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Shop Small is a monthly series highlighting small business owners from diverse backgrounds. This series aims to go deeper than your typical product roundup, diving into the inspirational stories behind some of our favorite brands. By taking a behind-the-scenes look at how their shops came to be and highlighting the products they (and their shoppers!) love, we hope to put a deserving spotlight on these marginalized business owners.
In 2002, Michaelee Lazore started making soaps in her kitchen — mostly, because she couldn't find skincare products that were locally made, let alone made by an indigenous company. Lazore, who is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Akwesáhsne and Northern Paiute from Nevada, infuses her culture into her work by experimenting with indigenous-inspired scents (namely, sweetgrass, cedar and sage).
She found that people were excited to try her products and it soon became possible to turn the hobby into a full-time business. Today, Sequoia sells an array of artistic soap bars inspired by indigenous stories and legends, natural candles, incense and fragrance oils and a mix of bodycare (think lotions, scrubs, mists and lip balms). Customers can shop the brand at its flagship store in Kahnawake, Quebec, and independent gift shops all over Canada and U.S. (check the website's store locator).
Here, we speak with Lazore, who shares how her passion for culture and love for art and science inspires her deeply. The entrepreneur also explains when she decided to "be fearless" and "never look back" when launching the brand and how she ensures her products remain unique. Here's what she had to say:
What does Sequoia mean to you?
I’ve always thought the name was beautiful. When I looked into it, I learned sequoia trees are one of the oldest living things on Earth (they can live 2,000 to 3,000 years). The name represents longevity, beauty and strength. That's what I want my business to be: Something that'll be here a long time.
What are your best-selling products?
Our two main products are soaps and candles, and anything in the sweetgrass line is a bestseller. Every sweetgrass soap bar has an actual piece of sweetgrass that's hand-picked by a friend of the family. The sweetgrass really resonates with people who are indigenous, but non-indigenous customers enjoy the products, as well.
Other original scents included Sky Woman, Red Clover, Turtle Island, Cedar and Blackberry Sage. When it comes to new scents, I usually start with a story and then interpret it through the blends of the scents and the colors, if it's a soap.
Blackberry Sage Mist
Moon Dance Soap
Large Red Clover Canoe Candle
What did the early days look like?
I started with a craft show and sold out completely, which led to a lot of home parties. When you start that way, you're doing everything yourself — researching, formulating, printing, packaging and selling. At the time, I was working as an engineer. Eventually, my boss actually sat me down and said, 'I think you have to make a choice.' I thought about it for maybe 20 minutes, then put in my two-week notice.
I just went for it and didn’t look back. People would say, 'Are you crazy? Why are you quitting your stable engineering job?' but I realized that wasn’t my dream. I was looking at the clock every day waiting for five o'clock, counting down the minutes until it was time to go home.
What makes Sequoia unique?
I'm able to tell my cultural stories through the products. For example, the Sky Woman line brings awareness to our creation story. Sky woman fell from the sky when the world was just water. When she fell, she called the birds who helped her land. She called the animals to bring dirt up from the ocean floor. They were able to put the dirt on the back of a turtle, where land began to grow.
As I was creating that soap, I wanted three layers to represent the sky world, land and water and show how the three are connected. For the scent, it’s a mix of citrus and ocean notes, with some florals.
What inspires you?
Soap-making blends my love for arts and sciences with my culture. (Art comes into play when creating the physical look of the soaps and science for great formulas that can be replicated over and over again). My mother and grandmother were both artists. I have been inspired my entire life by my grandmother, who made beautiful beadwork, moccasins and cradleboards.
What are three things you've learned as a business owner?
If you want to grow, you can't do it all alone. In the beginning, I had to do it all alone, but I was able to hire help once I started my flagship store. Find staff that fits with your business.
Value your products and your time. One mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make in the early days (myself included) is underpricing products — maybe even losing money on a sale. Look into the cost and put a dollar value on your time and energy.
Don’t think of other small businesses as competition. One of the main things that I always like to promote is collaborating with other indigenous, woman-owned businesses. It's not competition — instead, you should be thinking you have the potential to grow one another.
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