Q&A with SFU alumna and business woman, Leah Emmott

Former student brings compassion, sustainability to the Vancouver business scene

If you’re interested in breaking into the business world once you graduate, but feel like it’s an impossible feat, you should meet Leah Emmott.

Emmott, born and raised in Burnaby, graduated SFU in 2008 with a joint bachelor of business and communication, with a specialty in marketing and eco-business. Since her graduation, Emmott has successfully created, managed, and grown a company whose product is now stocked in over 400 stores globally.

Inner Fire is a clothing line that creates handmade yoga apparel for Vancouverites. The company has prided itself on mixing morals with business by creating an environmentally-conscious brand. Inner Fire has gone one step further and “made the decision to donate a portion of our profits to The School Fund, an organization that helps facilitate micro-financed educational scholarships for youth in developing countries.”

The Peak recently interviewed Emmott to talk about her inspiration for Inner Fire, and how she broke into the crazy world of business.

Peak: When did you first get the idea for your company, Inner Fire?

Leah Emmott: Back in 2011, I was working as a yoga teacher when I suddenly had to be rushed to the hospital for the removal of a giant ovarian cyst [. . .], which left me in recovery for six weeks. I had a lot of friends who were yoga teachers so I decided to make some gifts for them while I was off during the holiday season. The first items I made were yoga props and meditation cushions.

P: What led you to start selling your product?

LE: I had some people from my yoga studio ask if I could sell them some there. I just followed the demand and started to make and sell yoga props, bit by bit. A couple years in, I had the idea to expand my product offering with a line of eco-friendly leggings, which took me a few months to develop.

This was a huge turning point in the business because I finally was able to bring my passion for design and sustainability together. I started designing prints for the leggings, which were inspired by my love of nature and different cultures. The leggings were becoming really popular so I just kept on releasing new prints (in addition to new shirt designs) each season.

P: Why did you choose the name “Inner Fire”?

LE: I decided to call it Inner Fire because the area of my belly where I had the cyst was the same area where the third chakra resides. It is an area with fiery qualities that is responsible for passion, creativity, and drive.

P: How did Inner Fire transform from being an idea to being a successful business?

LE: A lot of people ask me how I managed to get to the one million[-dollar] revenue mark so quickly (within three years). At the very beginning, I was making everything myself and selling it locally, so there was a low barrier to entry and minimal initial financial investment. I started to burn out because I was still working full time and soon reached a crossroads where I had to make the decision to go full time or not. I decided to go all in.

I rented out a shared workspace and gave my company the full-time hours it deserved. Soon after, I hired my first staff person to help me with the screen printing. In that first year, I probably signed up for every local market or craft show I could get into. I hustled hard. There were some shows where I made $20, but it never deterred me from pressing on. At the core of it all, I really enjoyed what I was doing. I believed in my company’s values of local, ethical, and sustainable business. It’s that authenticity that attracted the right people to help me along the way.

P: How did you attract buyers?

LE: I splurged on things like photography and web design. Those were the things that allowed my company to look bigger than it actually was, which started to attract buyers. Then I started to grow the wholesale side of the business, which really helped increase my brand’s exposure and reach.

P: Why Vancouver?

LE: I love that Vancouver has managed to maintain a flourishing manufacturing industry that makes it possible to produce high-quality products locally.

P: What is the toughest obstacle you have had to overcome in the business world?

LE: You would think the answer would be something like ‘financing,’ but the toughest obstacle was actually my own self-doubt. I went into an industry I had very little experience in. I would often compare myself to competitors, thinking that I didn’t have the experience/contacts/profile necessary to make it. I realized pretty quickly that I just had to fake it ’til I made it, and embrace the feeling of discomfort. Business is really about being OK with not knowing what the heck you’re doing, and still doing it anyway (and trying again if you fail).

P: Since the creation of Inner Fire, what is the most valuable thing you have learned about the business industry?

LE: Community matters. I’m not talking about networking, I’m talking about real community. How do we build community? By giving something of value and nurturing real relationships. I remember when I was in business school, people would tell me all the time ‘make sure you go to those networking events’ and I just wanted to smack them in the face. Standing around with cocktail glasses and exchanging business cards never felt authentic to me.

Looking back on my career with Inner Fire, I realize that pretty much all of my key contacts were introduced to me through friends and people in my yoga community. There’s a mutual reciprocation that happens when you work that way. You start to see yourself as an opportunity-maker, too. When you create opportunities for others, and work in a collaborative way, everyone wins.

P: Where do you see yourself, and your product, in five years?

LE: I hope to expand my product line and become a global brand with a reputation for eco-initiatives. Maybe the Patagonia of the yoga world?

P: If you could give any advice to SFU students hoping to work in the business industry, what would it be?

LE: It’s tough for this generation because we have zero job security and we’re living in a time when everything is changing so quickly (I mean, is anyone still playing Pokémon Go?). I suggest making adaptability your super power. I can’t tell you how many MBAs I’ve turned down in job interviews in favour of someone with less experience, but who has proven they can keep up with the changes of an ever-evolving industry.