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Alexis Ashworth, founder and CEO of Root in Nature, tends to her horticultural therapy garden in Ottawa.Blair Gable

In April, 2022, on a brisk Saturday morning, Alexis Ashworth greeted a group of young boys at a farm located in Ottawa’s greenbelt. The kids, all with autism spectrum disorder, were part of a program Ms. Ashworth’s Ottawa-based company Root in Nature had created with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). That day, the children would get to dig and plant and learn.

And Ms. Ashworth couldn’t have been happier.

“I left the barn and I had this overwhelming feeling of joy,” she says. “This was just a dream a year ago and now it was actually happening.”

Root in Nature offers nature-based programs, corporate wellness programs and horticultural therapy that connects people with the healing power of plants. With a growing body of research showing physical, cognitive, psychological, social and creative benefits for people when they’re in nature – or even just close to potted plants in the office – horticultural therapy is growing in popularity. Launched in September, 2021, Root in Nature already has eight employees and is branching out to Toronto.

The venture represents a departure from Ms. Ashworth’s prior life boomeranging between finance, not-for-profit executive positions and getting an MBA. But she says it was a long time coming. After seven years as Ottawa CEO for Habitat for Humanity, she worked with an executive coach to see what her next professional step might be. The conversations kept leading back to gardening.

“Throughout the pandemic, I’d started turning to gardening and plants as a source of peace and relaxation to remain present,” she says. “I never considered it could be a career path.”

But when she connected with a local horticultural therapist, she suddenly had an idea: Why not use her business skills to consolidate therapists’ services and create a social enterprise? (A social enterprise is an organization which applies commercial strategies to achieve a social, cultural or environmental purpose.)

Or, in Root in Nature’s case, be green – and make green too.

A blend of passion and business acumen

In 2019, Canada was ranked the best country in the world for social entrepreneurship, according to a survey released by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which ranked 45 countries’ capability to grow and support entrepreneurs who focus on social, cultural or environmental issues.

Kate Ruff, assistant professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa, prefers to use the term, “social purpose organizations,” and says the best ones lead not only from the heart, but have mechanisms in place to measure impact too.

“It’s important to live your values – that’s why you’re in this business,” she says. “But how do you know you’re doing good in the world?”

To address that challenge, it’s important to have clear targets, gather data and feedback and then reflect honestly on whether you’re achieving the change you want to see, she says. It’s also vital to know the fundamentals of proper business management, she adds. That includes good accounting records, strategic planning cycles, HR systems and an understanding of who your competitors are.

“What makes a social enterprise so powerful is there’s a possibility to do good in a sustainable way,” says Dr. Ruff. “In fact, this should be the future of all capitalism. As consumers, entrepreneurs and investors, we want to embrace those making a positive difference and benefiting their stakeholders. That doesn’t work if the organizations are poorly managed and go out of business.”

Forfeiting security

Christine Trinh is co-founder of Beeja May, a new social enterprise in Toronto that helps parents shop for second-hand clothes online and keep fabric out of landfill. She says she has depended on the skills she picked up from an MBA and management experience working in real estate land development to launch her business.

After her daughter was born in 2018, Ms. Trinh and her husband Simon worked on the business in their off-hours. The growth was slow and steady until the pandemic hit and e-commerce took off. Eventually, they bit the bullet and left their jobs to work on Beeja May full-time.

“I’m not going to lie. It was easy and hard at the same time,” says Ms. Trinh. “It was easy in the sense that I knew where my heart was, and if I didn’t do it, I worried I would always have regrets.”

But forfeiting financial security was a tough call, she says. Although the company now employs 10 people and is growing, knowing she has a social mission helps during the long days and heavy workloads that go along with entrepreneurship. It’s important to pass along a healthy planet to her daughter, she says.

“To some extent, the business is inspired by her and we’re doing it for her.”

Freedom to call the shots

Noora Sharrab, co-founder and CEO of Sitti Social Enterprise in Toronto, left her job in the corporate world to build her dream career helping international refugees. Her organization gives refugees employment crafting handmade soap, towels, jewellery and other goods.

A self-described workaholic, Ms. Sharrab had been working 60-hour weeks as an executive assistant with a dental office chain for a demanding boss. She says she was on call day and night, and even found herself answering emails while in the hospital delivery room after giving birth to her second child.

“I felt if I didn’t answer emails, I was going to be seen as weak,” she says now.

But it wasn’t until she started having panic attacks that she knew it was time to make a major change and throw all of her time and energy into Sitti.

“These women have no one else,” Ms. Sharrab says of the 34 refugee women and people with disabilities she employs in Jordan. “We’re building a company that’s really looking towards empowering and inspiring women. We have to be a vehicle for them – as opposed to me working my darndest just so I’m benefiting some guy’s profit margin.”

Ms. Ashworth at Root in Nature says she thought long and hard before deciding to run the organization as a social enterprise instead of a non-profit. But in the end, she knew building a business was the right call. For starters, she plans to stick with the company for the rest of her career, something that probably wouldn’t happen if she was a CEO or executive director working under a board of directors.

She always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, she says, and having the freedom to call the shots and make quick decisions. She also appreciates the flexibility to attend to her own self-care even in this frantic start-up phase. In other words – yes, she’s still gardening.

“I have my trays of seedlings and I’m going to plant out tomorrow, actually,” Ms. Ashworth says. “That’s another joy of being an entrepreneur: I can garden on a Thursday if I want.”

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