It started with a wedding.
Seema Sanghavi was in Dehli to attend a friend’s celebration in 2016, when she heard about a local non-governmental organization (NGO) that was training women to be seamstresses and placing them in jobs at a fair wage.
“Upon meeting them, I instantly felt compelled to help,” Sanghavi recalls. When management told her their biggest challenge was finding work placements, she impulsively promised to get involved.
“Getting ahead of myself, I told them I would start something and work with them exclusively. I had no idea what we were going to produce. I just knew I should do something.”
Eighteen months later, while on a run, she had an “a-ha” moment. Ruminating over an article she’d read about how food waste contributes to global hunger, she came up with an idea that would leverage the popularity of foodie culture and the growing interest in food insecurity and sustainability. “I thought, ‘Why don’t we create a kitchen textile brand where every product has a give-back model, providing meals to alleviate hunger?’”
Sanghavi founded Cooks Who Feed, a Canadian kitchen apparel maker that works with charities to translate sales into meals for people in need. The company’s flagship product is an apron, hand-crafted by the women Sanghavi met in India, all of whom are paid fairly and work in safe conditions.
By sharing more than a third of their apron profits with charities that rescue surplus food in Canada, the U.S. and India, Cooks Who Feed maintains a “one apron equals 100 meals” model. So far, that’s translated to over 500,000 meals, and more than 11,000 hours of fair-trade work for the women who make the aprons.
“I think every business should focus on social responsibility and sustainability,” says the Mississauga-based entrepreneur. “Can you imagine what the world would look like if all companies placed people and the planet over profit?”
Commitment to sustainability
Sanghavi is one of the recent deserving recipients of the Visa Canada She’s Next Grant Program, an innovative initiative powered by Visa Canada in collaboration with iFundWomen, which supports women entrepreneurs with funding, coaching and peer-to-peer connections.
Sarah Steele, senior director of small business products at Visa Canada, says She’s Next was launched to give a leg up to women-owned businesses – especially important in the wake of pandemic-related revenue challenges.
“Our hope is that the She’s Next Grant Program will help support women entrepreneurs with the funding they need to survive and thrive, and to bring coaching, peer-to-peer connections, and inspiration to women entrepreneurs in Canada and around the world,” Steele says.
Visa Canada received applications from more than 2,000 businesses across the country and across all sectors. Steele notes this third round of recipients include a diverse group of women entrepreneurs whose businesses have embraced innovation to inspire and drive change within their communities.
“These three women truly embody what it means to be driven by your passion,” she says. “They are each focused on inspiring change and each of their businesses supports a unique cause, motivating them to grow and succeed.”
A ripple effect of change
As Elaine Leung was finishing her doctorate in marine biology, she came to an unsettling realization: At least 30 of the species she’d studied would likely become extinct within her lifetime.
“I realized that doing research for governments and universities was not resulting in conservation action fast enough,” she says. “Our ocean – our life support system – is under great threat and needs our help now.”
Leung founded Sea Smart, a charity that runs educational programs – summer camps, workshops and team-building exercises – to build a love of the ocean in Canadians, especially young people.
“While most youth know and care about climate change, there aren’t enough resources to help them do anything about it. We introduce our students to the basics of sustainability and marine biology in a way that’s fun and memorable,” Leung says. “We love to empower them to make tangible, positive impacts in their lives and the lives of their families and friends.
In less than six years, Sea Smart has taught more than 40,000 people in-person in the Vancouver area and, through online educator resources, over 700,000 people in 30 countries.
“I’m so grateful to be a recipient of this award, because it’ll help us deliver even more high-quality programming to youth in the Lower Mainland [of B.C.],” Leung says. “[Often] funding is only usable in specific ways, which often don’t include operational costs or administration. The Visa Canada She’s Next grant will allow us to fill in the gaps wherever funding is most needed.”
Keeping takeaway containers out of the trash
Catherine Marot is here to make a case against waste – literally. With her business, CASE, Marot is on a single-minded crusade to take those ubiquitous black takeaway containers and divert them from landfill.
The idea for the business was sparked when Marot began informally collecting, washing and reusing her office colleagues’ lunch containers. “It was really a frustration about how low our recycling rate is in Canada, and thinking, ‘What if I just collect them myself then?’”
In its first year – operating only in Toronto – that’s already added up to 200,000 plastic bowls dropped into one of CASE’s bins (mostly located in condos and offices, which pay for the service) and then picked up by Marot herself and taken to a specialist black plastic recycler. (Most municipalities, including Toronto, don’t recycle black plastic because sorting machines can’t “see” it.)
“Honestly, even though all 200,000 of those containers have physically passed by my eyes, it doesn’t seem real,” says Marot, who juggles the business while working full-time in the corporate world.
Marot says that while handling all those plastic containers can be physically taxing, the mental hurdles can be even more challenging, such as building the confidence to go to potential customers and “say a number” that will cover the cost of the service with room to grow the business.
“It can be intimidating as hell because you’re so emotionally invested.”
That is why receiving a Visa Canada She’s Next grant has been so validating, Marot says. “To have a company the size of Visa believe in what you are doing and support what you are doing is everything to a small business,” she says, noting that the funding has helped them increase their reach, which ultimately translates to more containers that don’t end up in landfill.
“Any time I sign on a new customer I’m proud,” she says. “Proud of myself for having the confidence to navigate those situations, and proud of what we are about to accomplish together.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Visa. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.