It’s no stretch to say that Jen Dalgleish and Amber Stratton, alongside their business partners, have built a health and wellness empire in Ottawa over the past eight years with their Pure Yoga studios and Pure Kitchen vegetarian food and juice bars.
Their lifestyle brand has grown beyond the downward dogs and buddha bowls to also include a downtown cocktail lounge, a women’s clothing store and a coming-soon fitness space.
On Thursday, the award-winning businesswomen were keynote speakers at the annual ‘Toast to Success’ dinner hosted by The Entrepreneurs’ Club, a student-run organization within the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management. More than 200 students, alumni, staff and business leaders attended the dinner, held in the Canada Room of the National Arts Centre.
It was no secret that the student organizers were out to showcase female entrepreneurs this year.
“When I started planning this event, I knew that I wanted it to be different,” fourth-year marketing student Sonya Gankina, project manager for the business dinner, told her audience. “I wanted it to represent everything that I stand for and what 2020 is all about.
“Looking back at our amazing past events I wondered: what if I could see myself in the keynote speaker? What if I could look at them and think, ‘This could be me.’”
The students also went for a more casual feel by having their special guests sit in armchairs for a ‘fireside chat.’
Dalgleish and Stratton were refreshingly candid and full of advice (“Believe in yourself,” “Don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks of you,” “Broaden your horizons”) as they shared their story.
Their friendship began almost 30 years ago, in Grade 6, on a yellow school bus in the bedroom community of Manotick.
Stratton, a new kid at school, had just boarded the vehicle and was walking down the aisle when Dalgleish piped up and offered her a seat next to her. “It was a total Forrest Gump moment,” said Dalgleish.
They’ve been best friends ever since.
Stratton revealed during their presentation that their Pure Kitchen location on Elgin Street was in trouble last year after a long stretch of the street was closed for nearly a year due to reconstruction work by the City of Ottawa.
"We're lucky we survived," said Stratton, who estimates that sales were down 30 percent or more for businesses along Elgin.
“We lost a tonne, a tonne of money in sales,” said Stratton, whose husband, Dave Leith, is also a co-owner. “It was super stressful. It was probably the most stressed out I’ve ever been in my life, and my husband, as well."
“Feeling like you have the weight of 250 employees (in total) on your shoulders was hard; it was really hard, and it was scary, to be honest.”
"Everybody just sees people eating kale salad —God bless you — and drinking green juice, but you never know what’s going on behind the scenes."
“Everybody just sees people eating kale salad — God bless you — and drinking green juice, but you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. A restaurant is a hard business to run.”
The self-made entrepreneurs said they’ve learned everything they know about the business world through life experience, gained from travelling and from years of working in the hospitality industry when they were younger.
Their sharpest learning curve came when they had to overcome a series of obstacles in the opening of their first studio, Pure Yoga Westboro. The studio did so well, once they got it up and running in 2012, that they added two more locations in Ottawa, and another studio in Toronto. They also opened four Pure Yoga restaurants in Ottawa.
As well, they have Bar Charlotte on Elgin Street, Shop Tallow in Westboro and Pure Fit, which is opening soon in Centretown.
For reading material, the women recommended Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why.
It’s important to establish core values for a new business and to return to those values when faced with complicated situations, said Stratton, a self-described work-nerd. “Always remember why you started. It’s super important because, as you start to get busier and bigger, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle. And it is a hustle.”
The easiest part of running a business, Stratton said, is completing the check list of work that needs to get done. “Everybody’s job would be a breeze if someone was just like, ‘Here are the tasks of the day’ and you just had to execute them. Check. Check. Check. The hard part is always going to be the people. That’s just life.
“If you choose to have a team, you’re going to be constantly trying to learn how to navigate and learn people’s emotions. We all have them. We’re all human.”
Everyone has emotional baggage, Stratton continued. “Hopefully, people know how to leave that at the door, but you know what? They don’t always.”
Stratton said she’s gotten better over the past eight years at not overreacting. Rather, she gives herself a chance to chill. She’ll often wait until the next day to calmly address a conflict.
“One of the biggest learnings for us, I believe, is just managing those things from a place without ego, and taking a step back, taking a deep breath, and seeing the situation for what it is without any personal attachment to it. It really isn’t about you.”
Stratton said they’ve worked hard to build close-knit and trusting teams of staff who are able to lean on each other when they’re feeling vulnerable. Stratton has no problem with saying: “I’m having a shitty day; I’m actually super stressed right now. Can you help me?”
The best part of running the Pure biz, said Dalgleish, has been helping clients improve and transform their lives through yoga and healthier living. For Stratton, it’s been about "building an amazing team of teachers and being able to help these teachers find a career in what they're passionate about," as well as “developing a place where everybody loves to go to work.”
The women repeatedly acknowledged and credited their working partners and their loyal staff as major factors in their success. “None of this would ever have been impossible without them,” said Stratton.
Telfer School of Management dean François Julien was at the dinner, joined by some members of his advisory board, including Christine Kincaid, vice-president and COO of Mediaplus Advertising, and Francis Bouchard, senior vice president with GS1 Canada.
There were also members there from The Entrepreneurs' Club executive team, led by Priya Aduvala. Seen were such alumni as Brennan Loh, director of international markets at Shopify, Lama Abi Khaled from Innovative Medicines Canada, and Sarah McGuire from Giatec, to name a few.
The evening was emceed by Telfer students Beau Goehrum and Rylan Williams.