Written by Kelley Keehn
Thursday, November 15th, 2018
Born and raised in Algeria, Sihem Benali recalls it was the devastation of the Civil War that brought her to Canada in 2003. She learned English, put her business degree to work and found her dream job in the financial services industry.
She moved to Ottawa and felt at home in the nation's capital. Unfortunately, her dream quickly vanished as she found herself amid a major layoff.
"I remember that day. I had a lot of colleagues that were married, and they were both working for the company. I remember everyone went to the parking lot after and started crying. People were in panic," she said.
Sihem saw a great deal of stress that day, which was a turning point for her life.
"Maybe it's time for me to follow my dream and start off on my own? I always wanted to start my business. Maybe it's time for me to spread the word about this argan oil," she said. Argan oil is a plant-based oil native to Morocco that's used for everything from cosmetics to food.
That was the catalyst for her to open Bio Secrets. Thanks to hard work, business acumen and one chance national TV appearance, Sihem now has her product in over 400 stores across the country.
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
"Because of the temperature difference between North Africa and here in Canada, I started having skin problems, and so I was applying my argan oil daily."
Sihem describes the region where she was raised in as, "very poor, and we didn't have all the westernized products that North Americans have. We only had what mother nature provided, so that is all we had to use."
It's still her go-to product today, and her passion in argan oil continues to drive her company.
"I carried on my beauty routine here, and a lot of people started showing an interest in the product. Many of my colleagues started buying from me," she said. "I was just doing it part time, sharing with coworkers, friends and family, but I didn't start the business because I was reliant on having a steady paycheque. I didn't think about the business, but when I was laid off, that was it – the push to take it further. That's how I decided to start a business."
Hard Work Produced a Timely Break
One day, Sihem was doing a demo of her product at a trade show and was approached by the executive producer of CBC's Dragon's Den. Sihem's traditional attire caught the attention of the producer who asked her, "Why are you wearing this dress, and what's your product?"
Although apprehensive about appearing on national TV, her husband provided the much-needed encouragement for her to apply for the show among 3,000 fellow hopeful entrepreneurs. "I almost fainted when the call came in. The lady on the phone said, 'Don't faint now – we need you on the show!'" she recalled. Her product started a bidding war with the Dragons, and she actually was offered more than she asked for!
Where Did She Get Her Entrepreneurial Spirit From?
"Maybe it's something in my genes. My grandfather was one the first importers of tea to North America. My mom used to have a small business selling antiques. Since an early age, I wanted to have a business. This is why, after high school, I decided to go to business school."
Sihem cautions that, as important as education is, some lessons only happen when you get out there in real life. "The experience I had in the field, you would never find it in a program, business school or in books. You really have to do it your own."
Best Piece of Advice?
"Be very disciplined. In the beginning of any business, you only have expenses. And once the money starts to arrive, there's so much you want to do and spend it on. But you have to stay focused. If you want to grow, always keep the long term in mind, and you have to reinvest."