How I Made It

Justine Barber, Accessory Brand Co-Founder

FLARE #HowIMadeIt celebrates 100+ talented, ambitious and driven Canadian women with cool jobs. Want what Justine has? Here's how she did it

Justine Barber posing in a white turtleneck

Justine Barber; Edmonton; @justbarber


Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

Poppy Barley [co-founded with sister Kendall Barber] is a vertically-integrated brand that designs and manufactures leather footwear and bags. Our design aesthetic is everyday foundational pieces that elevate your everyday life. We believe in ethical manufacturing and business for good, so we screen our factories for positive working conditions and publish a sustainability report annually with our social and environmental goals.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I did a bachelor of commerce at the University of Alberta, and a masters in international conflict analysis at the University of Kent at Brussels.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

I was a project coordinator at Manasc Isaac, a green architecture firm.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

Everything I’ve seen so far doesn’t support, for us, this one big break theory, but rather lots of little ones and hard work. Of course, if Kate Middleton starts wearing our shoes I might have a different answer! If anything, where we got the luckiest was meeting the early employees who have been so instrumental in creating Poppy Barley with us.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

Fall 2015—our sales were there, our brand, business model and margins were there, and every month we had more cash at the end than at the beginning (finally!). This was three years after we launched. We probably already looked successful to a lot of people (and we were in some ways), but fall 2015 was when it all came together.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

For me the biggest thing has been, after starting a company, growing into the leadership/co-CEO role.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Always be the first person to believe yourself—that, more than intelligence or innate talents, will determine your outcomes in life. Of course this needs to be supported by work ethic! Also—in my 20s I was always working on my five-year plan, but then I completely changed directions every two years or so. So now I actually plan and stress about the future far less. So if the question, “What am I going to do with my life?” is looming ahead of you, probably the answer is 10 different things, most of which are not foreseeable. So quit putting so much pressure on yourself and just start one path.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

I was told to not take breaks in my career to avoid having holes of time on my resume. First, you only live once (so take that three-month travel break!) and second, I think most employers now will see a lot of value in what you do outside of the traditional education + 9-to-5 work path.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

Yes—in early pitches to investors, there were some questions about if this would be a “lifestyle” business for us, which I don’t think would have been raised with men. That being said, many of our early supporters and all of our first investors were men. Now one of the best parts of owning my own business is creating the world we work in, so I don’t feel any barriers at work.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it

Yes, but it has taken five years to get my salary back up to where it was at the job I left to create Poppy Barley. We’ve been building equity, but it definitely has not been a get-rich quick journey. Of course I could end up rich and retired by 40—or working till 70 to make up for these lost earning and saving years. I think that is the beautiful and crazy thing about choosing entrepreneurship!

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

All the millennials we employ (and technically we ourselves are on-the-cusp-millennials) don’t think they are special snowflakes and have great work ethics. They are on Snapchat, we are not, but that is basically the only difference.

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