"Ask a woman for directions," says Roohi Qureshi as we squeeze past a donkey cart, seeking an exit from Marrakech's bustling medina. "Women are too busy working to give you the runaround. Those men, leaning on their motorcycles, always expect something in return."
Sure enough, a berobed woman laden with produce appears from behind the hustlers to point the way to the Djemaa el-Fna market. "See," Qureshi says with a smile on her face, "Women are the real deal."
Qureshi didn't set out to become an advocate for women. Like her latest career – she is the founder of the Toronto-based natural skin-care brand Leaves of Trees – it happened organically.
Her first visit to Marrakech was as a tourist six years ago, when she was still practicing occupational medicine full-time. During a tour to the coastal city of Essaouira, she discovered a cooperative for Berber women producing argan oil, the hydrating nut extract popularized by the now-ubiquitous MoroccanOil range.
Back in Canada, she put her master's in chemical engineering to work, using the oil to concoct soaps and lip balms out of her studio apartment. Her friends, who often shared the bounty, spurred her on, prompting Qureshi to wonder how she could fuse argan oil into more products. After returning to Marrakech, she zeroed in on the argan-oil supplier Coopérative Marjana.
Soon, Qureshi's apartment was so cluttered with buckets of salve that she couldn't pull down her Murphy bed. She infused a line of lotions with frankincense, orange blossom and grapefruit and a body butter with olive oil and coffee – all natural elements sourced in Morocco. Her Lemon Verbena Scrub contains 30 per cent argan oil (by comparison, other lines often use less than five per cent). "I've only developed the things I'd want personally," says Qureshi. "I love bath time."
A year ago, Qureshi cut back on her medical practice and moved Leaves of Trees into a townhouse with a showroom, basement lab and living quarters upstairs. Production went bonkers after the deodorant appeared on the celebrity website Lainey Gossip. Last month, unable to lift new soap moulds that can weigh up to 150 pounds, Qureshi installed an industrial hoist.
While her staff does the hauling back in Toronto, Qureshi invites me along on her annual junket to Morocco. On the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, we pass orchards of dates and olives before the Argania Spinosa trees come into view, their branches so broad and abundant that goats climb them to perch above the desert. The cooperative has grown from a single hut into a tidy row of pastel cottages. In the largest, women crouch on striped rugs shelling the green argan nuts, then beat them with stones to extract the flat white seeds. One worker uses a volcanic-stone quern to grind the kernels into paste. Another wrings out the oil – at a rate of about a quarter litre a day. "She has really soft skin," Qureshi says.
These women have become like family to Qureshi, who leverages her growing business to pay it forward by supporting small businesses like the coop. "I already have another job," she says, referring to medicine. "For me, the bottom line is not the dollar."
Qureshi uncaps a tub of colourless balm and offers it to me.
"Want some? It's got peppermint essential oil to relieve headaches," she says, then adds with an earnest smile: "Coming soon to Leaves of Trees.
Leaves of Trees products, including a new Marrakech-inspired travel kit launching this April, are available through www.leavesoftrees.com and at boutiques in Toronto, Muskoka, Ont. and Palm Beach, Fla.
This story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Globe Style Advisor. To download the magazine's free iPad app, visit tgam.ca/styleadvisor.