Building character Corydon cannabis shop offers feminine approach to industry
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Shira Bellan had tired of seeing Homer Simpson and comic book logos stare back at her while she browsed bongs online.
She and then-girlfriend Shanda Gagne wondered: where are the sleek, esthetically pleasing goods?
“We wanted to find products that would be appealing to women, and we found that that was really forgotten about in the (cannabis) industry,” Bellan, 35, said.
So, she and Gagne began their own company. At Character Co. (2090 Corydon Ave.) Batman and Superman were nowhere to be found.
Instead, glassware of different colours and painted patterns mingled with greenery along the walls’ shelves. Locally made bath bombs and hoodies lined the front. Edibles, flowers and other items found in Manitoban cannabis dispensaries took their place near the shop’s faux brick wall.
“Every little detail to this store we thought of and we planned out,” Bellan said.
It’s minutes away from her childhood home. Her mom will often stop in to buy a bath bomb or give a design tip, Bellan said.
“We have a lot of women come in that are inexperienced with the use of any type of marijuana,” she said. “It’s easier for us to relate to a lot of things. If someone says ‘I have cramps,’ we know what to tell them.”
She, Gagne, and store manager Jody Donnelly run the front desk — it’s a three-person show.
Though the co-owners were intentional about their feminine appeal, they cater to all genders. Or, to all characters, hence the name.
“We knew a lot of different characters enjoy cannabis,” Gagne said. “It’s just, (some are) quiet about it because of all that stigma.”
“We knew a lot of different characters enjoy cannabis… It’s just, (some are) quiet about it because of all that stigma.” – Shanda Gagne
Many clients are middle-aged or seniors, she added.
“We love everyone, and to us, anyone can be a character,” Bellan said.
Character Co. has been selling cannabis paraphernalia online for over four years.
Bellan met Gagne at a Toronto bar while on vacation around eight years ago. The two clicked, and soon, Gagne moved to Winnipeg to be with her partner.
They launched Character Co.’s website in 2016 after being frustrated by the male-dominated market. They bought wholesale goods like bongs and sold them online.
“It was just a side project. Shanda still worked; I still worked,” Bellan said.
In the early days of their venture, Bellan was a landlord and dog-walker while Gagne worked in finance for Dufresne Furniture.
“It just came to a point where it was like, do we continue this as just a hobby where we only put 20 per cent of our investment into it, or do we really want to go to the next level?” Gagne, 37, said.
After Ottawa legalized cannabis in 2018, the business partners decided to make the leap: they wanted a dispensary.
But, they had to wait. Government approval happened in waves, with the first being to major retailers, Bellan said.
Then, it took a year of paperwork and backend logistics before receiving approval. Bellan wanted a site in River Heights, near her family home. There were renovations to do, and a pandemic to contend with.
Character Co. officially opened last September; both Bellan and Gagne work there full-time.
“It’s terrifying, no doubt. I constantly go back and forth on whether I made the right decision,” Gagne said of quitting her corporate job.
“It was a no risk, no reward kind of mentality at the time.”
“We love everyone, and to us, anyone can be a character.” – Shira Bellan
It was a tough few months with COVID-19 and the blizzard-filled winter, Gagne said. Many locals avoided the Corydon Avenue strip mall because it contains Monstrosity Burger, a restaurant known for its anti-mask and anti-restriction stance, Gagne said.
“I’d say I (had) to kick out two people a day, at least, for not wearing a mask, and I (got) at least one who (would) argue with me because they have a (medical) exemption,” she said.
Bellan said pandemic-related politics reduced sales: masked potential customers turned away upon seeing maskless people in the shop.
“I’m a 5-2 female. I’m not about to get in some… man’s face over a mask,” she said, adding the company follows the government’s rules.
Starting Character Co. as LGBTTQ+ women has not added barriers. Rather, people seem extra supportive, Gagne said.
Bellan scouts for female and locally owned companies to promote in the store.
“Everything that we can support women for, we are,” she said.
She called Laura Kuzyk, a resin artist, in December. Bellan had searched Creations by Kuzyk’s Instagram page and wanted the coasters and trays.
Kuzyk experimented with Manitoba-grown hemp leaves for Character Co. and is working on ash trays.
“Just that she wants my stuff in her store, it was really nice to hear that,” the artisan, who has run her business for a year, said.
Kuzyk said she’s been asked to send the shop more goods — they’ve gained popularity.
“That was really exciting,” she said.
There are more women-led cannabis companies than years past, but the gains have been slow and small, according to Sherry Boodram, the co-founder and CEO of CannDelta, a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in cannabis.
Several factors, including a lack of funding or connections, are often roadblocks to women and people of colour who want to start in the industry, Boodram said.
“When you see someone that’s in the space that represents yourself, (it) gives you the confidence and even the network to be able to also participate,” she said.
“When you see someone that’s in the space that represents yourself, (it) gives you the confidence and even the network to be able to also participate.” – Sherry Boodram
Fourteen per cent of Canada’s licensed commercial cannabis production businesses are female-led, compared to 86 per cent male-led, according to a study Boodram cited from Health Canada’s Forum on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
She didn’t have the statistics about Canada’s cannabis retail sector, which Character Co. occupies.
Having various genders and ethnicities in leadership roles will expand the cannabis industry, Boodram said.
“They will bring their owned lived experiences,” she said. “They can target different markets, they can produce different products.”
Bellan said she’s noticed more cannabis paraphernalia that appeals to women since establishing Character Co.
“I think that women in the industry are starting to be a little more present,” she said. “It makes me happy.”
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.
Updated on Tuesday, July 5, 2022 6:49 AM CDT: Adds web hed