For Kiara LeBlanc, business is a family affair.
The VP, Brand and Creative Director may be young, but she’s been heavily involved in her parents’ business since childhood. Her parents, Jean-Pierre LeBlanc and Kate Ross LeBlanc, began a small health and wellness shop following Jean-Pierre’s personal experiences with natural remedies. Suffering from chronic pain after multiple car accidents and with western medicine failing to help him, Jean-Pierre put his chemistry background to use in order to explore plant-based forms of healing. He and his wife, Kate—who was already interested in starting a retail business—began to explore aromatherapy and essential oils. Today he is pain-free, and he and his family have turned his testimonial into Saje Natural Wellness, a chain with thirty-seven locations across Canada.
“When I was younger, I never thought I would take this path,” Kiara LeBlanc now reflects. “I originally wanted to be an actress. But growing up around the business, I truly saw first-hand the healing power of plants and the positive effect 100% natural products have had on my family, our team, and our Saje community’s lives.” Her dreams of being a performer gave way to an education at Emily Carr, where she fell in love with technology and design. “[I] knew immediately this was how I could help to grow and innovate our family business,” she says. As the leader of Saje’s Brand Team (which encompasses product design and merchandising), LeBlanc likes to challenge expectations. “I love to push boundaries on what’s traditionally seen for retail brands, both in terms of product and store design.”
In the early days of the business, LeBlanc and her family were based in Toronto. But identifying a growing movement of natural health and wellness on the west coast, the family recognized these ripe grounds as the perfect environment in which to grow their brand. And so the family uprooted their shop—and their lives—to Vancouver.
“My family connected with the fresh ocean air, proximity to the mountains, and the lifestyle of the city,” says LeBlanc. And it was in Vancouver that they grew the brand (“by creating awesome products, focusing on education, and creating devoted Saje loyalists”) before expanding their business to eastern Canada. This expansion now includes several locations in Toronto, which LeBlanc describes as “a really important moment — kind of a homecoming for our family.”
Saje is quickly making a name for itself in terms of brand innovation; its retail locations not only smell appealing, thanks to those essential oil air purifiers, but also look appealing, with walls of plants and rustic materials. “We find inspiration everywhere, especially from nature,” says LeBlanc. “Within our store design we’ve incorporated elements of nature throughout, such as our barn wood exterior, a lush living wall, and live plants.” They strive, she continues, to ensure that each location has a unique, signature element. “For example, our Sherway façade [in Toronto] is made entirely of tile, creating a large-scale plant mural. And our new Saje At Home concept shop on Robson [in Vancouver] incorporates a chartreuse wallpaper detailing that gives the feel of shopping in a modern home!”
As for product design, LeBlanc believes that customers connect especially with Saje’s Nebulizers, the brand’s own take on air filtration systems. “Not only do they look unique in your home, [but they also] make the air you breathe healthier by diffusing essential oils in your space.” Sustainability, she says, is another aspect of the business that is incredibly important. “We source recycled glass, plastic, and other materials for our products’ packaging. For example, many of our kit products are marked ‘I used to be a water bottle’, including our best-seller, the Pocket Pharmacy.”
It’s to be expected, in this line of work, that the brand and its claims would be met with skepticism. But LeBlanc and her family have learned to take this in stride. “When there is innovation or something new, it’s always met initially by skepticism,” she says. “When Saje first launched, we were confronted by a lot of doubt and uncertainty about the remedial benefits of essential oils. Instead of taking it personally, we always met any doubt with understanding, then education, while making sure to get product on them so that as you are educating, they are feeling the undeniable effects.” That education, she says, extended to in-store seminars, workshops, and government lobbying. Through these measures, they were able to teach consumers about the healing power of plants while introducing official Health Canada regulations for the remedial benefits of essential oils.
But the general perception is changing, and so with that comes a heightened consumer awareness. Education and community, says LeBlanc, are still pillars for the Saje brand. “We are now looked to as leaders in the space. More and more, people are looking to enhance their wellness through natural products. More of our population has been raised with synthetic products and we always say, by switching to 100% natural, you actually get ‘side benefits’ inside of ‘side effects’.”
While Saje has fostered an identity of being a positive, supportive place to work, I was curious; is that always the case, given how closely the brand is built around family? Is it ever a struggle to separate work life from personal life? LeBlanc assures me that this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Every day I go to work, I feel so lucky to have complete and utter job love,” she says. Her words are filled with youthful vigour — perhaps that’s the secret ingredient. “We’ve created a culture of awesomeness at Saje,” she says. What does that ‘awesomeness’ mean, exactly? Well, according to LeBlanc, it means initiatives to cost share life coaching, workday yoga breaks, organic vegetarian lunches at the office, and even a Camp Saje experience, which connects team members across Canada annually in a wilderness setting.
And, speaking of youth, LeBlanc is adamant that ageism isn’t a thing that registers for her in her daily life; when I ask whether she’s ever encountered it herself in the business world, given her relative youth for such a position, she insists that the issue of age is so disregarded at Saje that when she encounters it externally, she is always surprised. “At our Creative Office, the youngest person on the team is 22 and the eldest is 60. It makes for such a fun and dynamic group where, to be honest, age can disappear.”
Being VP, Brand and Creative Director, LeBlanc often finds herself on the road; she estimates that she travels about 60% of the time, visiting retail locations across Canada and sourcing new innovations in aromatherapy in Bangkok or Hong Kong. But constant travel allows her to, in a sense, truly live the Saje lifestyle. Saje’s Peppermit Halo—which the brand totes as a cure for ailments like low energy, hangovers, tight muscles, and, of course, headaches—is her “secret weapon for air travel”, and she is never without Saje’s Deodorant Exotic. “I can get on a bit of a soap box when it comes to people stopping using anti-perspirants,” she says. She is also a self-professed addict of Tingle Lips, a natural balm that she spent 2 years formulating. “If you’re going to be an addict, this is the best kind of addiction.”
LeBlanc also is careful about allowing herself personal time on the road; an outdoor workout helps her to fight off the residual effects of travel, and she loves to rollerblade. “Adventure is big for me,” she says. “I always try to carve out time to do something different or unique to the city that I’m in. In Bangkok that’s going to some amazing (and huge!) outdoor markets. In Hong Kong, that’s taking the escalators up the side of the mountain to see the city from the top, or in Argentina it was riding horses through the Andes. These things give me energy and light me up.”
As for the future, LeBlanc shares that the company goal is to have 50 stores across Canada by 2018. “With 11-plus stores opening this year, we are getting closer and closer to achieving that promise, and much faster than expected,” she says. This expansion has allowed her to discover new communities who are connecting with Saje and the healing power of plants. “With our ultimate goal being global wellness, we are looking past our borders for new communities to connect with Saje,” she teases without elaborating. “More to share on this soon!”