Source: Best Health magazine, January/February 2016
Streetcars rumble by outside, but stepping into the Leaves of Trees boutique in downtown Toronto transports visitors to a soothing setting. It’s blissfully quiet inside the multi-purpose space that houses an exposed lab in the basement, a modern apothecary shop on the second floor and founder Dr. Roohi Qureshi’s residence above.
The first thing that greets me is a wonderful spa-like aroma wafting from bowls of dried lavender and frankincense displayed on a rustic wood slab table. Against an exposed brick wall, shimmering silver tubes and amber-hued bottles line the shelves. A label proclaiming Rose Cardamom lotion catches my eye, and I immediately want to uncap each tester to indulge in everything the all-natural skincare collection offers.
That’s when Dr. Qureshi appears with a beaming smile to make my beauty dream come true. ‘I’ve always loved luxury skincare products,’ she says, offering me drops and dabs of her various concoctions that are all made in-house. ‘I have two showers a day. My whole life has been market research.’
What started out in her condo as a DIY beauty project has blossomed into a full-fledged business. ‘I’ve always been very interested in how things work, so one year I made soap for myself and made a ton of it. I packaged it and gave some to my friends. They liked it, so I screenprinted wrappers by hand and started selling it at holiday craft fairs. It was very successful, so I thought I’d see where I could take this.’
Then, on a trip to Morocco, she connected with a women’s co-operative that supplies the staple ingredient found throughout much of her small batch line: organic, unrefined argan oil. ‘I use it everywhere: on my face, under my eyes, in my hair,’ says Dr. Qureshi. Her glowing skin and glossy hair is an indication that the nourishing, protective oil delivers. I hold out my hand again. More, please.
Turning your side hustle into a full-time operation is a major accomplishment ‘ something that Dr. Qureshi is no stranger to. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemical engineering, graduated medical school and currently works part-time as an occupational medicine consultant at teaching hospitals in Toronto. She also has an appointment at University of Toronto as a lecturer. Oh, and she has attended Le Cordon Bleu Paris.
‘I wanted to become a pastry chef but thought I should apply to medical school and get rejected ‘ get it out of my system ‘ so that later, when I had a hard life as a pastry chef, I wouldn’t think ‘I should have gone to medical school.’ But I applied and got in.’
Still, running a successful skincare company just sort of happened. ‘I cut back [my workload] before I started Leaves of Trees because I thought ‘Why am I working all the time? I should be enjoying my life!’ I cut back and this grew to fill that space.’
It filled, and then started to overflow. In the early days, Dr. Qureshi spent many late nights toiling alone. ‘I’m very used to doing everything myself and keeping control of everything, but it wasn’t sustainable,’ she says. ‘Now I never work in the shop or do the production, and I’ve found a really great group of people who are talented and enthusiastic, and that’s been a fun part of this business.’ She mentions illustrators, architects, menswear designers and ceramic artists as recent collaborators. ‘You feel like you’re part of a community, always drawing insight from those around you. And through my connection with ‘ and observation of ‘ my informal mentors, I recognize that there are always opportunities to learn and to improve.’
A good gamble
Dr. Qureshi came to be an entrepreneur from a unique position: ‘I feel lucky to because I have a job that pays me well and I haven’t had to depend on other people.’
But the bottom line is that starting any sort of business can be risky: ‘My personality is a little bit impulsive, but before I jump, I calculate the risk. I think about what’s the worst that could happen, and if I can tolerate that risk if that happens. I feel that’s how you have to do things, to be able to take chances and move forward. But you can’t beat yourself up if you fail.‘ She is clear that everything she has done up to this point has been considered steps rather than blind leaps.
‘I started quite frugally, just depending on myself. It was very low-risk that way. I did what I could with what resources I had. That meant not being able to always do everything I wanted, but it was a better way to go, for me and my mental health. That way, I knew what’s mine is mine, and that’s all I could lose.’
The Leaves of Trees product line is set to expand with the launch of baby products and some additional home products that already include Turkish towels, robes and culinary argan oil. Dr. Qureshi finds that much of her inspiration is the result of problem solving.
‘I think about what I need or what my friends need, and then I try to build something on that. I like to come up with something that will help. I don’t think about what I can sell the most of.’
The star player in the lineup ‘ an all-natural deodorant that’s equally chic and effective ‘ is the result of such a challenge. As the product that put the brand on the beauty map (and, BTW, is loved by Canadian power fashion couple Joseph ‘Joe Fresh’ Mimran and Pink Tartan’s Kimberley Newport-Mimran), it garnered serious attention almost overnight thanks to a post on the popular website Lainey Gossip. That exposure led to incredible sales ‘ and an important lesson.
‘When that article was published, we received hundreds of orders,’ says Dr. Qureshi. Unfortunately, the endless list of eager customers was matched by insufficient structure. ‘Things were a bit chaotic. We had to learn about putting better information management systems in place to keep track of things. Every stage of growth pushes you to the next level.’
With e-commerce and a growing list of national and international stockists, Dr. Qureshi relies on technology to move her business forward, both internally and externally. For staying on top of tasks, she’s a big fan of app- and web-based program Todoist (sounds like ‘to-do list’). ‘A lot of my to-dos originate in my email, but if you’re off my first page of messages, then it’s a black hole that I won’t delete but I’ll never look at it again,’ she admits. ‘With this program, you can assign something to someone on your team, put a due date on it, add attachments and have communication within that item. I feel like it has really helped me.’
Leaves of Trees Argan Almond Butter
High in oleic and linoleic acids and teeming with antioxidants, Dr. Qureshi’s edible argan oil is literally beyond delicious. ‘There is preliminary research that shows that argan oil is cardioprotective and will help reduce incidence of coronary artery disease,’ she says. Here, she puts a Canadian twist on a traditional Moroccan recipe.
1½ cups almonds, toasted or raw
¾ cup Leaves of Trees Culinary Argan Oil
4 tbsp maple syrup (can also use honey)
¹/₈ tsp salt
Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor and process until smooth.