“I really felt as if I had no choice. If I stayed I was going to die,” says Brandi Leifso, remembering how she locked herself in a room after a fight with her ex-boyfriend to search for the nearest women’s shelter on her phone. That was on January 7, 2012. Hours later, she was living at a Vancouver safe house.
It was from that dark, vulnerable but ultimately hopeful place that she decided to launch her own business, a cosmetics brand that would empower women, “rather than telling them what was wrong with them.” Leifso envisioned a company that used its platform to shed light on the issues she faced and to provide a vehicle for women in shelters to rebuild their lives.
“I was living in a house with 30 women and there was one bathroom, and we all—despite our differences—were all going through the same thing,” says Leifso. “All of us wore makeup and we all cherished that moment alone we had in the washroom.”
Without any start-up funding, Leifso Photoshopped together a catalogue of items that didn’t exist yet—eye shadows, bronzers, lip glosses—and went around to local shops to discuss the line. Five years ago, indie beauty brands weren’t as popular as they are today, she says, but the buyers loved the lip glosses named after influential women in Leifso’s life—such as her sisters Brooke and Val, and her mother Susan. Three stores placed orders right away and Leifso used that money (approximately a couple thousand dollars) to manufacture her first products at a factory in Toronto.
“I didn’t have any partners at that time,” Leifso says. “I just needed to do this because of wanting to make a difference for women.” To package orders, she teamed up with a program called Beauty Night Society at a shelter in Vancouver’s downtown east side, where she was volunteering. Every week they would pay three women from the shelter to work on the line. “We’d go down to the basement and we would fill orders, we would write notes to customers. We would label them,” says Leifso.
Since then, the now-27-year-old CEO has expanded her beauty brand Evelyn Iona, moving its headquarters from the shelter to an office on Bay Street in downtown Toronto. It was the only Canadian line featured in the 2018 Sephora Accelerate program, a community of innovative female founders who apply by invite only. “They said, ‘We think you’re awesome. We think your idea’s awesome and we’d like you to be a part of our 2018 cohort.’ I started crying,” says Leifso.
Despite her rapid success, her core values have remained the same since the start: being honest to customers and supporting women. Evelyn Iona recently announced a partnership with the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), and is donating a dollar from each product sold online to the organization, which raises awareness about gender equality and funds programs for women and girls.
Leifso attributes Evelyn Iona’s commitment to helping women succeed to her past. She describes her childhood in Ontario as less than perfect: She stayed at a shelter for the first time with her mother when she six months old because of domestic violence at home. As a teenager, figure skating was her escape. She was skating full-time at 14, and two years later, she made it onto the junior Olympic team. But her partner quit shortly after and she couldn’t continue alone. She was devastated.
After working odd jobs, she decided to move to Vancouver, where she became an assistant at an agency and started managing international models. Around the same time, she met her ex-boyfriend. At first, he was kind and generous, she says. But his drug addiction led to “a lot of abuse.”
Leifso became aware of how dangerous her situation could get after the death of Canadian actress Maple Batalia, who happened to be one of the models she managed. Batalia was shot and stabbed by an ex-boyfriend at Simon Fraser University in 2011. “When my ex and I had another episode, I literally thought, ‘If I don’t leave, I’m going to end up like Maple.’”
She went back to the relationship more than once—even after she spent time in the shelter—before finally ending it. “I didn’t want to hurt [my ex],” she says. “It’s complicated. The reason why I share this isn’t because I like getting intimate about my life. It’s because it’s so typical.” On average, women will make up to five attempts to leave an abusive partner before permanently ending the relationship, according to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Sixty percent of all dating violence occurs after the relationship has ended, the CWF says, and approximately one woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner every six days.
“I’m hoping [my story] will break the stigma,” says Leifso, adding that it takes “immense courage and strength” for women to finally leave.
Sephora’s head of social impact and sustainability, Corrie Conrad, calls Leifso’s story “incredibly inspiring.”
“We love that Evelyn Iona strives to be intentional about its impact, from championing inclusivity to creating conscious products that make a positive difference in the world,” said Conrad over email.
The brand, like Leifso, has adapted and grown since its foundation, moving away from using chemical ingredients to become organic and cruelty-free. The line’s latest innovation involves going green (really green) by using cannabis oil in the new fall skincare collection. The buzzy ingredient, Leifso explains, contains omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids that moisturize and restore skin. It can replace sunflower or lavender oils often found in lip balms and concealers.
The added benefit of venturing into the cannabis industry, Leifso says, is the potential for women to thrive as leaders. In the U.S. industry, “the portion of executive positions filled by women is higher than the national average for all businesses in the traditional economy” in almost every sector, according to a 2017 report by the Marijuana Business Daily.
For Leifso, Evelyn Iona is more than makeup, which is why she is pushing for positive changes through the brand. It’s her way of helping society overcome stigmas, whether it’s using cannabis in cosmetics or speaking up about violence against women.
“As a woman, particularly when you’re in tough circumstances, you dream smaller,” she says. “We need to start dreaming bigger, because I never in a million years thought I would be where I am now. We need to allow ourselves to welcome good things into our lives, and in order to do that we need to know we’re capable.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, call 911 or the emergency number in your area. You can visit ShelterSafe.ca for info on a safe place to stay, counselling and referrals.