Viola Cohen

Email: viola-cohen@news.ok.ubc.ca


 

ALLISHA HEIDT WANTS TO REASSURE UBC OKANAGAN’S ENTREPRENEURS that it’s okay to feel lost sometimes. The owner of Kelowna’s Chickpeace Zero Waste Refillery also wants hopeful business owners to know that following your heart and your instincts can produce incredible results.

Heidt graduated from UBC Okanagan with a Master of Arts degree focusing on sustainable communities, and recently joined entrepreneurship@UBCO’s Mentor 2 Market program. She will mentor students on how to incorporate sustainability into their business practices, as well as share with them stories from her successful career as an entrepreneur.

“It’s such a dream to be able to give back in that capacity and to hopefully influence and create even more of a ripple of change through these young graduates. They’re so fiery and excited to have a sustainability-based business,” Heidt says. “Even if they’re not doing something green off the bat, they’re figuring out a way to make it more sustainable.”

Mentor 2 Market is an innovative, collaborative and interdisciplinary mentorship program within UBCO. Its mission is to help students, staff, faculty and alumni in their journey to start a business by connecting them to tools, customers, funding and community. The program is also designed to allow for long-term residency that is individualized and milestone-based to provide continued support to entrepreneurs. This is offered through tandem mentoring, two mentors for each business, from business leaders like Heidt. Mentor 2 Market builds off and compliments the five-part eDiscovery workshop series in partnership with Accelerate Okanagan.

Heidt said she agreed to get involved when UBCO first approached her to join Mentor 2 Market. Working with those on the Kelowna-based campus again is one way Heidt can pay it forward.

Allisha Heidt refilling a container in her refillery

“I’ve heard a few pitches already from students. Even if their business isn’t about sustainability, they want to be so green on the back end. It’s very humbling to be invited to be part of their journey,” Heidt says. “It’s full circle for me because I know what it’s like to be in that position, with all these ideas and not exactly sure what’s happening.”

Heidt admits to having those same feelings when she began her career. She would even admit she took some leaps before then while completing her master’s degree. When she began contemplating post-graduate work there was no such thing as a sustainability degree. But Heidt was able to select courses across disciplines to forge her master’s because even a decade ago, the concept of sustainability was just beginning to move from theory into practice.

Heidt said UBCO’s faculty and staff embraced the challenge of being among the first to offer such an education.

“My experience was unique,” she says. “I didn’t have any roadblocks. It was all very fluid and supportive. I think because the people that I was working with, those who were on my committee, they all believed in the future of sustainability and growing sustainable communities.”

Her first foray into the business world came with GreenStep Solutions, an environmental consulting company based in Kelowna. She then launched MotherLove Kombucha with a business partner, only just recently selling her stake as she branched out again to create Chickpeace.

Allisha Heidt throwing compost into a large compost dumpster

The Refillery’s compost drop-off program aims to make composting easier for customers.

Heidt said she envisioned Chickpeace as something of a lifestyle hub for people who want to do better for the planet. The refillery is more than a business that sells zero-waste, sustainable household products; it also sells beauty and lifestyle products, small groceries, and collects compost. The composting program gives apartment dwellers or those without space to compost a depot to drop their organic waste. It started with one 200-litre bin, quickly expanded to four 200-litre bins and now requires a three-cubic-yard dumpster.

“I knew that I just wanted to have a meaningful business. I knew the planet needed businesses that had a social purpose in mind,” Heidt says. “There were few places in Kelowna where you could shop with your values in mind. It has been so exciting. I think we have grown in ways I did not expect us to grow. We get so many people coming in every single day. Thousands of pounds of compost have been diverted because of our program.”

Heidt knows it’s making a difference, and now she is hopeful her enthusiasm for sustainable businesses—not just refilleries, but all businesses—filters down to the next generation of graduates just the way UBCO supported her.

“I didn’t know the word ‘sustainability’ at that time,” she said. “I just knew when I came back and I wanted to focus my post-graduate work on helping to save the planet.”

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IF THERE’S ONE THING SHIVEN VINOD KHERA LEARNED at UBC Okanagan, it’s that anything is possible if your heart and mind are in the right place.

The Faculty of Management graduate was part of a team that launched tech start-up Linkbase Technologies Inc. through UBCO’s innovative Mentor 2 Market program, which helps build successful businesses by connecting students with mentors and giving them access to tools, customers, funding and community. Khera says the relationships he and the Linkbase team built on the Kelowna campus through the program were vital to their successes.

“UBCO encouraged us to continually work on our passions,” Khera says. “The professors encouraged us to push ourselves and strive for more. It became clear we could do it.”

Linkbase is an internet of things (IoT) firm that helps small- and medium-sized businesses develop smart products and automate services or processes. It allows users to streamline sometimes time-consuming or wasteful tasks. A hotel owner, for example, could automate checkout using Linkbase’s technology. With the push of a button, curtains in an empty room could close, lights could be turned off, door codes could be changed and climate controls adjusted—all customizable based on what IoT devices are in play.

Khera and his business partners received hands-on help from Mentor 2 Market; in addition to one-on-one mentoring with business leaders, the program offers a five-part eDiscovery workshop series, special information sessions on topics such as funding, intellectual property and company structure, as well as the popular Quick Pitch competition.

“The entire e@UBCO team works tirelessly for students and has a very welcoming and informative program that helps anyone wanting to take their idea to the next level,” Khera says.

Shiven Khera speaking to fellow entrepreneurs

It was during the Quick Pitch Competition—where students get facetime with investors—that everything started clicking for Linkbase. Not only did angel investors give it an initial $5.6-million valuation, but Khera and Co. won the $7,500 first-place prize in 2022. The company’s IoT platform is already supporting 100,000-plus devices, and much of the launch process was aided by Mentor 2 Market. And it’s not just in the interests of profit.

Khera says he gained a greater appreciation for the world around him by attending UBCO and meeting people from across the globe. It became imperative to him that Linkbase offer something for the greater good.

“The company could help save millions in energy costs, thereby reducing an industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. It could help save millions in water waste or streamline agricultural processes to keep food costs in check,” he explains.

That idea, he says, germinated during his first year at school. Khera says students felt empowered immediately to take ownership of their educational journeys with the support of faculty, staff and mentors.

“I was the co-chair of the entrepreneurship club at UBCO and we created a safe space for other students who wanted to start something, or had ideas, to do so,” he adds. “The idea was to create an encouraging environment and for students to be able to meet one another. That environment we created for students to share ideas, be okay to fail and encourage everyone was our safe space.”

It was that spark that resonated with Khera. UBCO gave students permission to extend themselves and their missions, to excel and reach for their goals. Not only did Khera help launch a successful business alongside his colleagues, but he matured into a global citizen at UBCO.

“If you could introduce me to the Shiven of four years ago, I wouldn’t recognize him,” Khera said. “I was shy, I was quiet. But meeting people on campus from all over the world brought me a new confidence. It’s an exciting time as I look ahead, and I know I will carry a piece of UBCO everywhere I go because this place transformed me into my present self.”

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GROWING UP IN THE SMALL ARGENTINIAN CITY OF RIO CUARTO, Maria Paz Marengo has had a passion for fashion for as long as she can remember.

“I’ve always loved it,” shares the fourth-year Bachelor of Management student. “The city I’m from is small—about twice the size of Kelowna—but everyone there looks really put together all the time. I used to binge watch all the red carpet shows like the Oscars and the Grammys just to see the fashion. I couldn’t care less about the award ceremony itself,” she laughs.

As Marengo’s understanding of the luxury fashion industry grew, so did her curiosity about its strange, almost illogical appeal. “What first caught my eye was the beauty of it, but I soon began to wonder why people buy it. Why would you spend an extra $500 on an item you can get from a fast fashion retailer? What’s the intention of the buyer?”

 It was with an eye to exploring a career in marketing and consumer research for the luxury fashion industry that Marengo arrived at UBC Okanagan. “Growing up where I did, everyone knows each other, which is why I chose UBCO,” she says. “Kelowna has a small-town feel. I didn’t want to go straight into a big city.”

“I remember moving out in my first year, and I saw people throwing out their clothes. That was a shock. In Argentina, we don’t throw out our stuff, even if it’s cheap. If we couldn’t wear it again, we would either donate it or cut it up for rags. I’ve never thrown anything out.”

Awakening to fashion waste

While Marengo easily adapted to life in the Okanagan, one thing took her by surprise. “I remember moving out in my first year, and I saw people throwing out their clothes. That was a shock,” she says. “In Argentina, we don’t throw out our stuff, even if it’s cheap. If we couldn’t wear it again, we would either donate it or cut it up for rags. I’ve never thrown anything out.”

That was the beginning of Marengo’s awareness around waste and sustainability in the fashion industry. When she landed in Dr. Annamma Joy’s course on brands, culture and marketing, Marengo was thrilled to discover her passions were starting to intersect. “I looked at the syllabus and noticed that one of our projects was all about luxury brands. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m really excited!’”

Hoping to do research during her last summer as an undergraduate student, Marengo reached out to Dr. Joy. The management professor, who is writing a book on the future of luxury brands and sustainability, suggested Marengo apply for an International Undergraduate Research Award for a project tied to that topic. When the award was approved Marengo dived right in, first examining her own purchasing decisions, and then exploring circularity—the entire life cycle of the product—in the luxury market.

Reflecting on the Sustainability and Business (MGMT 380) course she took as part of the Bachelor of Management program, Marengo points out that sustainability is no longer optional in business. “That course taught me that sustainability is not just about greenwashing or just about being ethical. If you want to succeed in the long-term, you have to be sustainable,” she says. “The investment in sustainable initiatives actually ends up paying for itself. That was a big realization for me—that it’s not that you have to be ethical and environmentally friendly for the sake of it. There’s profit in this. This is the future; this is business.”

Maria Paz Marengo sitting in UBCO's courtyard

Bachelor of Management student Maria Paz Marengo.

Designing a more sustainable future

Today, Marengo says the research skills she learned over the summer are being put to good use in the final, research-intensive year of her undergraduate studies. “I feel like I know where to look for information now, and how to find reputable sources that are useful,” she says. “I don’t lose time by looking at information that isn’t usable.”

Her summer experience has also changed her perspective on the world, and how she interacts with the planet. “I used to be someone that was like, ‘Yeah, I care about sustainability.’ Obviously, I believe in climate change. I believe that we have to change something to save the planet. But when I started looking at what I bought, the only thing I was concerned with was whether it was sweatshop-free. I wasn’t considering the environmental aspect of sustainability.”

These days, Marengo is making more conscious decisions to find sustainable alternatives to the fast fashion she’s used to purchasing, and actively seeks out brands whose business model is rooted in sustainability. With graduation on the horizon, Marengo is also more focused than ever on the business of luxury fashion, contemplating a move to the fashion capital of the world, Milan, with the hopes of pursuing a master’s degree in luxury management.

Working in the luxury fashion business has always been a dream, she says—only now, she has added a passion for sustainability into the mix. “I think a lot of luxury fashion companies are more advanced, in a way, than conventional fast fashion companies, but there’s still a long way to go,” she says. “After this experience, I think that helping integrate more sustainability into the industry is something I could help with.”

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