XO Chats

XO Chats with Susur Lee

Father of 3 // Restauranteur

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

When you’re truly passionate about what you do, it shows. From a young age, Susur Lee has been passionate about food and went against the traditional expectations of his family in order to pursue his love of cooking. Today, Susur is a renowned name in the restaurant scene worldwide. We chatted with him at his restaurant, Lee, about his path to success and his experience being an entrepreneur and a father.

Tell us about how you started your business and when you knew that the food industry was for you.

Coming from a different culture and going into the kitchen – it was not considered a good job at the time. You have to love kitchen culture and you have to love food; it’s a lifestyle. It has to fit to your personality. That was how I began to fall in love. I didn’t have a formal education – but it was an organic love. The taste of things, the smell of things, looking at people cooking on the street, being in the market – these things had a strong impact on me as a child.

Growing up as a Chinese person I was taught that when you want to be a Master Chef, a Master Tailor, a Master of anything – you have to pay your dues. It’s inherent in Asian culture. So I found it was easy for me to have a great relationship with food and with people. It was a natural fit for me. 

Tell us about your first restaurant.

My first restaurant was Lotus almost 30 years ago. It was the first time I ever felt free – free to do whatever I want, to cook whatever I want. It was a beautiful experience, being my own boss. At the same time, I was also creating a family. The restaurant life because even more of a lifestyle and I was lucky enough to share it with my family.

Did you find it was a struggle to balance having your own business and young children?

Yeah it was really tough. At the time, my wife was a designer and she had a beautiful career as an artist. And I was beginning to pursue what I loved to do after all of these years. She gave it up to support me. She made this sacrifice and commitment – but said I had better bring home the bacon!

The struggle was coming to terms with this new reality – as an artist, she was constantly craving creativity. And then there was this new role to play of being a parent.

So we really had to make it work – and it was a lot of work. There were times she would call me at the restaurant and tell me I better come help out and I made sure I went. We both made lots of sacrifices in these first couple years.

So it was good to have flexibility with running your own business and being there for your family?

It was flexible but it was hard because I had one dishwasher, one cook and had to do everything – plumbing, ventilation, building the drywall, buying the groceries. It came very natural to me because I wanted to make sure it was done the way I wanted. But at the same time it was a lot to deal with.

And my kids were really hard to take care of. Levi, my oldest, was really temperamental. My wife used to have her studio and I would walk in and the two kids, Levi and Kai were in the playpen crying while she was trying to create art and do work. So it was very hard. Every Sunday when I closed the restaurant – I tried to take them to the park, take them to the community centre, go swimming. I would have to pretend to have lots of energy. My favourite game was to play the “sleep game” and then when I started to snore they would catch me!

Well you guys did it, and can look back on that phase of life and say you got through it!

I have to say I miss their babyhood. The other day I was walking with my son Kai on the street and saw a friend with their baby in the stroller. It was so cute! I said to Kai – I miss you at that stage and he just laughed at me. I love observing babies – the way they learn and interact with people. I missed a lot of that part because of work. I don’t feel great about that. Kids have a lot of capacity to learn and I wish I could have engaged with them when they were that age because they are so receptive to learning.

When I was able to spend more time with them, they were a bit bigger. I didn’t throw them a book, that’s not my style. I would take them to different restaurants – my education to them was food and the values of Chinese culture.

It sounds like you were able to offer them unique experiences and a different perspective on the world.

Living in Canada allows you to share cultural experiences with your kids. I would take them to Chinatown to buy cheap toys and give out the li-see (lucky red envelopes) on Chinese New Year. I make Chinese soups at home. Those are the things I tried to share with them. They still remember it now and they’ll tell me if I haven’t made soup lately! Or if the red envelopes feel too thin!

When you were coming up in the industry did you have mentors?

My mentorship comes from my mother – she was very hardworking. One day I remember in particular, I was supposed to be home right after lunch but instead I went swimming with a friend. When I finally got home I saw my mother through the window sweating and washing clothes and probably mumbling to herself “Where the hell is that kid?!”. I was so scared!

My mom is not formally educated – but she’s taught me to always be hardworking, always take care of yourself, how to think the right way, eat the right things. My father never said a word – he is a very traditional accountant. So my mother taught me how to be independent. She always told me to rely on myself trust myself and also not to be afraid and to just go for it. These are the things my mother taught me and what I try to inspire in my kids. 

Do you consider yourself a mentor?

My head chef at Lee started when he was 19. He is like a professional son to me so I share every detail with him – how to handle staff, how to organize a party, how to engage with your family and everything about food. But also he sees me as an example – you don’t want to see your Head Chef as a drunk or not successful. I try to mentor everyone I work with not to be careless, not to waste things, how to be hardworking. You always have to hone your craft – it takes repetition, patience and commitment and time. Only after all of that can you be free to express yourself. So I’ll always tell them if they don’t peel or chop something properly, it’s a moment for both of us to learn something. There are many young chefs – 19, 20 years old. Some come from other countries and are focused on just understanding the job so I try to help them integrate into Canadian culture because I’ve been in that same position and it’s not easy. I have one girl who came in about a year ago. She’s worked so hard and worked different stations and has improved so much. She’s now going to George Brown College to further herself and still comes to work after school. So these are the people who are touching my heart.

Being a famous Chef who can make anything he wants to eat – what is your guilty pleasure?

I just discovered one! I was travelling with a friend and in the airport I discovered – Rice Krispie squares! If you put a big block in front of me I could eat the whole thing. I’m not fixated on any one thing when it comes to savoury because I like to experiment. I do enjoy eating thick potato chips – slowly! And with my front teeth only. I can’t just shove them in, I like to savour them. When you devour them, you can’t taste the seasoning that way.

If you could give yourself advice when you were 20 years old, what would you say?

I don’t think I could give advice. It’s been such a journey. Make an effort – go and do, see and engage, find and get lost. It’s all been a part of making me who I am today.

What are some favourite things you do with your family now?

I cook with them a lot. One of my sons moved to LA so when he comes back once a month, I cook for my kids. I travel with them on food trips – Japan and across Asia. Those are the things we find joy in together. If they’re asking for certain other things they’ll ask my wife but they know these are the things we can enjoy together.

Do you practice self care?

Always. I make sure I eat well and sleep well. I practice yoga 4 times a week. It has changed me for the past 8 years in terms of running a business and how to be engaged. It helps me when I’m upset to think about how do I bring my emotions back in check? How am I making decisions? It’s a part of what I do to feel good and when you feel good, you can do good things and get inspired as well as inspire those around me.

When I think of inspiration, I think of my mom. She is 96 years old. She lives in a nursing home in Hong Kong and had to have her leg amputated a few years ago. When I visited her – I saw her working out at the gym. She is just the toughest woman with a great sense of humour. So I get inspiration from her. She is truly amazing. And I want to be able to inspire other people the way she inspires me.

It was a great experience sitting down with Susur to hear his story. We really appreciated his honest thoughts around running his business and having to miss some key moments of his kids’ childhood because it’s not something people readily talk about. But as busy parents, it’s something many of us can relate to and it’s absolutely the struggle of being an entrepreneur who is totally passionate about their craft. It’s also a difficult situation to navigate when both partners have passions they want to pursue and how to build a life around a young family while doing so. A big part of what we do what we do is breaking down those barriers and opening up the conversations to share inspiring stories like Susur’s. Drop by Lee Restaurant for a delicious meal and don’t forget to follow Chef Susur over here on Instagram. 

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XO Chats with Joy McCarthy

Mom to Vienna, 4 // Holistic Nutritionist and Founder of Joyous Health

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

It can be intimidating to meet someone you’ve followed on social media for a while. This wasn’t the case at all with Joy, founder of Joyous Health. She warmly welcomed us into her light-filled home in Toronto and within minutes we felt like we were chatting with an old friend. If you’re not familiar with Joy, she is the Founder of Joyous Health, a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and best-selling author. A trusted nutrition expert, Joy has been featured in hundreds of publications both online and in print, and is a regular health expert on TV. Through her innate drive to inspire others, Joy has created numerous online programs and eBooks under JOYOUS U and is a faculty member at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. Impressive resume aside, we were excited to sit down and chat with Joy – mom to mom, about the highs and lows of entrepreneurship.

Tell us about your business and how it came to life. 

My business was born out of my own healing journey. I battled with hormonal imbalance for many years and it wasn’t until I became my own little guinea pig and did all my own research that I was able to heal my own body. This inspired me to go back to school in my late 20’s and study nutrition. Joyous Health was born in 2009 and it’s been a joyous love affair since!

What advice have you received that really resonated with you?

Know your worth. When I started my business I was struggling with knowing what to charge people and everyone was asking for a discount. My dad gave me a little pep talk and he said “Joy, don’t discount your services just to get business. What you offer has huge value and know your worth”. It’s always stuck with me!

It sounds like your family is very supportive of your entrepreneurial venture.

They were—both of my parents actually became entrepreneurs themselves and my mom has always loved cooking so I must have inherited some of that from her. And my husband, Walker, actually used to have his own personal training studio before we started working together. 

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

Anything to do with creating—recipe development and writing. I also love engaging with the community through social media and meeting them at shows. It fills my heart with joy when people tell me how much one of my cookbooks or guidance from the Joyous Health blog has helped them.

Your business has grown and expanded so much since you’ve started. Tell us about some of the products you’ve developed.

I have a line of organic teas and USDA certified organic natural body care and hair care. It’s important to me to use organic ingredients in all our products to reduce pesticides going in our bodies and the teas are free of any artificial flavouring or colouring ingredients. And body care is really important to me, too – I became more aware of what I was putting on my skin when I was pregnant with Vienna.

Describe your typical day (or if you don’t have one, describe your ideal day!). 

Because no day is ever the same, my ideal day is when I get at least half of the day in my office. I love being in the office and having time to write and recipe create (I have a kitchen in my office). Lately, it’s just felt so hectic (September is always like that) and I’ve felt pulled a million different directions so I’m looking forward to hitting my stride!!

What’s your dinner routine?

I don’t like to spend more than 20 minutes tops making dinner on the average day. We usually go to The Healthy Butcher every few weeks and stock up on protein and freeze it. Then I pick up fresh produce throughout the week and each day I’ll bring something out of the freezer to cook that evening. We eat a lot of fish, like salmon and tons of fresh veggies.

Do you have a ‘guilty pleasure’ food?

I love chocolate! So I’ll have a bit of really dark chocolate each day – but it’s a high quality, pretty pure version so I don’t consider it ‘junky’. And we love pizza, too. So we’ll make our own or eat at Pizza Libretto for a treat. I don’t know if I’d consider those guilty pleasures because they’re kind of just healthier versions of treats that I love. 

Who would be at your fantasy dinner party? 

Lots of funny people because I love to laugh!! So right now it would be Trevor Noah, John Oliver, Ali Wong and of course my husband Walker because he’s really funny!

How do you carve out time for yourself? 

Being home is my happy place and I have everything I love there and everything I need. My people—Vienna and Walker, my super comfy bed, my cozy kitchen, our beautiful harvest table we inherited from Mamabea (Walker’s grandmother) and the comfiest couch ever. I love my home so very much!! So to answer your question, I never overschedule my evenings. They are sacred to me. Weekdays are a different story, haha!

Speaking of your lovely home – we love the artwork you have filling your home!

We inherited a lot of the artwork from Walker’s grandma – it’s so special to be able to include it in our home because it brings that sense of history to our space. 

Where do you see your business in the next few years?

I actually don’t have set goals for the business. The reason is that I want to be able to adapt to the industry which moves so quickly. Ultimately I always want to grow the business and the brand and it would be so amazing to be a New York Times best seller. But also I think it’s important not to grow so fast that you can’t adapt to the growth. 

The most admirable trait (and there are a ton) of Joy’s, for us, is her determination to take her destiny into her own hands. She leveraged a personal health struggle into a full-on health empire where she not only helps herself, but also others. She’s created a joyful space online and in person, where more often than not we tend to encounter negativity. Joy truly lives up to her namesake and we are so happy to be sharing her story. Visit her website here to learn more about Joy, purchase her cookbooks here, and don’t forget to follow her on social media

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XO Chats with Claudia Chavez

Mother of two, Wife // Founder and Owner of Vital Float

Written by Jessica Gedge, Photographed by Joelle Segal

In today’s busy world, many of us consider multi-tasking to be as natural as breathing. But how often do we actually take a moment to slow down and refocus? We were very intrigued when Claudia from Vital Float reached out to us to share her story. We visited the beautiful float centre in the Distillery District in Toronto and learned about Claudia’s journey to entrepreneurship. 

Tell us about your business and how it came to life.

When I first tried floating, it changed my life and my career path. 
Though an engineer by trade, after working for over ten years as a Project Engineer, Sales Manager, and Admission Consultant, I began to struggle with mental exhaustion in the workplace. 

I met a peer who introduced me to floating and the timing was perfect. It was just what I needed. As soon as I tried it for myself and experienced the profound relaxation and benefits to my mental health, I knew that I needed to get involved and introduce more people to floating. I began researching float therapy and its benefits and I became wholeheartedly convinced of how incredible it would be for more people to try it. 

I decided to leave my corporate career to become an entrepreneur. Floating perfectly fit my goal of creating a business in which I would have the ability to help people who have struggled with similar issues to those I faced. 
Floating helped me to realize the need to prioritize wellness in my own life, and also helped me understand that what drives me is not numbers but people. Understanding people’s needs and coming up with the best services and solutions for them is the thing I’m most passionate about.

When I tried floating, I realized that, as with any other issues with our health, we need to establish a regular practice of prevention to be in control and maintain good health. That realization changed my life forever.

Now here I am with Vital Float Centre in the Distillery District. It’s a small business created out of passion, enthusiasm, and a belief that floating as a practice, can truly help the people. My goal is to provide people with an escape from the many demands of modern life, relax their senses, and improve their mental well-being through the healing benefits of floating.

You mentioned that you were able to prioritize your own mental wellbeing – this is critical not just as an individual, but as parents. 

Yes while I was working the corporate life, sometimes I would be travelling for up to 20 days at a time. I’d be missing key moments in my children’s lives and it would cause me stress and guilt. So being able to find a way to be there for the family and recognizing that I needed a change was key. 

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

I love meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, needs, and I love engaging with my customers, knowing about what they do, and why they come to float. It’s amazing to learn about all the interesting things people do in Toronto and their passion to achieve their goals or change careers to suit their lifestyle and beliefs.

I know for many entrepreneurs managing employees is stressful but I like that part of my job; it feels strange being a boss after so many years of working under others’ directions. I want to be a good boss, someone who cares about my employees, someone who understands that we all have families and that life, not just work, should be a priority while still being responsible for our jobs.

What areas of the business do you want to grow and expand?

We want to focus on helping anyone who could benefit from the recuperative benefits of floating, but we’ve also seen that our athlete clientele and those in the wellness community have really taken to the experience that we offer. So we are working on growing the community around these areas of our business. 

How do you stay organized?

I consider myself a super organized person, I attribute this to my early teens when I was a swimmer back in Colombia, swimming every day from 4pm to 7pm and twice a week from 6am to 7am. I needed to be organized with my time to be able to do homework, attend all the weekend meets, and have time for friends.

Nowadays, my husband makes fun of me because I make lists for everything. It took me a while to use the phone calendar, I still love the desk calendar and I used to have things in different colours in the calendar to separate family and work events. Now I only manage the phone calendar.

I still have a notebook where I have bullet points with the things to do every morning and read my email. Then I make a list after reading all the emails so I can prioritize my activities. For me, answering emails is super important, I think everyone deserves an answer within 24 hrs, including social media direct messages and comments, Google reviews, etc.

I usually leave the admin work to the end of the day (bookkeeping, payroll, orders, inventory, etc), so I concentrate on the day to day operation of the centre, clients, cleaning, and employees first.

Tell us about your family and how you balance being a parent and a business owner.

Work-life balance is the most difficult part of being a business owner. Since Vital Float just opened 5 months ago, I need to be there as much as I can to be sure customers leave the centre happy, with a story to tell, and with the desire to come back.

As a parent you think your kids need you the most when they’re babies or little kids because you need to be there to feed them, play, take care of them when they’re sick, etc, but I’ve learned that when they’re teenagers and young adults they actually need you the most. When they need to talk, it’s usually right away and you need to be there for them. At the same time, you also need to teach them a lot of independence, responsibility, and many other values and skills for life. I want to be there with them and for them.
As a family, we created a sacred space for the four us during dinner time. This is a space where no phones are allowed and we share about our day. We also have our Pizza Friday nights; we make our own pizzas from scratch and the 4 of us spend the evening around the kitchen. Now that my son is in first year of university, things have changed a little bit but we still dedicate a lot of time to our daughter.

I also make sure that the school events are a priority in my calendar. I usually attend all the school events and all the kids’ extra-curricular activities. I schedule my shifts at work around those activities–an entrepreneur privilege.

Do you have a favourite skincare product you can recommend?

Skincare is also part of self care for me, and a way for me to unwind. I like to think of it as something I do no matter what. Sometimes you can get so caught up in your life and in all the things you have to do, but I think that no matter how stressed or rushed I’m feeling, I can always find time to start and end my day with a good skincare routine. In those 5-20 minutes during my routine, I just focus on myself and my health, blocking out all the worries and tasks of life.

Recently I became allergic to traditional skincare products and make up, so I needed to make a change and I found Wildcraft products. They’re local, made in Toronto by a fantastic woman. The products are natural, amazing, and affordable. I decided that I wanted to carry Wildcraft in Vital Float and we have the products for the customers to use after their float session and as merchandise for sale.

What is your go-to dinner recipe?

I am Colombian, we came to Canada 15 years ago and we still cook and eat a lot of Colombian food and treats. For me, Arepa is the go-to dinner. It’s a type of food made of ground white corn dough; the dough is formed into a patty and then grilled, and you can add to the top anything you want, butter and cheese, chicken, pulled pork, avocado, tuna, etc. Anything you can imagine can go on top of an Arepa. It’s an easy, quick, and healthy dinner.

Recipe for Arepa
1 cup warm water
1 cup pre-cooked white corn meal (such as P.A.N.®)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

  1. Mix water, corn meal, mozzarella cheese, butter, and salt together in a large bowl. Knead until mixed well and the dough has a soft consistency. Form balls the size of a medium orange and place them between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Flatten with a rolling pin to your desired thickness.
  2. Cut the dough into circles. Remove the plastic wrap and remove excess dough.
  3. Coat a griddle with cooking spray and heat to medium-high. Add arepas and grill until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Serve immediately.

Claudia’s welcoming personality and business background mean that despite only have been open for five months, Vital Float has become a core part of the local community. We are so inspired by her story of taking a big plunge with her career and shifting focus to a business that prioritized her own mental wellbeing as well as that of others. To learn more about floating and to book your next float, click here. Follow along on Instagram over here.

And don’t forget to enter the contest below for your chance to WIN one of two pairs of passes for complimentary floats at Vital Float! Please note, each winner will receive a pair of complimentary floats for you and a friend to be booked at the same time.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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XO Chats with Natasha Koifman

Mother, Wife // President of NKPR

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

We’ve been longtime admirers of PR powerhouse Natasha Koifman, so it was really hard not to fangirl over her. And what’s not to admire? Natasha runs the well-known agency NKPR, angel investment company AN8, and just launched her latest project, ShopNK. After meeting with her during TIFF at the NKPR IT House x Producers Ball Gift Lounge, which she co-hosts each year with the Property Brothers, we can attest to the fact that Natasha does it all with style, grace, and clad in #NKAllBlackEverything. 

Tell us how NKPR began

I was in my 20s, working at an agency, promoting anything that came across my desk. It just didn’t feel right to me – it felt inauthentic. I decided to take a leap of faith and launch NKPR, with a mandate to only work with people, brands and causes that I’m passionate about. It was a scary decision, to go off on my own and start a business from my basement, but I worked through the fear. And fast forward to present day, NKPR is an international agency with a staff of over 35, a roster of over 40 clients, and holds a footprint in Toronto, NYC and Los Angeles.

Where would you like to see the business go in the next few years? 

My business goals have always been to do great work and to give back to those who are less fortunate. What I love most about PR is that with the advances of technology and social media, we continue to get more tools in our toolbox – it keeps our industry fresh, and allows innovative ideas to flourish. One exciting project in particular is the launch of our new socially conscious e-commerce platform called ShopNK which sells limited-edition fashion, beauty and lifestyle products that align with my #NKAllBlackEverything Brand. Proceeds from each item sold will go directly to benefit local and international charities. In order to encourage the younger generation to feel more accountable with giving back, each buyer will have the opportunity to decide from the following organizations what their money will support – APJ, G(irls)20, Dog Tales, St. Felix Centre and Best Buddies. I’m really excited about this. 

How did ShopNK come to fruition?

I have always really wanted to make the world a better place and inspire people to be philanthropic. You know, we don’t have to separate our consumption and our love of fashion, style and entertaining from our desire to make a positive impact on the world. ShopNK allows you to shop a curated collection of items that are all things I absolutely love. It’s style with ease, not fussiness. It’s conscious consumption without sacrificing style and aesthetics.

And the charities that you’ve selected, will they change?

We’ve had an unbelievable response to ShopNK so far, and we’re making such a great positive impact. So yes, we will be keeping charities and adding more. We want people to have the opportunity to learn more about which humanitarian causes mean the most to them. 

We noticed that mentorship is actually something people can purchase from ShopNK.

Absolutely – I wanted to share my knowledge and expertise while also giving people the chance to give back to a charity that means something to them. It’s really exciting because you’ll continue to see more mentors come on board, industry experts that are all able to offer invaluable advice. 

Do you have a mentor/role model?

I don’t have one particular mentor, but I am extremely fortunate that through my line of work, I have developed meaningful relationships with strong women and men who I can call to run things by. Some of these individuals include John Hunkin, former CEO of CIBC bank, Stephen Graham who was the CMO of CIBC, Carrie Kirkman who was the former President of Jones New York and then became the president of Sears, and Suzanne Boyd, Editor-in-Chief of Zoomer Magazine.

What advice have you received that really resonated with you?

Many years ago, I was attending a lunch and the keynote speaker was Shelley Broader, the former CEO of Walmart Canada. She started speaking about how she didn’t believe in work-life balance, rather she supported the concept of work-life integration and it totally clicked. I had struggled for so long with trying to separate my work-life and my home-life…and I never understood why I should. I love what I do – and I can’t, nor do I want to, just walk away from my job when I leave the office. I’m the same person at work and at home. This concept that it didn’t need to be separate really resonated with me and helped me be at peace with the integration of my work life and my home life.

So having said that, how do you carve out time for yourself while living the #worklifeintegration lifestyle?

It can be challenging, when I’m working 15-hour days, and traveling consistently to NYC and LA. But as I mentioned, my work-life and home-life are integrated, so it helps a lot – my husband will join me at client dinners and events, and I’ll host meetings at my house. But my home is my sanctuary and I make sure when I’m home that I wake up early every morning so I can have a cup of coffee, with my dog, and take a few moments of solitude to reflect upon the day.

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

Working with my team and watching them grow. I work with the hardest and smartest people in the business. I love nurturing their talent and helping them become the best they can in this industry.  

I’m also proud to say that our mandate of only working with brands we connect with hasn’t changed – and to this day, we turn away as much business as we take on. It makes coming to work more exciting, when you’re passionate about the work you’re doing. 

Something you mentioned earlier was #NKAllBlackEverything – tell us how that started and if we’ll ever see you in any other colours? 😉

When starting in business, I would wear colour but I never felt comfortable it. I was always drawn to an all-black uniform. When I was younger, I felt it helped ensure the focus was on what I was saying vs. what I was wearing. It just felt right, and made me feel confident. Now, it simplifies my life (it makes shopping so much easier too, when you can filter everything by one colour!), and people know what to expect from me – sometimes even before they meet me.

What would you tell yourself at 20 years old?

Have goals and achieve those goals, but be easy on yourself. They won’t happen overnight.

What are some books/podcasts/instagram accounts/etc. that are inspiring for you lately?

Books:

Instagram accounts:

  • @diet_prada – I think it’s incredible that some of the biggest news in the fashion industry is being broken by an Instagram account run by two people. It truly exemplifies how the role of social media has evolved. 
  • @itsjasonflom – a good friend and has a great fashion sense

Podcasts:

  • SQ1 Podcast – they have amazing guests from Jeanne Beker to Jonathan Cheban. It really has a wide range interesting topics – I feel like I learn something everytime I listen.
  • Although I am a CNN junkie and it’s always on TV, when I can, I’ll listen to The Daily, the New York Times podcast, based on top stories of the day.

Favourites – places to go with your family, restaurants, places for team lunches, ways to relieve stress, beauty products, ways to stay organized.

Places to go with family:

  • Pick 6ix Sports is my go-to for a big sports game – I camped out there during the NBA playoffs!  
  • Love to go walking in Bloor-Yorkville on the weekend. There’s something for everyone and my favourite part is that each trip usually ends in a visit to Summer’s for a scoop of the best ice cream! 

Restaurants:

  • Sofia Yorkville – LOVE their pastas! I usually order one of each on the menu each time I go.
  • The Civic at The Broadview Hotel
  • Thompson’s Rooftop is such a fun place to people watch, especially during TIFF. Every celeb has been there, from Brad Pitt to Julianne Moore to Lebron James.

Team lunches:

  • Montecito – just across the street and they make the BEST kale salad.
  • We love doing “curated potlucks” in our office – we’ll order all of our faves and eat in our boardroom – Domino’s thin-crust pizza, Le Gourmand cookies, McDonalds fries, A&W beyond burgers and Krispy Kreme donuts!

Stress relievers:

  • Bubble baths – especially with Blissed’s CBD Bath Bombs.
  • Writing in my gratitude journal.
  • Binging Netflix/CRAVE – I’m obsessed with Succession, The Affair, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Beauty Products:

Ways to stay organized:

  • My assistant Fiona – she helps me keep track of my schedule and keeps me running on time

Tell us about your work investing in innovators.

Two years ago, my husband and I launched an angel investment company AN8. I’m in an industry where I meet so many people who have brilliant concepts, but don’t necessarily have the resources to bring their ideas to market. My husband and I are both entrepreneurs and share an entrepreneurial mindset in all of our professional endeavours. We wanted to create an opportunity to support others who share that frame of thinking. Our mission with AN8 is to invest in business’ success in a meaningful way involving funding and sharing our market expertise.

Natasha has been able to grow a successful business, live a fulfilled personal life and find meaningful ways to positively impact the world around her. She is an example of how to live authentically while seamlessly integrating work and personal life together. In short, this woman is #goals! For more information about NKPR, visit their website here. To ShopNK’s curated collection of goods and see which charities you can support, check here. If you’re an entrepreneur interested in learning more about AN8, visit the site here. And of course, if you want more interviews with entrepreneurs like Natasha straight to your inbox, sign up over here.

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XO Chats with Sean Stephens

Sean Stephens, Father of four, CEO of Treefrog Inc.

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

With his bright green hair, perfectly tailored outfit and easy laugh – Sean Stephens makes a big impression. We chatted with Sean about how he’s created a life for himself and his family that is a seemingly perfect blend between business and personal. His exuberance is contagious and we found ourselves completely inspired by his zest for life. 

Tell us about Treefrog Inc.

Treefrog is a digital transformation agency – we transform businesses through technology. We started out as a web development and digital marketing agency and through the years we’ve shifted towards incorporating AI, drones, robots, IOT and helping businesses achieve their goals through all sorts of technology. 

How did you become an entrepreneur?

Treefrog was actually founded by someone else and in 1997 I bought the business with my ex-wife and another partner. We moved the business into our house and for the first few years we literally worked and lived in the same space. We had our first child who was very sick and had to manage the health problems, while growing this new business. When we had our second child, we had eleven people working in my living room! 

That sounds intense!

It really was a crazy time. We moved into a new office space and my ex-wife is a very talented interior designer (she actually designed our current office space) and turned it into a great place to work. During this time, my ex and I separated amicably and have since married other people. 

So I have 4 children in total (2 biological children and 2 step-kids) and we exist in a really great blended family.

How do you guys manage the blended family and all of its challenges (scheduling, the different relationships)

It’s interesting because my ex ended up marrying the head of development at Treefrog and I’m married to the head of sales! So not only are we blending families, but we’re all connected through our work. My ex no longer works with Treefrog and has since gone on to open a very successful interior design firm, but we’re all interconnected. 

We have great relationships, actually, and we co-manage the family. We have a pleasant dynamic and we’ve been able to mix lives and hopefully the kids are mentally stable and have a great foundation. Often in families, the kids are the ‘suns’ and the parents kind of orbit around them. In our experience, since the adults are the strong personalities, we are each our own ‘suns’ and our kids orbit in and around what we’re doing. 

Talk about balance. 

Yeah absolutely – it takes a lot of organization and the kids kind of cycle around this milieu of families. We have one ‘main’ house for which is my ex’s and I make sure the office is family-friendly so that I can spend as much time as possible with the kids. 

Having a family-friendly office must be a great perk for staff.

I really believe in lifestyle innovation and efficiencies, so making sure the office is kid-friendly is so important. Every Friday we have a hairdresser come in so I bring the family in for haircuts. We’ve had sleepovers at the office for my daughters. My 11 year old son is deeply involved in developing and doing quality assurance for a new product we are launching soon. It’s just business merged completely with personal – the way I believe it should be, because I love my work so much and I love my kids so much. 

You’re a big proponent of efficiencies – do you have examples of how you’ve incorporated this into your life in other ways? 

I wear pretty much the same thing every day – it makes it so much easier and I don’t have to think about anything at all so it saves time. I have 70 of the same white shirt, 50 of the same underwear, and a drawer with about 200 of the exact same socks so I never have to fold or sort them. If you open my bathroom cupboard you’ll see rows of the same toothpaste and chapstick. Efficiencies!

Any advice on how someone can be more efficient in their own life?

My advice is to find the things you hate to do that you can pay someone else to do. So for me it’s anything to do with lawn care – I just don’t get the concept of having a lawn. So I’ll make sure I pay someone to do it and save my time towards doing things I enjoy instead. Its lower-value activities vs high-value (which for me are spending time with my kids or on the business). 

Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone – how did you know it was something you’d enjoy?

I have a high adoption of risk – I grew up in a war zone so everyday was risky. For me, big risk equals huge wins. 

Do you think the entrepreneurial bug has rubbed off on your kids? 

Well my 11 year old definitely shows signs of it! He paid some construction workers to help him carry a basketball net that he found back to the house and then sold it on Kijiji! He also sets up a lemonade stand on the main street and raked in some money there. He realized he was spending too much on the lemonade so he found a cheaper lemonade – I guess he’s learning about margins and quality control. My younger son loves art and he’s created a comic book series.  And we love to do geocaching as a family which takes a lot of initiative and decision-making. 

You’ve blended family and work life successfully, but you also spend a lot of time supporting the local community. Where do you find the time? 

Profit in a business is like breathing – you have to have it. But being in business is so much more than profit. I want to know I’ve had a positive effect on those around me and helped as many people as possible. We spend a lot of time and work with the community – whether its supporting the local Pride Parade, developing apps for local charities or ensuring our company is being as environmentally conscious as we can. Fighting for what’s right is a part of our business and what we believe in. So in terms of finding the time, we make the time because it is a big part of our values. 

If you had advice to give to your 20-year old self, what would you say? 

I believe we’re all set to write a story of our lives. I’ve put everything I can into making my life awesome – nothing is a foregone conclusion. So I don’t know what I would change or say other than to enjoy life!

Sean has found a really inspiring way of blending work and family life – to not only maximize efficiencies all around, but also to maximize his time spent with higher value activities aka spending time on work he loves and with his loved ones. Did we mentioned he’s also the lead singer in a band, Sean Stephens and the Distractions? To learn more about Treefrog Inc., check here. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and you’ll get these interviews straight into your inbox! And if you’d like to be featured or know someone who should be, contact us. 

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XO Chats with Eva Wong

Mom to Kai, 9 and Mei, 6 // Co-Founder and COO of Borrowell

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

We recently spent a summer afternoon playing ping pong with Eva Wong, co-founder and COO of Borrowell and chatting all things work, life and building a tech company. Not only did Eva kick our ass at ping pong, but she did so with grace. We have a feeling she does this across all aspects of her life – kicking ass, gracefully. Borrowell is one of the largest financial tech companies in Canada and was the first company in Canada to offer free online credit scores and reports. Their focus is helping Canadians make great decisions about credit.  With a staff of 70 and over one million members, the five year old company has experienced rapid growth and great success. Eva says they’re just getting started. 

Tell us about Borrowell.

Borrowell‘s mission is to people make great decisions about credit. We were the first company to offer free credit score monitoring, and we help you choose the best products for you with our AI-driven financial product recommendations. Borrowell is one of Canada’s largest financial technology companies, with more than one million members. We have 70 employees at our office in Toronto, and we’ve been recognized as one of the Best Workplaces in Canada.

People may be surprised to know that you don’t have a tech background!

That’s right! I have a general business background and then worked for a non-profit. I met my co-founder, Andrew, while volunteering with an organization called CivicAction. One of the biggest things I always try to share with other founders is that you don’t have to have direct experience in order to start. I decided to go full-force with Andrew on Borrowell during my maternity leave with my daughter which was actually perfect timing for me because it was a time of re-evaluation and self-reflection. It didn’t feel like it was a big risk – if it didn’t work out I would have just gotten a job. But if I hadn’t taken this step I would have regretted it. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t make you unemployable, so I knew I had to give it a try.

During the five years of running Borrowell, you’ve grown the team from 5 to 70. Tell us about the company culture you’ve developed here. 

Working on our culture has been a very intentional process as our team has grown. Early on, we developed our core team values and we want to truly live up to them every day. We often hear from our team that Borrowell is different from other places they’ve worked. We think our culture is a really positive thing and we work hard to keep it great. A part of this comes from hiring based on a values fit and not just a culture fit. 

We notice that you’ve won Canada’s Best Workplaces in a few different categories (among other accolades) so clearly what you’re doing with team culture is working! Are there a few key things that are particularly important to you when it comes to building culture?

Diversity is really important. To us, diversity equals business success. Our user base is diverse – across all demographic aspects – and having a team that truly reflects a variety of demographics and experiences is really important to us. 

Secondly, open communication is critical. Do all members of the team feel they can challenge ideas and speak their mind and be heard? 

You mentioned your user base is diverse which is interesting because I actually had the impression Borrowell was targeted towards Millennials.

Yes, it is really diverse! Our oldest member is 103 and our most engaged members are actually between 30-50 years old. Geographically they’re spread out – we have customers in the most northern tip of Canada!

How do you maintain team synergy in an era where remote working has become more common?

We actually don’t have a ton of work from home – we really believe that face-to-face collaboration works the best for our organization. We can ideate and solve problems together and we try to have team members cross-pollinate by changing the seating in the office regularly. This gives everybody the chance to connect with each other on a human level – getting to know one another happens on a deeper level and it helps to avoid team vs team scenarios. We also encourage everyone to have a monthly random coffee – we have an algorithm that matches people to go for coffee who don’t typically work together. This way, there can be a deeper understanding of what your colleagues are working on which ultimately helps tighten the bond of everyone at the office as a whole. 

We love the office design and that it lends itself really well to collaboration. The board room names are awesome.

We love this space because of the open desk situation, with options to adjourn in separate meetings rooms or sit in sound-focused pods if you want to have a one-on-one conversation. Because of all the concrete in the office, a lot of the decorative elements are actually acoustical treatments and help to dampen the sound.

How do you balance work and family? 

I try to work fairly regular hours and my husband works pretty predictable hours so between the two of us we can manage life and our kids. He’s able to leave work each day at a regular time so he handles the after-school shift and gets dinner ready. 

Do you have a go-to dinner recipe?

I wouldn’t call it a recipe, but I do have a go-to dinner solution. As much as I like to cook (and I realize not everyone does), I don’t do very much cooking on weeknights. We keep it simple, which seems to make everyone happier, including our kids. Our Thursday dinner (for the kids, and sometimes the parents) is grilled cheese sandwiches with some sort of raw vegetable on the side. It’s super easy, we almost always have the ingredients, and the kids love it. Particularly when their dad makes it, because he’s more generous with the butter!

What do you do in the realm of self-care?

Well I definitely recognize that I operate better with sleep so I make that a priority. If I’m tired, that’s when the impatience comes out. I also just joined a gym and I ride my bike to and from the office. I’m very inspired by my mom, who is 70 years old but is the most active person I know! She plays ping pong, swims and bikes. It’s just getting into the cycle of good habits and hopefully once I’m in the cycle I can maintain it. Talk to me in the middle of winter though, to see if I’m still getting up for 6am classes!

What’s it like being a part of the tech community in Toronto?

It has been so supportive. It’s a great community – we started out at the Ryerson DMZ and One Eleven. When you share physical space with other people in your industry, you have that built-in support. I would say that having that peer-to-peer mentoring is really valuable so if you don’t have one mentor in particular, that’s okay because sometimes we learn the most from others who are going through the same challenges as us at the same time. 

Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs that you’d like to share?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – if you don’t know something, ask. Learn the answers and make yourself an expert on whatever it is you’re lacking. It shows curiosity, not ignorance. 

Eva didn’t let her lack of experience in technology hold her back. She trusted her gut, asked a ton of questions and became a subject matter expert. Eva has co-founded a company which has made huge impact on the fintech world in Canada, while also shining a much-needed spotlight on diversity in the workplace. Like we said – kicking ass, gracefully. To learn more about Borrowell, click here. If you enjoyed this article, sign up for our newsletter, to get all upcoming #xochats straight to your inbox!

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XO Chats with Patrick Lyver

Father to Calvin, 9 and Audrey, 5 // Owner of Kleurvision

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

When you grow up in a family of entrepreneurs, being a business-owner can kinda be in your blood. Patrick Lyver’s family always encouraged him to do what he loves, giving him the freedom and runway to go for his dreams. We met with Patrick at his very cool office space in Port Perry, the home of Kleurvision, a boutique brand agency that works with businesses and associations of all scale, providing digital solutions, corporate identity, brand messaging , and marketing. The mostly remote team gathers together once a week at the office and we immediately felt the great vibe – hardworking, fun and family-friendly. He works with his wife, Allison, and the kids pop into the office regularly. Read on to hear about how he made the switch from corporate life to business-owner.

Tell us about Kleurvision and how you became an entrepreneur.

Sort of by accident, but primarily through family encouragement. I spent time after college working as an on-air graphic designer for CTV (National News and Canada AM) as well as TSN and a few pilot shows for Discovery Channel. The experience was great, but it wasn’t hitting the mark passion-wise. I started freelancing a bit and my parents pushed me to get out and start up my own thing. Now we have an 8 person team, including my wife. 

How do you stay motivated?

I absolutely love solving problems which means challenges are my lifeblood. I make sure that we’re always changing up what we do, how we do it, and what types of clients we choose to work with – and the motivation comes naturally from that. I’m also a husband, father of two, and volunteer quite a bit — these round out who I am as a human and are my driving forces for always striving forward.

What advice have you received that really resonated with you? 

This is great, but it’s counter advice that resonates with me most and I suspect that is rare (maybe not). I had someone once say to me that “There is margin in the mystery” referring to the digital work that we do and that we can charge more when people don’t know what it takes to complete the work. From that moment on I decided I would educate first, execute second – so that our clients were never left if the dark. It makes me so uncomfortable to think about tricking our clients for profit.

Do you have a mentor?

Absolutely. I have a few. I use my mentors to help point out both flaws and strengths that I have a hard time seeing.

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

Sales. It’s where problems and solutions come together.

Do you practice self-care? 

I just really love problem-solving so I could probably work on client projects constantly and be happy with that. But I do try to spend a lot of time outdoors doing physical activity – like skiing, mountain biking, camping, and baseball. I don’t really carve out specific time to myself but I just love what I do. So much so that I volunteer (Humane Society of Durham Region, Angel Investors Ontario, NACO, Port Perry BIA) so that I can try to add value to other organizations and help them with their challenges. I have a hard time unplugging because if I de-motivate it is really hard for me to ramp up again and I don’t want to take time off and then come back and be buried under “busy” work. 

XO SNAPSHOT WITH PATRICK

Favourite podcasts?
I listen to quite a few podcasts — here are three that I always come back to:
1. Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell would be one that I think anyone interested in persuasive storytelling should pay attention to. The way he crafts his narratives and supporting arguments are fantastic.
2. The second would be the You Are Not So Smart podcast with David McRaney. It’s heavy into brain science but unpacks a lot of theories, conditions, and phenomena into consumable information for the neuroscience wannabees like me.
3. Lastly, the Akimbo podcast by Seth Godin. Very short theories on changing and influencing culture.

Favourite tunes? 
I’m a 90’s punk kid. NoFX, Guttermouth, Pennywise, Bad Religion, etc. I’m a fan of almost any music actually, as that was an early part of my career — we built MySpace layouts for artists all over the world when MySpace was the go-to for bands and musicians before they had their own websites.

Recommended office tools/software?
My software stack seems to always be changing, but right now it’s the full Adobe Creative Cloud stack, my development stack for building Shopify sites, Teamweek for resource planning, and I am a massive fan of Yet Another Mail Merge for G Suite to run growth hacks. I would probably bore you if I went down this rabbit hole. 🙂

Favourite things to do with your family?
Getting outside and always moving. That’s my favourite so anything to support that — camping, mountain biking, skiing, are all things we do as a family. 🙂 

Other Faves
I love good coffee, craft beer, and really nice pens and notebooks. 

What are the challenges you face as a parent and entrepreneur?

Time management is the biggest challenge as we have a lot of clients and a lot of calendars to schedule around. We make some sacrifices both ways and I think that we’ve found an amazing balance — the kids love coming to the office and on business trips, and they know why my day is not typical (early mornings, late nights, lots of meetings, etc.). My wife started working with Kleurvision a few years ago and manages client relationships – because we work together it allows for flexibility with our schedules. So while I may head into the office early, she’s able to drop off the kids and maybe head out to pick them up and pick up with work at home. 

How do you and Allison balance work and family life given that you work together? 

My wife, Allison, has such a great balance of skills that I don’t have so it is amazing she is working with me. She’s great with people and such a good judge of character. She’s been instrumental in decision-making because at the end of the day if there are big decisions to be made with the business, they’ll ultimately affect us personally – so it’s great to have her on board. 

We’re pretty good about not talking about work at home around the kids all the time.

Do you think being an entrepreneur has influenced your kids? 

Maybe! My son always seems to find a way to be entrepreneurial. He loves ski-racing and so he started waxing other people’s skis for money. They set up lemonade stands. I’d like to think when they spend time around the office and just knowing what we both do, that we’re instilling that hard work ethic into them and showing them you can pursue your passions as a career. 

Has parenting changed the way you run your business, or vice versa?

Maybe a little bit. I have certainly changed the way I look at negotiation and the tactics I use to persuade. It has also put a lot of things into perspective for me when it comes to stresses, applying importance on things that matter versus things that do not. It’s made me work to improve my communication and be better at setting boundaries.

We are also very conscious as an organization to be respectful of the work/life balance – which is atypical for most agencies in our industry. We don’t want to overburden any one team member. And being a parent and entrepreneur has really made it clear to me that when I’m communicating it’s all about truths vs. beliefs – even though something may be true, the other party may not believe it and at the end of the day it’s about how to support trains of thought. 

Hearing Patrick’s story reminded us of the wise words of Pennywise “…life is but a game and it doesn’t matter how you score but how you play…” – he’s found a great way to balance his love for solving problems, built a successful business from being transparent with his clients, and is able to spend quality time with his family. With clients worldwide across a range of industries, Patrick has built up a dream business based on what he loves to do and spurred on by family encouragement and support. He’s passing this love of what he does to his kids and found a way to successfully interweave family life and work life. 

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XO Chats with Sasha Exeter

Mom to Maxwell, 22 months // Brand Storyteller at SoSasha.com

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

Meeting someone that you follow on social media is tricky, right? Maybe that person just isn’t who they portray at all. Maybe they ARE the living embodiment of what you see on the ‘gram, but then come across as extremely manufactured. Sasha Exeter wasn’t either of these. We’ve been following this woman for a while now and love her focus on health, family and retaining her identity as an individual throughout parenthood. Meeting her in person, and hearing her story, just reaffirmed that this lady is a POWERHOUSE. And we cannot neglect the fact that her daughter, Maxwell, is simply too cute for words (but okay if we had to use words – adorable, sweet, charming, spunky…) Dive into Sasha’s world and hear about how a life-altering change in her twenties influenced her journey.

Tell us about your entrepreneurial venture.

My entrepreneurial venture is my lifestyle website, SoSasha.com that started off as a cathartic, creative outlet that ended up turning into a business and brand. I get to work with all the tier one companies I would have died to work for as an employee, but do it by way of sharing my experiences through brand collaborations. I’m also lucky enough to do some consulting for some well known brands.

How did SoSasha.com come to life?

This venture started much differently than most would imagine. I was on the corporate fast track shortly after graduating from university in the United States. I had some pretty interesting gigs within sales, then branding and marketing – however an illness that I was diagnosed with in my early twenties returned and hit me full force, requiring me to take an extended leave of work for over 1.5 years (without pay may I add). I had a lot of time to think during that time, as you would probably imagine, and after what felt like forever laying on bed rest, I started to think that it was time I took charge of my life and health and do the things I really want to do.

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

Gosh, there is so much that I love about my job and these things have changed over the years as my content and brand have evolved. With the landscape of content creation and social media changing so much in the last few years, it means that parts of my job have evolved also. But in short, I love traveling and I get to do quite a bit of that. I love that I am able to go on adventures (real or proverbial) and get to share my experiences and stories with people. I LOVE that my personal journey from someone who was suffering from a debilitating illness to one who is living the fullest life possible can inspire other people. I enjoy being able to use what little influence I have to shed light on matters and subjects some people may not have been aware of.

What advice have you received that really resonated with you?

To remember to celebrate my wins. Big wins. Small wins. All wins basically. We all have a tendency to downplay our accomplishments if they seem less than extraordinary but it all needs to be recognized and celebrated. I find that it helps keep my head in the game and motivated.

Who inspires you?

I feel super lucky enough to have some pretty phenomenal women in my life that inspire me. My (late) grandmother was my biggest inspiration and even after her passing, she still inspires me every single day. A woman with only a 6thgrade education and widowed in her late twenties found her way from the tiny island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines all the way to Toronto, Canada with no money and eight children to take care of. She put herself through school and worked her ass off in three jobs as a nurse. She never complained. She never cried. She knew everything. She could solve anything. She was my rock. She was everyone’s rock. My grandmother was the strongest woman I know. I feel insanely privileged to have her blood running through my veins.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m usually awake between 6-6:30am. If Maxwell is still asleep then I like to get a head start on some emails and have some quiet time for myself but she’s usually up between 6:30 and 7am. The morning is pretty much dedicated to her until our nanny comes, unless I am on set and have a super early call time. We eat breakfast together and go for a long walk with the dog. During the summer months we go out on the balcony and hang in the sun. I also like to start the day off with some stretching and meditation. For some reason Maxwell has really taken a liking to stretching which I find hilarious. She will be out there with me on a yoga mat doing her own thing.

From 10:30 until about 4:30 is when I lock down for work. I book all my meetings and shoots during this time. When I am not out and about, I’m either plugging away on my laptop in my home office or in a shared workspace. I also try to fit in a workout or run during the lunch hour if it didn’t happen in the morning. I mean, there are a lot of days where I am on set for 11 hours at a time or working late on projects but I try to have a good balance.

Maxie time is again from 5-7pm, which often ends up being a dance party to Beyoncé’s Homecoming tour concert, running a couple of errands or going out to dinner. Yes, even on a weekday with a toddler. Once she’s down and I’ve had dinner, it’s my last ditch attempt to get through a few extra emails or get organized for the next workday. That reminds me, I need to still send a handful emails and put my clothes in the dryer or else I will have nothing to wear tomorrow!

With your busy schedule, how do you carve out time for yourself?

I’ve had to learn to set boundaries for myself the hard way. Working crazy hours in stressful jobs did not help my health situation at all. Once I started to navigate myself to a space where I was feeling healthier, I decided that the most important act of self-care I needed to practice was to take time for myself. It seemed a bit odd at first, and selfish, if I’m being honest with you, but nobody else is going to take care of me the way I do. That often means, saying “no” to attending some events/parties, turning down a job, not having my inbox completely empty before I go to sleep at night. Putting the “Do Not Disturb” feature on my phone every night at 9:30pm. When things are crazy busy with work, I have to sometimes go as far as carving this time out in my calendar to ensure I do it. Luckily, my “me time” is often my workouts.

How do you stay organized?

This question could not have been timelier. I am currently in the midst of organizing my life here at home. It’s been a complete clusterf*ck over the last 9 months. My home office has been a disaster for more months than I would like to admit and it got so bad that it became a challenge to work in it. I have meticulously de-cluttered all the packages and products and it’s looking more like a place where I can be productive. I have just hired a Project Manager that is going to assist me with keeping larger projects organized and rolling smoothly. The missing puzzle to staying organized is finding the right PA and then I think I will be in a very good place.

XO SNAPSHOT WITH SASHA

What is your daily uniform?
Some activewear/whatever I plan on wearing to workout in that day or high-waisted denim and a white tee.

What Instagram accounts do you have a crush on?
@valerialipovetsky
@scoutthecity
@kahlanabarfield
OBSESSED. I know them all but still crush over them daily. They are all intelligent, strong, classy business-women who are also mamas with the best style.

If you could meet anyone, who would it be?
The Obamas. I know that’s two but there is no way I would want to meet one without meeting the other.

What’s in your purse?
The “what’s in my purse” game is a fun one isn’t it. Well, let’s see…right now the YSL bag I used earlier today has my iPhone charger, a lipgloss (Charlotte Tilbury’s Latex Love in Dirty Dancer), four pens (I have no idea why there are so many pens in this bag right now), Trident chewing gum, embarrassingly a pile of receipts for expenses, my airpods, two tampons because I just need that kind of safety at all times, a pack of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges, and cbd oil.

Do you have a go-to dinner recipe?
I love a trifecta meal – simple, healthy and quick. We eat red meat a couple times a week and we also enjoy our fair share of fish. I usually pan sear mine in a cast iron pan and after years and years finally learned to cook salmon fillets to perfection. Both are super easy to whip up at home with sautéed veggies. Oh, and I love to make lasagna too.

What are 3 books you would recommend on either parenting or entrepreneurship/business or both?
I did not really go crazy with parenting books when I got pregnant with Maxwell. Well, we bought about 4 or 5 that still remain in the Indigo shopping bag somewhere in the house. However, I did pick up a copy of The Contented Baby Book when I was about six weeks postpartum, recommended by my neighbour and it was a super useful book in regards to teaching me the importance of routine for newborns. It alleviated a lot of anxiety because I had no clue what I was doing. The routine made it easier for me to travel with her at a young age and start sleeping training. Two other books that I recently picked up ironically are geared towards mamas. Lisa Canning’s, The Possibility Mom which I am almost finished reading. I mean who better than a mom of seven to share insight on how to juggle work and home life? Cat and Nat’s Mom Truths is another recent purchase that I can’t wait to dive into.

There are of course a ton of business books that I have read over the years but to be honest, right now what resonates with me are books that are going to help better me at both my jobs, because being a Mother is one of the hardest gigs ever.

What’s on your playlist right now?
Anything Diplo, Major Lazer or Beyoncé

What are your favourite – skincare, makeup, office tools, software?
I love so many things. This is why my home office needed that overhaul. I desperately needed a space to organize all my makeup and beauty products because my bathrooms just don’t have enough space.  Here is a short list of the things that I am currently obsessing over:
any Charlotte Tilbury lipstick or lipgloss
YSL Beauty Blur Primer
• Glow Recipe’s Avocado Night Mask
Shhh Silk pillow cases (they help keep your hair and skin soft while you sleep)
Amandine Botanicals Inner Glow Face Oil (a new Canadian brand. I love supporting local businesses)
Brazilian Bum Bum Cream
Moroccanoil Night Body Serum
• Dove’s Exfoliating Body Polish
It Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores bronzing powder

I consider my iPhone an office tool. I always keep my phone devices up to date when the newest phones come out. It sounds crazy but the camera and lens on my phones get so much usage that you can start to see it in the quality of the photos. I also rely heavily on some phone editing apps as I do snap a lot of images on the go to use on my social channels and website sometimes, so I need to be able to edit on the fly. I love using both Darkroom and Snapseed.

What is your childcare situation?

Maxwell isn’t in daycare. We opted to not have her to one right now. I did some research and really didn’t find any that I loved. Because both of our jobs are very flexible and we don’t go into an office, we figured we didn’t really need to force the whole daycare sitch but that meant we had to be on the hunt for a nanny. It was a painful, tedious and long process – weeding and trialing out candidates – but we ended up finding the most amazing woman to help us with Maxwell. They are absolutely in love with each other and it’s such a beautiful bond to watch. Emma is with us during the block of time that I have set aside to work Monday to Fridays and often stays later if I need her to. I get questions a lot about whether I think it’s a bad idea to not have her in school, you know to help her socialize with other kids her age, but I am not worried about that at all.

What are the challenges you face as a parent and entrepreneur?

I think some of the toughest challenges are finding balance, taking vacation time for the family, and saying no to certain opportunities. When you’re self-employed you feel you need to be on and working all the time. The emails don’t stop and there is always an opportunity presented that can take you away from time that has been set-aside for family. Taking vacation or sick days for myself when I am ill is hard because I know if I don’t work, I don’t get paid.

Has parenting changed the way you run your business, or vice versa?

100%. I mean, I was always conscious on the brands I partnered with and the messaging I put out there but after becoming a mother and having a little girl, I felt even more responsible in regards to who I collaborate with and more importantly, the topics discussed – especially around body positivity and inclusivity in media.

The term ‘Social Media Influencer’ tends to be thrown around a lot these days. Sasha stands out as one of the true Influencers for moms who want to be inspired to be the best versions of themselves – she is living her life in a truly authentic way and using her platform to create a positive impact in a space where there can be so much negativity. She’s built a strong community by not just portraying, but really being true to, the strength, integrity and beauty of what it is to be female entrepreneur in today’s world. Follow along over at her blog hereInstagramTwitter, or Facebook. And if you want more stories like Sasha’s delivered to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter here.

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XO Chats with Muhammad Kermalli

Father of two boys // Owner of Skytek

Written by Jessica Gedge // Photographed by Joelle Segal

We don’t typically think of executive office spaces as being inspirational but that’s exactly the feeling that was invoked after meeting with Muhammad Kermalli at Skytek. Though he originally started with the intention of providing executive spaces for businesses, the concept evolved into becoming a complete ‘success centre’ for his clients. Upon our arrival we were met by the staff with smiles and multiple offers of tea and coffee – we felt like we were being hosted at a good friend’s home. This authentic ‘good vibe’ feeling, coupled with the array of professional services, makes it easy to understand how Muhammad has built Skytek into a true success story. 

What has your journey as an entrepreneur been like?

I started in finance, moved to IT and realized that I was just hitting too many limits. Limits with how I could service my clients, limits with ideas and innovations. I guess you could say I discovered that I may be an entrepreneur when I just couldn’t seem to “fit in” with a “job” where I constantly ran into limits that unreasonably curbed the growth and joy I strive to experience every day.

I wanted to create a specific kind of culture and a community and this is where Skytek came from. Skytek provides industry leading solutions for flexible, furnished office space layered with more support options than any other. We’ve brought paradigm change to convert what was once referred to as a virtual office or executive office centre to a true Success Centre that clients can rely on to help them navigate all cycles of their business. We give our clients everything they need to succeed – whether it’s virtual services, physical space, technology, or any backoffice support. 

It feels like you’ve built up a really tight-knit community here.

I believe in making people feel at home – that’s why one of our ‘fireable offences’ is not smiling at guests or offering them a drink! We want people to feel welcome when they come here. We’re also selective with our clients. We’ve built a great culture here so we don’t just accept anybody – there has to be a fit in terms of how they treat our front staff, how they treat other clients, their culture, and their vibe. 

How does Skytek differ from a co-working space? 

What we found through research and talking to business owners and entrepreneurs is that they want to be close enough to others to collaborate, but when it comes down to buckling down and getting work done, reaching goals and making things happen – they need focused space. So while we do offer co-working solutions, our private offices enable people to really ‘do vs. talk’. We don’t serve beer every day at 4pm!

But on the same note, we encourage the relationships and community through offering regular meetups and networking events. This way the folks here have the option to get together whenever they want, when it makes sense for them, but not to the detriment of reaching their goals.

You mention networking – in this day and age it seems there’s a networking event happening every day! What are your thoughts on how to build true connections?

People can get very one-dimensional with their definition of networking. Deep relationships don’t usually happen if you go out there with the mindset of pitching your business at every chance you get. The best way to network is organically, let the relationships happen naturally and talk about anything other than business! Often at networking events it’s like one big pitch-fest or speed-dating session, with people basically exchanging verbal business cards and it’s very fabricated. I think most of my network has been built up by just being open to conversation – whether it’s someone sitting beside you on a plane or someone in line at a coffee shop.

Absolutely. Connecting on a human level! With everything you’re doing, how do you stay motivated?

Easy.  I love what I do, and I only do what I love to do. When it’s such a pleasure, motivation comes naturally.

What advice have you received that really resonated with you?

There’s so much, and they all connect. All related to the fundamentals – Integrity (be true), Compassion (be kind), Courage (never give up), & Balance (work hard, and have fun).

Do you have a mentor?

I have many mentors. That’s all I try to surround myself with. It’s not just people who I can learn from, but people who inspire me. What’s amazing is just how “ordinary” they can appear to be.

What is your favourite part of your business and why?

People – I’m fascinated by how diverse we all are, yet how we simultaneously have so much in common.

Challenge/Change – What we do is not easy and we’re constantly offered opportunities to raise the bar. It’s never boring!

Has parenting changed the way you run your business, or vice versa?

Absolutely – parenting affects business. After all, your business is like your baby! Patience is probably the greatest element. The kids are a big part of the day (person to professional balance), and a big reason when I’ve chosen to work the way I do. 

What are the challenges you face as a parent and entrepreneur?

Parent – The biggest challenge is making the kids independent of me while still keeping them close. It’s the ultimate paradox.

Entrepreneur – The only two real challenges: 1. Getting the vision across correctly to minds that may filter based on limits. 2. Navigating across various industries where objectives are often not aligned and we need to build enough common ground to bridge the distance to our goals.

Describe your typical day (or if you don’t have one, describe your ideal day!).

My day, every day, has two parts:

  1. Offer/Accomplish something: Could be anything. Talk to a new prospect/client; Moving a project forward; Meet new strategic partners; Overcome or help someone overcome a hurdle.
  2. Stop and smell the roses: Introduce amazing people to one another; Play; Learn/Teach; Family/Friends; Pray/Offer thanks.

If you could meet anyone, who would it be?

This is a tough one. I already meet everyone I want to meet – primarily my family/friends; and there’s no one I’d rather spend more time with than my mother (God rest her soul). 

However, amongst the mere mortals…if I could turn back time: Ghandhi, Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee.

Today: The Dalai Lama, Barack Obama, Angelina Jolie, Roger Federer.

 How do you carve out time for yourself?

Read the book Essentialism, and then like Nike says, “Just Do It”! There’s a saying, “Everyone dies, but not everyone lives”. Say that enough times, and is not a question of, “how do you….”, it is “how MUCH do you”. 

What is your go-to dinner recipe?

Anything my wife makes, otherwise I’m making eggs.

How do you stay organized?

Since I’m very forgetful, I use prompts and triggers; and set them all up from the start. One just leads to another until the task is complete.

Do you recommend any books/podcasts/social media accounts that you’re inspired by?

The Alchemist – The first book I read that got me to really start thinking.

The Magic – A great read on how to make things happen.

The Qur’an – I’ve never seen a book that offers great insights every time I read it, no matter how many times I read it.

What are your favourite tunes to listen to, to get motivated?

I love listening to the sound of water, any kind. Rain (calming), streams (inspiring), waves (motivating).

What are your favourite – office tools, software, restaurants, things to do with your family?

Office tools and software keep changing…I simply rely on much smarter people in this area to guide me.

I don’t have a favourite restaurant since they all pale in comparison to my wife’s cooking. The Cheesecake Factory has my favourite desserts though!

As family, we do just about everything together – meals, boardgames/sports/walks, travel, humanitarian work.

If it were always up to me…golf and being on a boat.

Where do you see Skytek in 5, 10 years? What are your goals with this business?

I totally expect Skytek to make more of a global impact, we’re now well on our way. What’s exciting is that we may just be able to become the “game changers” we aspire to be. Skytek has been the basis for a new project I’m working on, Lavita, that combines the concept of ideal working space with ideal living space and providing life experience. It’s a passion project that will enable people to travel and have a life while growing themselves independently. 

It’s fitting that Muhammad’s business is called Skytek – we see him as a unique combination of being a ‘blue sky’ visionary with the determination, mentality and skills to execute and move those big ideas into reality. To learn more about Skytek, check here. If you’re an entrepreneur wanting to connect with others and solve business challenges, Skytek offers a very cool event BlindSpot, that you can learn more about here. To learn more about Muhammad’s new project, Lavita, check here.

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XO chats with Jessica Gedge

Mom to Hunter, 8 and Max, 6 // Marketing + Communications Consultant

Written by Jessica Gedge and Joelle Segal // Photographed by Joelle Segal 

Learning how we do our best work as an entrepreneur takes a lot of time and consideration. This week we are diving into the life of another XO Co-Founder, Jessica. Jess and I (Joelle) have known each other for over 12 years and having worked on various ventures together, we jive very well as a team. Similar in many ways, yet we both bring different strengths to the table. Jessica is a marketing rockstar, strategizing in ways that my brain just cannot! Read more about Jess – who finds she is more productive when working outside of her home – photographed at the beautiful and new co-working space and studio, Artscape Daniels Launchpad.

What has your career journey looked like so far?

I co-founded my first business straight out of university. It was a high-end kitchen textiles business and I did everything from product design, sales and marketing and PR to wholesale and retail tradeshows. After running that business for over seven years my partner and I sold it. I’ve had stints in corporate communications, worked as a small business consultant for a municipality, and as a marketing and communications manager for a non-profit. Mostly though I realized that wherever I was I like to carve my own path and being an entrepreneur has really allowed me to be present with my kids in a way I really appreciate. You and I met over ten years ago and really clicked, and we started our first venture together, ReBash, where we realized how well we jived both creatively and professionally. This led us to create The XO Project.

Why did you start The XO Project?

I remember you and I were talking together about how often we felt like a lot of what we saw on social media just didn’t truly reflect our lives and our experiences, in terms of being parents and entrepreneurs. We wanted to create a platform that is able to inspire, provide resources and a community for parentpreneurs that we felt was missing from the space.

For The XO Project, I create the editorial content and work on marketing and branding. I source out cool entrepreneurs to connect with and interview them and have so much fun working on this.

Tell us about the consulting work you also do.

I’ve had a wide range of experience throughout my career, but I’ve always been drawn to working with entrepreneurs. Much of my work revolves around helping businesses reach their goals through strategic marketing and communications and I absolutely love talking anything around partnership development and branding! I basically just love helping people find ways to grow their businesses and learning about all the different types of entrepreneurs there are out there.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I get inspired by everything from music and art to dining and travel experiences. And a lot from conversations – I’m inspired by people who are really passionate about what they love to do.

Describe your typical day.

I wake up around 6am and get ready before the kids are awake. I don’t ever feel like I’m truly ‘ready for the day’ if I don’t put on makeup and get dressed properly, it’s just my thing. I’m definitely not a ‘work in jammies’ person. Since summer has started we’re on a camp schedule so I let them sleep in until around 8 then I get them ready and feed them and drop them to day camp. I typically schedule meetings in the first half of the day and then leave the second half of the day to catch up on client work, emails and administrative work. I pick up the kids around 5 and then we have dinner before my husband gets home because they’re usually ravenous. We typically go out to the neighbourhood park each night after dinner until dark hits. My husband and I Netflix and chill after the boys have gone to bed or sometimes we go out on a date if we can get babysitting.

How do you carve out time for yourself?

I think it’s important to maintain a life outside of kids and work – so I try to schedule regular hangs with my friends and dates with my husband whenever we can. For solo time, I don’t schedule it in but I know I need it when I’m getting super impatient and cranky and at that point I’ll head to a bookstore and grab a coffee and just try to zone out.

To be honest I don’t really prioritize self-care, but I’m getting there. I’ve been making steps towards taking care of myself since I know logically that if we don’t take care of ourselves, our families in turn suffer, but it can be surprisingly hard to put this into practice in everyday life.

I suffer from anxiety and for the first time in my life I’ve been making effort to address it through therapy. I’ve tried a few variations of it but I’ve found that Inkblot has been amazingly helpful. So many things about it work for me – the ability to have sessions online, the convenience of doing it from home and to be able to select a therapist based on their background and profile and my needs. Pretty cool that it’s a Canadian company, too!

Working out is going to be another priority this year and even though it’s pretty much halfway over (2020, I see you!) it’s better late than never, right!?

How do you stay organized?

I’m all about the old-school notebook and agenda! I need to have everything written down and I’ve been using Moleskine for awhile now and love the simplicity of the calendar. I pair this with Google calendar and reminders to make sure I get out the door on time for meetings. But I’m pretty organized as a person, probably to a fault. I’m the one in the friend groups who’s coordinating the Christmas get together in July lol.

How do you balance work/life priorities?

“Balance” is a tricky word, right?! There are days when I feel so on top of my game with work and then I have some kind of kid-related “crisis” and it kind of feels deflating. But it’s just is how it is, whether you’re working a 9-5 or running your own business, the benefit of being your own boss is having the ability to set your priorities and timelines according to what makes the most sense for you. Nobody has their lives together 100% of the time and it’s important to have those conversations so we can all relate and help each other.

In terms of childcare, both boys are in after-school care and we’re lucky enough to have grandparents and aunts/uncles that help out whenever we need a break.

What are the joys/challenges you experience as a parent and entrepreneur?

I think the luxury of being an entrepreneur is the ability to be flexible. I can be there for the appointments, the after school programs, the sports etc. as long as I build it into my schedule.

The challenge for me has always been working from home. It’s not a problem for me to adhere to a routine and be disciplined enough to get the work done – what IS a problem is not having regular adult interaction. I mitigate the loneliness by making sure to have regular meetings and appointments set up for each week and also working in a co-working space, like Artscape Daniels Launchpad. It’s taken me so much longer to understand this about myself than I thought. Connecting with other people on a face-to-face level is essential to my well-being. In today’s remote world it can be all too easy to become isolated, so I’m making sure to take action against that and fill my ‘bucket’ with positive, challenging and interesting interactions.

What is your style?

I’ve always gravitated towards tailored looks – as much as I love the way certain styles look on other people at my age I definitely know what suits me especially after my body’s changed after having kids! I wear a LOT of black but am making a conscious effort to include more colours in my staples – so I love a good neutral like olive green, mustard, burgundy and navy.

What are your favourite ways to get motivated?

Music plays a big part in getting me motivated – if it’s too quiet I can’t think! I’m a big 90’s kid at heart so I love some 90’s hip hop, R&B and dancehall. Much to my husband’s chagrin I’m also a big Drake fan lol. Getting up and moving around helps, and checking in with my awesome business partner always motivates me 😉 We also have this awesome motivation tool we created that includes other tips for staying motivated.

What are your favourite – skincare, makeup, office tools, software, restaurants, things to do with your family, ways to unwind?

I wish I was better at skincare and I KNOW that I need to start a routine at my age, but to be completely honest there are even nights I go to bed with my makeup on. It’s my dirty (literally) secret. I know that’s truly gross but I’m usually so exhausted and I get a lot of compliments on my skin so…maybe the secret is laziness???

I love the routine of putting on makeup and my favourite products are Laura Mercier tinted moisturizer (it gives JUST the right amount of coverage without being cakey), black waterproof eyeliner, Tarte eyeshadow, Glossier highlighter and Nars blush.

In terms of software I’m a big fan of the Instagram add-on to Chrome that allows me to post using my desktop. It’s changed my life!

We love eating out as a family and you’ll find us brunching on the weekend or enjoying a good patio during the summer months. We also love to hit up the Evergreen Brickworks to hike and take in the markets and we love a good festival, too.

Has parenting changed the way you run your business, or vice versa? 

Parenting while being an entrepreneur has made me value TIME. So whether it’s being as efficient as possible or having flexibility to rearrange my schedule, I love the #boss life because it allows me to create a life with my family where I don’t have to choose them vs. work (most of the time). I also like being able to demonstrate to my kids that there are different ways to be successful, and that life doesn’t always have to fit a preconceived notion of what you should do in order to be happy.

Now you know about both of the creatives behind the Extraordinary Ordinary Project. Note that we offer business services to help your company reach your goals – check out Jessica’s work over here and be sure to drop a comment or reach out to us and let us know if you have any other questions for Jess and the work she does!

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