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The Future of Beauty: Cosmetics CEO Brandi Leifso on Cannabis and Social Change

Photo courtesy of Evio Beauty Group
Brandi Leifso is the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Evio Beauty Group, a collective of socially conscious beauty brands that has experienced stratospheric growth since its inception in 2014. This summer, Evio began a partnership with leading Canadian company Aurora Cannabis to create a new line of hemp seed oil and CBD-based products. Leifso has quickly become a recognizable ally in the space, an entrepreneur dedicated to breaking stigmas and providing responsible solutions to social and environmental issues. Honeysuckle met up with her at this year’s Marijuana Business Conference (MJBizCon) to talk social justice, risk-taking, female leadership, and the future.

HONEYSUCKLE: Can you give us an overview of your story?

BRANDI LEIFSO: I dropped out of school when I was fourteen, and was living in a shelter in my early twenties, which wasn’t that long ago. When I was in the shelter, I photoshopped a catalog of cosmetic products that didn’t exist. I shopped them around to local boutiques and made enough pre-sales to manufacture the product, and bootstrapped the company from there, just by continuously making sales until we landed VC funding. Last year we launched our first new product, a green tea primer, and pre-sold 277,000. That triggered the involvement of the world’s largest skincare amenity manufacturer, Hunter Amenities. We didn’t have any funding at the time, so it was all through word of mouth and sampling boxes we had online partnerships with. Earlier this year we partnered with a venture capitalist fund. Shortly after that it was announced that we were in the Sephora Accelerate, and Aurora reached out to us. We signed an agreement and they purchased some equity, and we’re now their partners in global skincare.

What’s new in the Evio Beauty Group space, and how is cannabis being integrated into it?

We didn’t start with cannabis as a central part of our vision, and we’re not a cannabis company. One of our key focuses is social justice, and we wanted to find a way to be more conscious of the planet, to reduce the use of plastic, and to provide more product transparency. We also wanted to reduce the use of animal byproducts. It just so happens that cannabis helps us address all those issues.

If it was lavender that helped us become more conscious and address those issues, we’d be at a very different conference, and it would not nearly be as fun or as sexy of a conversation. It just so happened that cannabis is an amazing tool to utilize in those capacities.

We infuse some of our products with CBD and hemp, but that’s not the point of them entirely. For the five years we’ve been alive, our mission has always been to break stigmas and to create a conscious future, and cannabis is another tool to help us do that.

You’ve been partnering with Aurora to develop the products—they’re a fantastic company.

I’m really enjoying working with them. We dated a ton of cannabis companies—I’m the kind of entrepreneur who believes in doing what I do well, finding other people who I feel are the best in the world at what they do, and letting them do what they do best so that we can create something amazing together. I didn’t want to become a cannabis company, so it made a lot of sense for us to join somebody who is the best in that field. Aurora came onboard with an incredible offer. They’re definitely progressive leaders, and in the cosmetic space we’re progressive leaders as well, so their goals definitely match ours.

How did you become aware of the rapid development in the cannabis space? Did you always have an interest in it?

Like most teenagers who grew up in rural areas, I smoked cannabis, but it was always viewed as a drug. I love challenging stigmas and challenging the norm and surprising people, and cannabis is also a stigma-breaking industry, so it fell onto my radar. In addition, it was something that people around me had gotten into. I had a friend who worked in the illicit market, and through that I learned about different capacities within it. All that fed my interests.

Photo courtesy of Evio Beauty Group

Tell us about the social justice part of your work, in breaking stigmas as an entrepreneur and as a company. What are some of your biggest focus areas in that realm?

There are so many different stigmas that need to be broken, and often you don’t even realize that’s something you’re actively working towards. I think that real change is not reached through aggressive methods, but rather through integration into everyday life.

For example, cosmetics industries often have stigmatized views of cannabis, and many of our consumers are not cannabis consumers, but we still made it as the only Canadian company in the Sephora Accelerate program. We did a survey with over 700 Sephora consumers, asking them about their major concerns in the green beauty space. Product transparency, animal byproducts, and environmental impact were big ones. Then we asked if they would want to see cannabis. Across the board, everybody said they wanted to reduce the use of animal byproducts, and being better to the environment was something they were passionate about changing—all things we are passionate about in our own company—but when we asked if they would try a product with cannabis in it, across the board people said no. This was in April of this year. It was interesting to me. I wanted to take that and do something with it.

We wanted to create these products and say, “We reduced the use of plastic by 45% by reinforcing them with hemp fibers, and OPS, so we addressed these issue that you had. It was meaningful and something that needed to be done. PS, it was cannabis that did it.”

I think that addressing real problems makes people think differently about the capacity of what is possible. The only way we create social change in the world is by changing the ways we’re thinking, because what got us here isn’t going to get us there—and in terms of humanity, what got us here is going to kill us, so the only way to survive is to change the way we think.

That same concept can be applied to everything. The fact that I am a 28-year-old female entrepreneur who’s well funded in the cannabis space with an equity acquisition from one of the largest cannabis companies—I love that people do not expect me to say that. Female founders only receive 2% of venture capitalist funding, which is insane to me; that reduces to 1.5% for women under 30. I’m not angry about those statistics; I own them. Women under 30 need to own the responsibility of not achieving that. Although there are extra boundaries and barriers in our way, those are not excuses for not achieving that. I love taking responsibility for those things. I’m the type of person who likes to be able to recognize that I can control my future. Especially because of starting from a shelter, I want to acknowledge that my circumstances don’t define me.

That’s another giant stigma that I’m excited to work on. I hope that through living by example, my story becomes the norm and it’s not something people want to talk about anymore—hopefully people don’t call me as often for interviews, though I appreciate it now, but if I change the social justice landscape, my story shouldn’t be as talk-worthy. Hopefully I work myself out of a job, and there will be more female founders who are well-funded and achieving big things, who have come from less-than-perfect circumstances, who are not Ivy League-educated. I think there’s a lot to be said about doing things differently and recognizing that your circumstances are not your future.

We’re sitting in the middle of a cannabis conference. There are so many people in jail for what we’re sitting here making money off of. Your circumstances do not need to define your future.

Leifso (center, with microphone) speaks on the Women Who Lead / Women of Influence panel at Bay Street Bull in Toronto. Photo (C) Nick Lee.

We’ve talked to several people about how in North America there’s such a terrible disparity between who controls the wealth and who’s expected to buy the products.

BL:  I don’t think there needs to be that giant gap. If you see me, or hear the Evio growth story, there’s such a disconnect from my backstory. I think that generally if you were to see me you wouldn’t think that just five years ago I was in a shelter. I hope more people can bridge that gap.

As a company, are you doing any initiatives to promote diversity in beauty standards?

We’re going for a large rebrand right now, ensuring that we have diversity within our color offerings. But not only that—I think it’s very counterproductive to offer an array of different colors, separating people in terms of color offerings, so we’re coming out with five new concealer colors, and I use all five of them. We had a photoshoot on Saturday, and I used four colors on very deep skin as well. A deep tone that somebody uses all over their face—I use it as a contour. We can all use the same products, which reduces waste. Diversity is important, but only important when it’s done in an all-encompassing way, when it becomes one. That’s when you really stop separation, which is what it’s about.

The cannabis industry is the first industry to be created from the ground up since the Internet. There’s an opportunity to do it right, because of how much information is accessible. I hope people are more conscious of diversity. I hope people can see what other industries have done wrong, and can think about what we can do better.

Can you explain more about how you got the VC fundings and built everything up?

There’s no secret to it. Honestly, it just required hard work, and a ton of sacrifices, strategic choices, and giant risks.

I was in a meeting recently and somebody asked me about our marketing strategies moving forward. When I told them, they were surprised by how much of a potentially costly risk we were taking. Interestingly, the person who asked me this has been building a brand for the same amount of time but has seen a different kind of growth.

Risk, if it’s calculated, can often be relative to what your reward is as well. It’s 20-hour days, obsessive work—dedicating my entire life and being to the company for the first four and a half years, and continuing to do so. There were times I couldn’t cover bills because I didn’t have funding. I sold all my furniture and did multiple full-times just to pay a lawyer’s bill, or whatever I needed to cover at the time, and I didn’t think twice about it. In that moment I didn’t think it was a sacrifice. I just put my head down and did it, and all of a sudden it hit. I’m really fortunate that I had that hit.

There’s still a long way for us to go, but 2018 has been a big year for us. Earlier this year we announced our partnership with Breakwater Venture Capitalists. Shortly after that it was announced we were part of the Sephora Accelerate, and shortly afterwards we announced our partnership with Aurora. We’re fortunate to be strategic with our sales during product launches, and to have strategic relationships with entrepreneurs. There’s no secret other than hard work, and you meet people who introduce you to other good people, and something clicks.

Are you finding that there’s a difference in how the female entrepreneur thinks?

I am a fierce feminist, but I have an opinion about this that’s often unpopular, especially on female panels. I think that part of the challenge is actually ourselves. I do think differently than a lot of other female founders, and I actually have a hard time connecting to them. As women we’re conditioned to take fewer risks. On a jungle gym, the girls are told to be careful, but boys are allowed to be boys. Our society reflects that. We often hear that women are not securing the same funding or achieving the same goals, and we have to take some responsibility for that. We have a responsibility to switch that paradigm—which we’re not entirely responsible for because of conditioning—but we have to change that dynamic and breaking that stigma. I think that women entrepreneurs often own a lot of small businesses but not large publicly traded companies—that’s why 2% of women get VC funding. A lot of their companies don’t get to where they can be VC funded, because they’re not taking the same amount of risks.

Or they believe that they’re not going to be listened to.

The truth is that you probably won’t be, but then you go into the next room and demand to be listened to, and go into the next one and demand to be asked again. It’s like the meme going around about Lady Gaga, where she goes—there might be 100 people in a room and 99 don’t believe in you but one does, and that’s the one that matters. There was a meme of her repeating that throughout the day in many interviews, but it’s the truth. Statistically, women are judged based on their performance and men on their potential in the financial space. As a woman, you have to outperform your peers. A lot of women get tired of that and exit stage left. It’s up to us to change this dynamic, to push through and do the things we’re told we can’t do. If we want to see the world in a more conscious place, we have to create that world. You have to believe it won’t be the way it was before. And we’re proof of that, so it can be done. 

To learn more about Brandi Leifso and Evio Beauty Group, visit evio.ca or follow on Facebook and Instagram (@brandileifso). Find out more about Aurora Cannabis by visiting auroramj.com or following on Facebook and Twitter.

For more information on MJBizCon and its sister events, visit mjbizconference.com and mjbizdaily.com or follow on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. MJBizCon NEXT takes place in New Orleans June 12-14, 2019. Register today!

Stay tuned for the latest updates on the cannabis and hemp communities, plus planetary wellness and holistic thinking, from Team Honeysuckle! Our issue ONE is now available in Barnes & Noble locations nationwide! Find the store nearest to you through our Locator, purchase copies on our site here, through our app for iTunes here, or our Zinio digital storefront here

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