2009 Winners

Northwest Young Entrepreneur

Karen Kerk Courtney - Thunder Bay

Dee Adrian

Karen Kerk-Courtney’s children are the focus of her life.

Business associates of this former social worker turned “chief organic mama” know they can always reach her late into the evening, after sons, Ben, 4, and Liam, 2, are put to bed.

One of her nominators describes her first meeting with this spirited young entrepreneur in a Thunder Bay coffee shop. Karen showed up for the appointment juggling a coffee cup, a new-born and her basket of display wares. She had been forced to reschedule and put business aside two weeks earlier to have the baby.

“When you run your own business, you don’t have time to take time off. You just adjust,” said the 33-year-old entrepreneur, born and raised in the Toronto area, who arrived in Thunder Bay with her husband, Dan, three years ago.

Her home-based company on the outskirts of Thunder Bay, Bare Organics, manufactures and sells skin care and baby products with all-natural and certified organic ingredients.

The motivation to start her business was to stay home with her children.

“I’m working far more now than I did when I was holding down a regular job.”

But the hours are flexible, the job satisfaction is great, and along the way she has discovered many kindred spirits who are mom-entrepreneurs themselves.

The idea for Bare Organics was born at the same time she gave birth to Ben in 2005.

While in a Kingston hospital, most of the conventional bath soap and baby products at her disposal contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce. The self-admitted “granola cruncher” resorted to bathing Ben with water.

When she began searching for more natural skin care alternatives, she found nothing.

Karen’s creative juices started flowing and she began researching to make her own products, while enrolling in a self-employment benefit program.

She believed there was an emerging consumer market who wanted to know, not only where their food was coming from, but also pay attention to the products they put on their skin.
Four years later, she doesn’t have to preach to the choir anymore.

Today her affordably-priced products are distributed in 50 stores from Iqualuit to Halifax to Vancouver. Sales have doubled from 2007 to 2008, and this year, she hopes to crack the $100,000 mark. It’s also starting to grow on the e-commerce side too.

“People are finding us online and that’s without a lot of active work on our part,” said Karen. And there are almost daily e-mail inquiries from Canadian and American stores looking for organic product.

Upon landing in Thunder Bay, Karen put her natural networking skills to use. She immersed herself in parenting groups, is a vendor and board member at the Thunder Bay Country Market, teaches entrepreneurship at Confederation College, and supports other women in business through the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, where she is recognized as a ‘Woman of Distinction.’

Karen, who holds an honours and master’s degree in social work, said her experience with Social and Enterprise Development Innovations, a North York non-profit group that works with low income Canadians, proved to be an excellent training ground.

“Working in a non-profit is an excellent exercise in multi-tasking and project management. Operating a business is like operating a large scale project except that you have to do everything.”

Though she has no chemistry background, she constantly tests and refines new cosmetics recipes in her home, using simple ingredients both locally-sourced and imported such as certified organic sunflower oil, aloe vera juice, beeswax and coconut oil.

Her plan is to eventually source all her herbs and oils from the Boreal Forest.