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How a beauty entrepreneur launched a multimillion-dollar business from a shelter

Few self-made entrepreneurs have launched a multimillion-dollar business with nothing to lose, and within five years secured a partnership with one of the biggest cannabis companies in the world.

That mindset is what Evio Beauty Group founder and CEO Brandi Leifso said motivated her to start a grassroots cosmetics company while living in a domestic violence shelter.

“When I started, my life looked drastically different,” Leifso told Yahoo Finance. “When you’re in those situations, you have nothing to lose.”

Since launching her company, Leifso has grown a handful of artisanal makeup products into a thriving cosmetics brand, and entered into an agreement with Aurora to produce a line of CBD-infused skin care products.

‘A reprieve from what was going on in my life’

Starting the business, Leifso said, has been one of her smallest challenges.

“It was something for me to work on that excited me, that was a reprieve from what was going on in my life,” she said.

Leifso’s being modest about her risk. She did have something to lose – exactly $15 that she spent on a portfolio to create the first ideation of her cosmetics line, rather than on essentials like food and a permanent place to call home.

“I photo-shopped a catalog of makeup products by Googling ‘lip gloss’ and ‘eye-shadow’ and putting my own logo on them,” she said. “And then I shopped that catalogue around to local boutiques.”

Brandi Leifso

Skeptics told her she was crazy. She had dropped out of school at 14 years old, had no business training, and spent valuable time creating concepts in a saturated, then $460 billion, cosmetics industry when she could have been looking for a job.

“Why create a cosmetics line that didn’t exist?” her skeptics asked.

“I was very much in survival mode,” Leifso said.

Her first “yes” came from Unity Clothing, a Northern Vancouver boutique that placed an order under the company’s former name, Evelyn Iona Cosmetics, for Leifso’s conceptual line of eye shadows, lip-glosses, lipsticks, mascara, bronzers, and blushes.

“That was before we had an actual product. They had purchased it, pre-ordered it, and we had it delivered to them in three months,” Leifso said. “We, as in, me. It was a one-woman show at the time.”

The partnership with Aurora

Today, Evio is projecting $5 million in annual sales, and has attracted investment not only from Aurora but also from Hunter Amenities, a major manufacturer of personal care products used in hotels, and from Canadian venture firm, Breakwater Venture Capital. In its venture with Aurora Cannabis (ACB), Evio will use cannabis to reduce its products’ impact on the environment, as well as infuse the much hyped ingredient cannabidiol, or CBD, into Evio-branded skin care.

“We work really closely with these companies,” Leifso said.

“We dated a ton, even with VCs, even with other investors, not just in the cannabis space, but we really dated who we’re in business with,” she said. “I truly, truly believe that if you are getting into business with someone you should be willing to ‘business marry’ them.”

Evio and Aurora will create six exclusive beauty products featuring hemp-oil, including serum, masks, and wipes. For now, the partnership will capitalize on the plant’s ability to reduce packaging waste, offer ingredient transparency, and eliminate the use of animal byproducts, rather than on therapeutic claims.

“We’re really focusing on those attributes of the plant, as opposed to what it does for our skin,” Leifso said. “The reason for that is actually because there’s not a lot of scientific publications or scientific proof that it benefits your skin any more than say avocado, or than another less complex plant does.”

While the FDA has been working to better understand the health implications of CBD use, it still requires cannabis products, hemp-derived or otherwise, to refrain from marketing claims of therapeutic benefit.

An ‘affordable luxury’

Leifso says the close scrutiny and regulation of the plant is good for the largely unregulated cosmetics industry.

“We can even tell [customers] who grew it, and where we grow that ingredient, because we grow it all through our partner with Aurora,” she said. “I really think that we should take precedence from that regulation and bring it into the cosmetic space that has almost none,” she said.

In its next phase, Evio hopes its partnership with Aurora will allow it to manufacture cannabis-infused beauty products that can make positive therapeutic claims — though she admits that Evio will have to wait to see where the science takes it.

“We're actually getting into clinical trials and clinical studies, so that we can actually continue to honor the trust that we have with our consumer and bring that forth by actually having scientific proof as to what it's going to do for your skin,” Leifso said. “We know that it's high in omega 3, 6 and 9, so we do utilize it for those hydration purposes, but we don't speak to that ingredient particularly for the topical assets of it.”

Evio plans to sell its cannabis-infused products under the “affordable luxury” philosophy that it promotes for its already-established line. All of the company’s products retail for less than $50, whether direct-to-consumer or through its retail partners.

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