I was 21 when I entered a women’s shelter. With nothing but a few dollars, I started a cosmetics brand. Today, my company is worth millions. This is my story
I was born in rural Ontario. The closest town was Elmwood, population approximately 250. When I was six months old, my parents split up, and my mother took me and my two sisters to live in a shelter in Walkerton. Soon afterward, we moved to Alberta, just outside of Edmonton, to be closer to her family. The years that followed were challenging and fractured, time split between my parents, step-parents and grandparents. They were all kind in their own ways, but by age 17, I was eager to find a life somewhere else. I had been working for a photographer who owned a modelling agency in Vancouver, and he liked my work ethic and had told me to call him if I ever needed a job. So I did. His agency needed an assistant immediately. I went home and told my mom I was moving. She didn’t try to stop me. I packed my meagre belongings into my silver Hyundai Accent—hot-pink flame decals running down the sides—and drove 12 hours west to Vancouver.
Through Craigslist, I found a dingy apartment with broken blinds in a subsidized housing complex in Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood. I slowly worked my way up the agency’s ladder, and by the time I was 19, I was managing my own roster of models. I also finished my high school diploma through correspondence, studying at night and passing my exams after a few tries.
In 2010, a close friend introduced me to her cousin, a man in his 40s who had just moved back to Vancouver from New York, where he had run a series of successful businesses. He was intelligent, charismatic and passionate—unlike anyone I’d ever known—and we clicked immediately. We talked and laughed for hours. For our first trip together, he took me to Palm Springs and Las Vegas, spending thousands of dollars on hotels, food and entertainment. But for all the extravagance, what I was really attracted to was the way he saw me: as capable and smart. He was always encouraging me and telling me all the things I could do. I was swept away.
Five months into our relationship, I called him and got his voicemail. I texted, and when he didn’t reply, I knew something wasn’t right. I called his friends. I called his family. Nobody knew where he was. I didn’t know what to do. Over the following weeks, I received emails from him—rambling, incoherent messages that did little to explain why he’d left or where he’d gone. He would ask me if I would like to come and join him, but he wouldn’t say where he was. I pored over each message, searching for clues as to his whereabouts and the reasons why he’d left. I missed him, and I worried for his safety. I also worried about myself—scared that without him, I’d retreat to my old way of living, my old way of thinking. Finally, after five months away, he emailed to say that he was coming home. I picked him up at the airport, and we continued as if nothing had happened.
Soon, life returned to normal, and we moved into an apartment atop a mostly empty strip mall. It was a unique converted living space, and at first, I loved it. It didn’t register that we’d moved to a secluded part of town where I knew no one, and where we had no neighbours.
Sometimes, I would walk through the door and he’d have a gorgeous home-cooked meal ready. He liked to film our excursions together and then stitch the footage into a series of short videos. Often, he would take those reels and cut them up into small strips, which he’d hang around the apartment as mementos for me to find.
We took care of each other, so when I discovered he had a cocaine addiction, I felt concern, not anger. There were other signs of trouble, though. He would get mad if I left the house without telling him. At times he seemed consumed by paranoia. Once, in late 2011, I told him I was heading to the mall to buy him a Christmas present. Then, as I was wandering from store to store, I heard my name over the mall’s speaker system. He had called security and gotten them to page me to confirm that I was where I’d said I would be. I was worried, but I told myself that once he got his vices under control, things would get better.
They didn’t. When he got mad, he would throw things, often in my direction. Once he cooled off, he would apologize sincerely. When he felt me pulling away, he would write me heartfelt letters, pleading for me to stay, claiming he couldn’t get better without me. It worked. I felt it was my responsibility to help him, since he’d been such a pillar of strength and support for me. I cared for him and wanted him to get better, so I stayed.
I locked the door and with my hands shaking, listening for the sound of his returning car, frantically googled the closest women’s shelter
At the end of September, one of the models I managed, Maple Batalia, was shot and killed in a parking garage at Simon Fraser University by an abusive ex-boyfriend. Maple and I had discussed our boyfriends before, and I remembered the breezy, casual way we discussed their toxic behaviour—the menacing outbursts, the emotional manipulation. In a moment of clarity, I asked myself, How many chances will I have before I end up like Maple?
Four months later, in the midst of one of his outbursts, my boyfriend threw a metal tray in my direction, leaving a deep gash in the floor, then got in his car and sped off. I ran into our home office, jammed a chair under the doorknob, and—hands shaking, listening for the sound of his car—I googled nearby shelters. I called one, and the woman who answered gave me the address and told me not to share it with anyone—not friends, not family. She instructed me not to put the address into my GPS and to turn off location services on my phone. She said that if I thought he was following me, I should drive straight to the nearest police station. Thankfully, I arrived without incident.
I was given a shared room decorated with women’s rights riot posters from the 1960s and ’70s, and my own list of chores. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck, but I didn’t let anyone know. I took time to do my hair and make myself presentable. I remember someone saying, “Brandi is not going to be here for long.” The implication—that my appearance invalidated my experience—felt so unfair to me at the time. Inside, I was falling apart.
While I was in the shelter, I needed something to distract me from my situation. I had daydreamed many times about starting a makeup line, and now I had the time and space to focus on it. I drew inspiration from my surroundings. The women at the shelter represented different languages, ethnicities, income levels and ages, but the vast majority of us used beauty products. I envisioned a cosmetics company that would help women in a direct way.
I had no experience in running a business, but I didn’t let that stop me. From the shelter, on my laptop, I watched Photoshop tutorials on YouTube and learned the basics of web design. Then I put my new skills to work. I built a website and created a catalogue of products featuring lip glosses, bronzers and lipsticks by downloading stock images and photoshopping my brand name, “Karmaface,” onto them. I emailed retailers in Vancouver to spread the word. Of course, none of the products existed. At least not yet.
Five days after I’d entered the shelter, I went home. I loved and missed my boyfriend, and I clung to the hope that everything would improve. I so badly wanted our happy life back. He was deeply apologetic. He promised things would get better, and I believed him. I told him all about Karmaface, and as usual, he was supportive. I was optimistic.
But his behaviour didn’t just continue—it escalated. In February 2012, I drove 16 hours to my sister’s house in Leduc, Alberta. I lay on her couch with an ice pack on my face. I had always prided myself on being resilient, but in that moment, I felt defeated.
I had been in touch with my boyfriend over text, but I hadn’t told him where I’d gone. I didn’t realize that he had changed the settings on my phone to give himself access to all of my texts and, through geotracking, to my location. Right before Valentine’s Day, a dozen roses showed up at my sister’s door with my name on them. He soon called, and against my better judgment, I agreed to meet him at the airport.
My sister and I had never directly discussed what was happening, but before I left, she placed a copy of her house key in my palm and said, “Use it whenever you need to.”
At the hotel, my boyfriend kept suggesting that we go away together that night—somewhere warm, like Venezuela. It would solve all our problems, he said. I scrambled for excuses. I said I had agreed to babysit for my aunt, who lived in Fort McMurray, five hours away, and who had just had a baby. He relented and came with me. We took a bus there, booked a hotel and rented a car. In the mornings, he would drop me off at my aunt’s house, then he’d come back to pick me up half an hour before she got home. He didn’t want me talking to anybody about our relationship. He was careful not to let on that there was anything amiss, and in my aunt’s presence he was his usual charming self, attentive and kind. Still, she sensed that something wasn’t right.
One day, she came home early from work and asked me what was going on. When my boyfriend arrived and saw my aunt home, he told me sternly, “It’s time to go,” then drove me to our hotel room. I could tell something bad was about to happen. In the room, I discovered cocaine in his pocket and confronted him about it. He was furious. I remember thinking I would die that night. I set my phone to record and hid it behind a lamp. I wanted someone to know what had happened to me if I disappeared. But I wasn’t some passive bystander—I fought back.
The next thing I knew, I was coming to in the hotel room. He was gone. I called my aunt, and her husband drove me to the hospital, where I stayed overnight. I had made up my mind—I wanted a restraining order, and, at my aunt’s urging, I decided to start an official paper trail.
I chugged milk and packed my purse with free pretzels. I didn’t know when I’d eat again
At the Fort McMurray RCMP detachment, two officers questioned me, one male and one female. I told them everything, but to my surprise, the male officer didn’t believe me. He didn’t photograph my injuries and he didn’t search my ex’s name to see if he had a criminal record. Instead, he tried to usher me out the door.
Incensed, I refused to leave until they went further with the investigation. Finally, they searched my ex’s name and saw that he had a record for assault against a police officer. They also called the shelter in Vancouver and confirmed that I had stayed there a month earlier. Then they consulted the Crown prosecutor, who issued an emergency protective order. The RCMP also pressed charges and began a search. They told me that he had probably fled the area. I wasn’t so sure. A few days later, police arrested him near my aunt’s house.
While he was in jail, I went back to Vancouver to collect my things from our apartment, only to discover that he had changed the locks. I called the police, who helped me get inside, but I was too late. The apartment was empty—my clothes, photos, other sentimental stuff, all gone. He had also wiped out our joint bank account, leaving me all but penniless.
I sat on the front steps, pulled out my phone and started searching Craigslist for an apartment. I found a listing for a bedroom—a mattress in a den, really—in downtown Vancouver. I met the other tenant, Zach, who was a big sweetheart—burly, heavily tattooed, patient and kind. Plus, there was a concierge at the apartment, which made me feel even safer. My mom loaned me some money to help with the deposit.
I was more determined than ever to make Karmaface work. With the help of some friends and industry contacts—and a lot of Google searching—I developed a lipstick, bronzer, foundation, lip gloss, mascara, blush and eyeshadow. But when it came time to produce them, the manufacturing company required a large minimum order, and it was way more than I could afford. I called them and promised I would soon put in a larger order if they’d just produce a few samples. It worked.
I decided I wanted to throw a launch party, so I put the word out and explained the concept—how one dollar from every sale would go to women’s causes. To my surprise, people lined up to help. The Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver provided a free event space. The singer Will Blunderfield performed, and a group of influential women—including Ronnie from The Real Housewives of Vancouver—modelled my products on a runway, carrying signs with statistics about domestic violence. I put my products on display, telling no one that these samples were in fact my entire inventory. We received good press coverage, including a cover story in the Georgia Straight. When a reporter asked why I’d chosen domestic violence as my cause, I withheld the truth: that I’d experienced it firsthand.
I focused on growing the business. Since I had no cash, I asked retail customers to pay upfront, then used that money to fill their orders. I took on a bunch of different side gigs, too. I worked at a private jet terminal as a customer service rep. I did sales and marketing work for a jewellery company. On weekends, I did makeup for bridal parties.
Then, just a few weeks after the launch party, I received a cease-and-desist letter alleging I’d committed trademark infringement. My now-ex-boyfriend had registered the name Karmaface. He contacted all my customers, and they pulled my products from their shelves. He called my manufacturer, who refused to make any more of my products. I knew nothing about business or copyright law, so I called and asked my ex how I could get my company back. Eventually, I sold him 20 per cent of the company in exchange for permission to lease the name I’d created. I felt cheated, and I almost quit. Later that day, I saw a Post-It note stuck to the side of my building. In black marker, it read, “Stay Strong.” Who it was for, I had no idea, but I chose to believe it was for me. I took a photo, which I still have.
My trademark troubles weren’t over: I soon learned that one of my competitors held the trademark for “Karma,” and I was served with another cease-and-desist. This time, on advice from my agent, I relented. I decided I’d start again with a new name. My makeup agent agreed to partner with me on a new line, which we called Evio based on our middle names, Evelyn (hers) and Iona (mine). As I had done with Karmaface, we agreed to donate one dollar from each sale to women’s organizations, and this time we looked into natural, organic and cruelty-free products. We launched in December 2013.
Five months later, I woke up with the same sort of profound urge I’d had as a 17-year-old kid in Edmonton. I packed all my belongings into my car and drove to Toronto with a friend. We moved three times in three months, eventually settling into a small rental at Queen and Dufferin.
From the outside, Evio appeared sound, but there were a number of fault lines. I couldn’t qualify for a line of credit, and I had nobody to co-sign a loan. My diet consisted largely of Ichiban noodles, and I usually paid my bills late.
But my luck slowly changed. In September 2014, Evio received an order for 250,000 concealers. It was the kind of break I’d been dreaming about, but it also created a serious problem: I wasn’t able to negotiate an upfront payment, and I couldn’t afford to pay our manufacturer for that amount of product. At the same time, my business partner wanted me to buy her out. I had no money to do that, either. Out of ideas, I sold my couch, my coffee table, my electronics and everything else I owned except for my bed. It was enough to fill the order. I also sold my first equity stake to an investor, which gave me just enough to buy out my partner.
In 2016, I had another breakthrough. A major green beauty store in the U.S. called Credo started carrying my products. We were displayed front-and-centre in beautiful light boxes right next to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Juice products. The New York Times covered the opening, and other major publications were in attendance. Credo’s CEO decided to throw a party at their flagship store in New York City and asked me to be there. I knew I had to go, but I had only $250 in my bank account, enough for a one-way ticket and one night in a hostel. I went for it. I chugged milk on the plane to fill my stomach and packed my purse with free pretzels—I didn’t know when I’d eat again. I did my makeup in the sticky-floored hostel bathroom, then walked over to the launch and worked the room. The next day, I borrowed money from my mom for a flight home.
Customers, it turned out, wanted a cosmetics company that did good. In the summer of 2017, we pre-sold 277,000 units of our new product, a green-tea primer. In August 2017, a major skin care manufacturer called Hunter Amenities signed on as an equity partner, giving us access to their large facilities, resources and team—and the reputability of being associated with an industry leader. On the way back to the office in our car, one of our shareholders turned to me and said, “You don’t realize it yet, but your life just changed.” He was right.
Last year, we partnered with Aurora, one of the biggest licensed producers of cannabis in the world. The plan is to use hemp fibres to reduce the use of plastic, and cannabis oil to eliminate beeswax—which is often produced by killing or maiming bees. Recently, I was invited to speak on the business benefits of cannabis for an event at Jim Belushi’s house in Los Angeles. But the invitation came at the last minute—I wrote my presentation on the plane—and I didn’t find out where the event was being held until I was in the car on the way over, madly googling Jim Belushi because I had no idea who he was (I’m only 28!).
We recently moved into a new space on Richmond. I am one of the youngest CEOs in the city. I now have 10 employees, and the company is valued in the millions. In March 2018, we became the only Canadian company to be accepted into Sephora’s Accelerate Program, an initiative that helps women founders of cosmetic companies achieve greater success.
I haven’t forgotten why I founded my company. One dollar from every product sold goes to the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We also launched an online platform called Evio Community, which publishes stories on beauty, cannabis, fashion, feminism, wellness and entrepreneurship.
I’ve found that women tend not to share the darker parts of our lives because we’re afraid of being seen as vulnerable or weak—a fear that can be especially hard to tackle in business. But there’s strength in sharing how we’ve overcome challenges. I not only want to open up the conversation on mental health and domestic violence—and the often messy intersections between the two—but also to show other women that they don’t have to accept their circumstances, whatever they are. I’m not angry about the abuse in my life, or at my abuser, who I know had his own struggles. The way forward isn’t through antagonism or vengeance. That’s not how the world changes. The world changes when women decide it’s time to be strong and go big.
This story originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.