We don’t often associate cosmetics with moving the cause of feminism forward, but Brandi Leifso of Evio Beauty Group has made it her goal to change that. She founded her company while living in a women’s shelter, pre-sold her sustainable, cruelty-free products to stores without having any physical product made, bootstrapped her way to success, and now uses her platform to support the growth of other women and crusade for social justice. Oh, and she’s just gotten the backing of one of the world’s largest cannabis companies to launch her cannabis cosmetics vertical.
We sat down with this inspiring founder as she shared her story, the best advice she’s ever received, and what she envisions for the future of the industry.
On Founding Evio Beauty Group while Living in a Women’s Shelter
Nearly six years ago, Leifso was living in a women’s shelter after escaping an unhealthy relationship. It was there she decided to take charge of her future, and there that she came up with the idea for her cosmetics company. She had plenty of ideas, but what she didn’t have was the money to manufacture the products she envisioned. So she found a way around her roadblock.
Armed with photoshop skills from a prior job, she created a catalog of products that didn’t actually exist (eye shadow, lip gloss), went around to stores, and pre-sold her line.
“And that was how I made enough money to actually make the product,” she recalls, “and then I bootstrapped the company until about two years ago when we took on our first investment.”
But It’s Not About the Makeup
Unlike some cosmetics company founders, Leifso didn’t start her line by mixing colors and ingredients in her kitchen – in fact, she’ll admit to not knowing the first thing about making products herself. And that’s just fine with her, because while Evelyn Iona is a successful cosmetics company, it was never really about the products.
“We’re a company that’s about social change and justice. I’m not really the type of person to march in the streets and hold a sign up saying we need change. I really believe in making the change in the boardroom and I think we are being the change we want to see.
“We want to see more female CEOs on Bay Street? Well, I am a female CEO on Bay Street, under the age of 30. Young female leadership I think is so important right now. We want to see that so we’re going to lead by example.”
On Changing the Conversation Around Shelters and Abuse
“There have been times that we have been in publications where they say that I’ve lived in a homeless shelter rather than a women’s shelter,” Leifso recalls. “That’s a big part of the stigma towards domestic violence. [If you’re in an abusive relationship,] of all the reasons why not to leave, now there’s one more reason: because you think now that the safe house is like a homeless shelter. Then you’re dealing with a ton of other things that you associate homelessness with. It also creates stigma as to who you think the class of people are that are experiencing these problems, when the truth is that it runs through every class.
“We work so hard to make sure the conversation we have around this is an authentic one. What kind of steps can we take to change this point of view in society? How can we make this conversation not just a marketing aspect of the company but what can we actually do to make a change?”
Seeking Investment as a Female CEO
It’s a strong sense of confidence that led Leifso to successfully seek investment in Evio Beauty Group, despite not having a pedigree that might endear her to investors.
“The primary thing is that it’s scientifically and statistically proven that women are measured on their performance where men are measured on their potential,” she tells us. “We were at a huge disadvantage because I had no education – I left school when I was 14. Living in a shelter when I was 21 was not the first time I lived in a shelter. The first time was when I was six months old, and I lived in an out of that type of life for most of my life. I got a high school diploma through correspondence.
“We didn’t have educational institution names, or initials beside my name, and I’m a young female. So there were huge disadvantages to that. We definitely were based on our performance not our potential. I think we’re growing at the scale that we are, and have the really great quality partnerships that we do, because we were forced to perform. I think that put us in a unique position that was challenging at the time but turned out to be an advantage.”
It would certainly be easy for Leifso and Evio Beauty Group to rest on their success to date, but as part of her crusade to use her hard-earned platform to effect change, Leifso has partnered with the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF). The company donates $1 from every product sold back to CWF and is active in “After Me Too,” a national campaign that addresses the increased demand on sexual violence support services across Canada.
They also support a CWF youth program focused on healthy education towards relationships and communication for girls and boys.
Breaking into the Cannabis Market
Evio Beauty Group recently made a pretty significant announcement: they have partnered with Aurora Cannabis Inc., one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, to develop a line of co-branded hemp seed oil cosmetic products, as well as a collection of CBD infused cosmetic products.
And while that might read to some as jumping on a trend, for Leifso, it’s about so much more. “The cannabis industry is very uniquely positioned right now to empower women in a way that no industry has ever been positioned before,” she says. “This industry actually has the largest number of female leaders than any other industry historically. However, the higher positions in the larger companies are not held by women. We think it’s a really unique opportunity to break that mold.”
Leifso sees the addition of cannabis to their products as having a marked benefit to both the environment and the consumer.
“We can reduce the use of animal byproducts with CBD,” she tells us. “We can actually replace the beeswax in our current line to make the entire line vegan, so we’re saving bees. We can also reduce the use of plastic by using hemp fibers.”
The partnership and use of CBD also benefits the consumer. “It’s full of Omega 3, 6, and 9, so it’s really moisturizing and great for your skin. The cosmetics consumer, particularly in the green space, is wildly intelligent about their experience and they want transparency. There’s a pain point in the cosmetic world right now of wanting more transparency towards your formulas and your ingredients and we can’t really provide that with a lot of our ingredients. But with cannabis it’s so heavily regulated I can tell you exactly what plant your cannabis came from, I can tell you who scanned in and out of that facility.”
As a Female CEO, What’s the Best Advice You Have Been Given?
“The best advice I received (that I probably need to listen to more) is when you’re building a company, try to treat it like it’s your second child: you love it but it’s not your first time at the rodeo,” Leifso says. “Don’t hang on to it too tightly, don’t get attached. Let it flow. A lot of people hang on really tightly and make it super personal and although every aspect of my company is personal, I try to stay unattached to it, but still attached. I’ve really taken that advice to heart.”
Best Advice You Would Give to a New Entrepreneur?
“The advice I would give, particularly to women starting their own companies, is to dream bigger” she says. “I think that there’s a reason why we own the majority of small companies and why we don’t hold C-suites, and I think we’re responsible for that. I think we need to dream bigger.”
It’s a sentiment Leifso shares with her fellow female leaders. “On a Women in Weed panel at the Lift conference, someone said ‘I don’t want to be on another women’s panel. I want to be on a panel because I earned my spot, not because I’m a woman.’ We don’t need more women’s panels we need more women on panels. I love that we are a part of that. I love that our board members are men who men who mean business and that they are doing business with us because we earned our spot here.”
To learn more about Evio Beauty Group, visit their website here.