Kiara LeBlanc puts ideas on paper, and immediately into action. Part inventor, part problem solver, her warm personality shines with intention – Kiara wants to help the world be well. As the Vice President, Brand & Creative Director of Saje Wellness (a wellness retail brand experiencing explosive growth), the vibrant personality is sharp when it comes to creating solutions for her devoted consumers. Read on for more on modern wellness and Kiara’s mission:
Why Saje, and what’s the meaning behind it?
For me personally, I started out wanting everything for Saje, but I didn’t want to be a part of it. It was something my parents were doing, and I love what they’re up to, but I wanted to do my own thing. I was in the acting world, and they needed someone to do social media. And I thought, well, this is great. I could do social media, I could act, this’ll be fun. It was something I could do to contribute to the business.
Within about six to eight months, I fell in love. I loved team meetings, I loved the people I worked with. I’d go to auditions, and the environment would be tense, or awkward, or uncomfortable. It wasn’t me at all. I love sitting down with people and connecting for real—not just coming into these auditions. It’s not fun. This isn’t who I am. It got to the point where I was helping other people more than I was helping myself, because it was what I loved: helping and working with other people. At Saje, we care about each other. I actually wanted [them] to do well. This environment is so much more me.
My agent called me right around the same time I was having these thoughts, and asked: ‘is your heart in this?’
Do you think it showed?
Oh yeah. She called to tell me she’d gotten me this audition, and was really excited about who I was going to be reading with, and all I would say was, ‘cool.’ Before, I’d be so excited. Now, I was just going through the motions. You could tell when you compare my [auditions] from back then. The joie de vivre, the zeal, the passion of who I really am—just started to fade. And my passion in going to the office, and hanging out with the crew…. it was natural and I just fell into it.
It was a director who came out of the company who said to our who said to Saje’s Co-Founder, Kate Ross LeBlanc, ‘Kiara’s not just a social media manager. She’s more of a marketing manager.’ So I said, ‘great.’ I took on a little bit more. Kate was doing product, and I found it fascinating. Because a lot of our packaging suppliers are awake when we’re asleep, packaging became something I did after my 9–5 responsibilities in marketing. With thai food, a bottle of wine… it was so fun. This is what I want to do.
I straddled both for about six months, but it got to the point where I had to pick one. It was one of the best six months of my career. When you’re young, you’re so agile. I chose product, because a) I have such a passion for it, and b) I knew it was going to be easier to find someone in marketing than in product. I have such a passion for product; it would’ve been hard to find someone who knew the ingredients, where innovation was possible, and all of that.
Why Saje today? The overarching [reason] is that I have such a passion for where wellness can actually be a thing… seeing that actually come to life lights me up. Every day, when I get up in the morning, it’s the people I work with. I work with some of the most passionate, zealous… they’re such incredible people. When you go to the dentist, a lot of people want to go home and rest. Most people at Saje’s offices just want to come back and hang out. There’s so much love. It makes hiring a slower process, because for sure when I’m interviewing someone, I want to make sure they’ll fit into the family. There’s over a hundred people now in just our creative office, and there’s no one I wouldn’t call at 3 a.m. in the morning if my tires broke down and I needed someone to come get me. When I joined, it was a team of six. Now, it’s more than 600 people, but it still feels the same. It’s such an amazing energy.
I read about how the company got started—with the car accident—and it’s pretty interesting because back then, nobody was doing anything remotely innovative in the wellness space. What do you think wellness means to a modern person now?
We have this conversation a lot internally—about not just what wellness means to us, but what does it mean in terms of what we can change. Wellness seems very overwhelming to people right now. We use the term ‘holistic wellness,’ and people’s eyes go big because they think they have to do so much: It’s what you eat, what you put in your body, how much you sleep or exercise, your finances, your friendships. There are so many things.
“Wellness seems very overwhelming to people right now. We use the term ‘holistic wellness,’ and people’s eyes go big because they think they have to do so much: It’s what you eat, what you put in your body, how much you sleep or exercise, your finances, your friendships.”
At Saje, we’re really passionate about breaking it down. What can I do today to impact my wellness? But are we really going to follow through with going to the gym four times a week, for a year? Probably not. People try to make these big jumps, but wellness is really abut choice—making small choices, and turning them into habits. It’s not this big lofty thing. It’s about breaking it down, and what you can do today to contribute to your wellness. If you’re feeling run down, and you’re a runner, maybe it’s time to stretch for an hour. Somebody else might choose to have a glass of wine with a friend. What is that thing that’s going to bring wellness? Wellness can be overwhelming to the modern person, so at Saje, we try to break it down. All we have is this moment, so what is the best thing I can do right now to encourage you to make wellness happen?
That way, it becomes very accessible. When we think of wellness, there’s a visual we associate with it—somebody in athleisure, drinking lemon water, etc. That’s holistic, but as an individual, as long as you’re doing something that takes care of yourself, you’re contributing.
That’s the whole point. Don’t try to make it something that’s for the month, or the quarter. My boyfriend is a big gym rat, and he doesn’t like the term ‘goals.’ He doesn’t like these things we do that [pan out] over a period of time. Go do something now.
I’m not quite there—I still believe in the power of visual [aspiration]—but I get a little bit of what he’s saying. Don’t try to make your goals so lofty, because it can be intimidating. ‘I’m going to turn my wellness around this quarter.’
Just saying that out loud causes so much stress.
Exactly! [laughs] That’s why we use the word wellness, but I don’t want to talk to you about it. I want you to feel it. We want you to be in a holistic environment where you walk out feeling better. Whatever that means to you.
How does being in a family-owned business affect the dynamic of how you work?
In some ways, it’s everything. And in others, it’s not noticeable. That’s why I struggle with this question. Is there a different dynamic on a Saturday afternoon compared to when I’m working? Sure. But what’s glorious about it is if I’m working at our cottage in Whistler, my mom would never say, ‘you’re working again?’ Instead, we’ll have a really interesting conversation about it.
At the same time, family dinners can turn into a weekly review. When people on my team say, ‘I feel like you’ve been a little hard on me this quarter,’ I always respond by telling them, ‘that’s how you know I really believe in you.’ Working for your family is like that every day. You’ve got people who believe in you, and therefore they’ll push you. I don’t get away with the little things. If I have an off day, I’ll get a call that night from them asking what they can do to help me get back on track. Kate would do the same thing with our VP of marketing. It is that environment. I find it funny, because what ends up happening is that we’ll end up harbouring a family for all of us.
Working for my family is phenomenal, challenging, and a growth exercise every day. It’s been fascinating to witness what they’re doing. There are a lot of other businesses I could be working at, but I’d be on the outside looking in. With Saje, witnessing what they’ve been doing for the past 24 years in an internal way, that’s so special. I’m so grateful to be able to see our accomplishments. We celebrate each other, razz on each other, joke with each other, and invite each other to see things differently.
At Saje, we have a saying: ‘holding the highest thought.’ Everyone can have a different idea of the same situation, but we believe in choosing the story that holds people to the highest thought. For example, sometimes the website doesn’t get updated on time, or a post on social doesn’t work out. Instead of thinking the person accountable doesn’t care, maybe they had a family emergency. I’m so grateful for this on the hard days, when everything seems like it’s because of you. The biggest impact it’s had on the Saje culture overall is in how it makes everyone feel like they’re part of a family.
I like how you’ve categorized wellness in a mental way as well. A lot of those exercises around gratitude, and having the benefit of the doubt… those are things that hold people to a higher standard. It’s great to know that it flows down to the culture.
For sure. We’re doing these heat packs for the holidays, which have a combination of different herbs, which people can microwave. Jean-Pierre did one, Kate did one, and I did one. My quote on it is ‘wellness is choosing happiness in each and every moment.’ Because I really do believe that. A lot happens in life, and we have the opportunity to be frustrated by it. But we also have the opportunity to be happy—see challenges as something to learn from. When you choose happiness, and choose to see things with a positive lens, that’s wellness. Ultimately, that’s the underlying piece of wellness.
How does one determine what’s natural and what’s not? There are so many options; how does a consumer walk in and ensure that they’re using what’s best for them?
The first piece is intuition. This might sound odd, but I promise it works. Your body knows so much than we give it credit for. There’s a reason why we don’t take a deep breath when we share an elevator ride with somebody who has a lot of perfume on: Our olfactory system is saying, ‘I don’t want this.’ When people walk into Saje, they first look a little confused. They don’t know exactly why they came in. The way smell can impact us—seen in the way we react when we smell an old boyfriend’s cologne on someone else—it’s because our body knows. Our bodies pick up things when we smell something. It’s like bringing somebody a plate of spaghetti and meatballs when they’re incredibly full. Amazing as it might smell when you’re hungry, it’s not going to be the same when you’re in a food coma.
If I don’t have a lot of time with someone in the store, the best thing I can tell them is: ‘Your nose knows. Just walk around. Smell things. If it doesn’t smell good to you, put it down.’ It’s like a buffet—you keep going until you see something you like. Our hormones and stress levels fluctuate, so things are going to smell differently to us. Certain times of the month, our immune blend can smell delicious and sweet. Other times, it might smell medicinal. The best thing to know what’s going to work for you is what feels good.
Another piece is the seal on our bottles that say they’re 100% natural. We put this on it as our stamp. It’s our way of saying, even if you don’t know anything about our store or brand, then at least you’ll know it’s natural. We make sure all our ingredients are on our packaging, and I mean all. Not just what’s beneficial, not just what it ‘contains’—everything. That’s what really gets to me when people show me products that lists just their ‘contained’ ingredients. Everything we have has a full ingredient list. It’s so important, because you can have more community trust. There are many ways that journey can start—with a body wash, or a lotion—but my goal is no matter how it starts, the natural messaging is there. That way, you can get into that headset really quickly.
One theme I’m getting from our conversation is just how knowledgable you are about the product and persona of wellness. How did you pick up on that, and how do you keep feeding that curiosity?
I’m very community-inspired. I can’t tell you how valuable it is to just play in our store and be with our community members—friends, family, newcomers who ask questions about where our ideas come from, or have suggestions about where the product can go. For example, I don’t have allergies, so it’s really helpful when someone tells me if a scent is a little strong. Or if our Tingle lotion isn’t tingly enough, we’ll reformulate to make it more tingly. I’ve been around the product for the past 24 years, but I learn so much from watching people interact with the product.
[Packaging] was a huge passion of mine when I started at Saje. I might know how good the insides are, but the outside was so ugly. You didn’t want it sitting on the counter; not in your purse. You don’t want to share it on Instagram or your friends. You never show someone your Vitamin C—you take it, and throw it back in the drawer. That’s the antithesis of what I want to do. I want to keep finding ways of making the product as user-friendly as possible. The sexier and user-friendlier it is, the more you’re going to want to use it. The more it’s working for you, the more you’re going to want to introduce it to your friends. That’s the chain effect.
What I love about it is the conversation it starts, too. Questions like, ‘what is natural?’ I hear about our customers who start with our Immune, and it turns into a conversation about hand sanitizers, and why we actually don’t want to kill that many germs. When a bug goes around, and if we haven’t been exposed to it because of this 99% Lysol stuff, we’re killing way too many germs. The earth is made up of that. We’re supposed to be around that. There’s a reason why diseases don’t hit rural areas as much. If you’re paying attention, you’ll see that there are these autoimmune things popping up in only urban areas. In rural areas, kids are playing outside—in the dirt, with animals, and that’s actually strengthening their immune system. In the city, it’s more homogenized. I’m really passionate about finding ways of killing germs that are as natural as possible, instead of synthetically going after everything.
A lot of it is marketed on fear, whereas Saje clearly opts for a more internal, educated way of being well.
Education, for me, is number one. When you walk into our store, our goal is not to sell you. It’s to educate you on why natural. My goal is to get you to a place where you can see ways of increasing your wellness in different areas—whether it’s one item, or in five items. If all I’ve done is educate you on why natural and why it matters, then I’ve done my job.
“If all I’ve done is educate you on why natural and why it matters, then I’ve done my job.”
‘Natural’ tends to have a certain aesthetic. Saje is very slick, thoughtful, and designed. How did that evolve?
It wasn’t always this way. When I started, there was a very talented woman who joined to help rebrand the company. At the same time, she was starting her own business. I was super lucky to have my first weeks overlap with her. It was like a passing of the baton—she was about 70% done with the rebrand, and I took on the last 30% of the vision. I absolutely felt like if Saje looked like something you didn’t want to just toss in a drawer, it would be so much more of a successful business.
People ask what happened in the five and a half years between what Saje was then, and where it is now. I hate to say packaging matters, but I really believe it does. It’s the same reason why a restaurant serving the best food under fluorescent lights wouldn’t work—you don’t trust it. I wanted Saje to feel like something you could trust to be remedial. A beautifully wrapped personal care product might not help you feel better; on the other hand, a medicinal product is not something you want to keep on the counter. The whole point is to have something you’d be proud to display, so you would keep taking it.
At the same time, our products act as preventative medicine. The goal of this is not, ‘I’ve got this headache, let me put this on.’ The goal is to use it on your hands and neck regularly, so you keep things circulated regularly, so the headache doesn’t hit. There are nebulizers you can put on your face and neck, but you’ve got to be really struggling before you’re pulling that mask out. But if you’ve got something beautiful in your space all the time, which has the benefits of strengthening your immune system, making your home smell delicious—then wellness is winning.
Where would you like to take Saje in the next decade or so, and into the digital age? What does that innovation look like?
Something I’m working on right now is called Aroma Time. It’s something that’ll be out sometime in February next year. It’s a two-tanked nebulizer, where you could put Energy on one side and Tranquility for sleeping on the other side. Let’s say you’re getting up at 6:30am. At 5:30, you could have Energy turn on silently, instead of using an alarm clock. Same thing for when you come home after work in the evening—you can have Tranquility turn on, and arrive to a home that smells deliciously of chamomile and lavender. When we look at innovation and what’s next, it’s very community driven.
We’re also looking at global markets. We want to do 250 stores in the next five years, so it’s exciting. The other thing is a home line that we can get going on. When I found out that women who stay home have higher cancer rates than women who work—bringing it back to the cleaning products—it was horrifying. I thought, ‘this just isn’t okay.’ So I wanted to find a way to innovate a home cleaning line, and have things that are essential oil based. The cleaning power that they have will blow your mind. If this desk was a bit gummy, and take Peppermint Halo, you’re going to see that it picks up and buffs all the little scuffs away. And it smells nice. Essential oils are very astringent, and they cut through a lot of grime. There are so many ways in which they could be used. Saje at Home is something we’ve piloted in our Robsen Street store, and I want to grow that line out. That’ll house the ultrasound diffusers, as well as all our diffuser blends, essential oils, and car products. We’re launching aromaRoam, which is a product you can fit into the cup holder in your car, or just plug into the USB dock; even your computer when you travel.
I was on a flight from Guangzhou to Bangkok, and I was like, ‘we’ve got to have a better travel nebulizer.’ I got a sketchpad, and started drawing, and worked with our awesome manufacturer to bring it to life, launched for the holiday season. The amount of times that I’ve been exhausted while travelling, and wished I had a nebulizer with me to instantly turn my [surroundings] into a space of wellness… that’s incredible.
I love how it makes you feel like you’re at home, as well.
Exactly. Smell is such a powerful thing. It could remind of you an ex-boyfriend, but it could also remind you of your mom. You can trigger that. It’s also incredible for productivity, or sleep. There was recently a study done, where a control group was exposed to a lemon scent, and their typing errors were reduced by 50% compared to the other scentless group. Lemon brings mental clarity. We can have that while we travel, or work—all the time, around us.
People ask me where I look for inspiration. And it’s so everywhere. We have a log of all these ideas. The more bandwidth we have on our product development team, the more we’re able to do. I want to get into more innovative diffuser blends. When you go into a grocery store, sometimes it’s corn that makes it smell fresh; sometimes it’s peaches, or avocados. Because of how large we are, I don’t want to do just small runs with unique things we find. But even if it’s just a three-month run, I want to get into that.