrilled with the food choices in Calgary. “I would go to the grocery store looking for a quick snack and head down the granola aisle, where there’d be hundreds of options claiming to be healthy. I’m the kind of person who reads the ingredients on the package and I realized very quickly that none of them were healthy and I couldn’t pronounce 80 per cent of the ingredients.”
That was the motivation Incognito needed. “I just very naively decided to take things into my own hands,” she laughs.
What started as a hobby selling healthy snacks at summer farmers’ markets in Calgary morphed into the creation of Little Tucker, which now sells plant-based energy balls and healthy indulgences online and in more than 1,000 stores across Canada, including mainstream grocery stores like Whole Foods and Sobeys. The products are now manufactured and distributed from a facility in Vancouver.
The early days of Little Tucker weren’t easy. Incognito worked alone through the night in rented space in a commercial kitchen and lived off her savings rather than take a second job. She didn’t secure any outside financing until her third year, when she got funding from Arlene Dickinson’s District Ventures business accelerator program.
“The financial side of things is my biggest challenge, something that really terrifies me, and I held back on it for a long time. It seems like a lot of male-run businesses are not as risk-adverse when it comes to borrowing money, whereas for me – and I think it’s more of a female thing – we are more cautious about that.”
The pandemic has been a tough challenge, forcing Incognito to delay plans for launching new products and hiring a manager. “It was tough but we got through it.” Now Incognito hopes the worst of the crisis is over and she’s gearing up to launch a different line of products in early 2021, as well as going after some bigger retailers such as Costco.
Her advice to entrepreneurs starting out in plant-based businesses is to constantly innovate. “Don’t ever get complacent. Don’t ever think that you have something that another company can’t copy because it will happen.”
She admits she learned that lesson the hard way. “I think I got a little comfortable.” Little Tucker was one of the first companies to introduce plant-based healthy snacks in Alberta but there’s now plenty of competition.
Another tip? “You have to be OK with having competition.” She used to get upset when she’d discover another company making products similar to hers, but now she just puts her head down and focuses on innovating and improving the Little Tucker food line. “It’s a big enough market for us all.”
Keri Sweetman is a freelance writer and editor
Posted Sept. 23, 2020
Update: You can watch the October 2020 webinar with Hailey Jeffries, Angela Oladiwura and Laura Incognito at this link.