Winner of the 2019 Indigenous Business of the Year in the Yukon, The Yukon Soaps Company offers its customers soap bars that honour Indigenous knowledge, are made with plants from the boreal forest and support community. A household staple, these Indigenous artisanal soaps are handcrafted by owner Joella Hogan in her home community of Mayo, Yukon, Canada.
A member of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun in Mayo and of the Crow Clan, Hogan is passionate about preserving her Northern Tutchone heritage and culture and holds a deep respect for the land. Drawing inspiration from the Yukon landscape and her travels, Hogan creates products that are environmentally responsible and representative of her culture.
With a background in environmental science and community planning, Hogan spent 15 years working for her first nation as Manager of Heritage and Culture, but just last year she chose to make a change, refocusing her efforts on her health, family and small business.
The Yukon Soaps Company was recently featured by HuffPost US as one of “14 Native-Owned Beauty and Skin Care Brands to Fall in Love With”, an article that highlighted various innovative businesses owned by Indigenous women in Canada and the United States.
What Joella Hogan once thought would be a “fun side business” has grown to be so much more. SAY had the pleasure of interviewing this inspiring business woman about life as an entrepreneur and what it means to contribute to a growing Indigenous economy.
SAY: Tell us a little more about how you ended up in Mayo, Yukon.
Hogan: I was born and raised in Whitehorse and left the Yukon as a young adult to go to university in British Columbia. I have had the opportunity to work, live and travel all over the world, but I always knew that I would move back to northern Canada. In 2003 I moved back to the Yukon and decided I wanted to live in a smaller community where I had familial roots. When a job opportunity came up with my first nation in the community of Mayo—the community where my grandmother is from—I couldn’t pass it up. I immersed myself in the culture, started to learn the language and learned more about another side of the Yukon that I really didn’t know about.
SAY: How did you decide to get into the soap-making business?
Hogan: I come from a family of entrepreneurs and never thought I would actually own a business, but as I got older, I really felt the need to build on my passions as an entrepreneur. I wasn’t sure what kind of business at the time, but when the opportunity to purchase an existing soap company in another Yukon community presented itself, everything aligned. I bought the business in 2012, and it’s been evolving ever since.
SAY: Had you ever made soap before?
Hogan: I had never made soap before, but I had used the products and loved them. I was always interested in essential oils and natural body care products. I was also very interested in traditional medicines, the power of plants and traditional teachings.
I knew there was a way to connect all of these to enhance an already great product. I learned how to make soap and kept the basic recipes because those were household staples for a long time. Slowly, I started to change the packaging to be reusable—using less plastic—and I changed the name of the business—all to connect more with my culture and values.
SAY: What are some of the challenges that come from owning a small business?
Hogan: One of the biggest challenges of owning a business in a small northern community, especially a manufacturing and production type business, is the cost of shipping. I ship products all over the world, and, unfortunately, I don’t have multiple shipping options.
One of the things I incorporated, in response to customer values, is offering bulk purchasing options without labels.This does help somewhat with the overall cost of shipping, but it also means I have a zero waste line. Many people are trying to lessen their environmental footprint, so people really like that option.
SAY: What type of marketing do you do?
Hogan: The majority of my business is generated by word of mouth. I don’t do much direct marketing outside of the Yukon because I’m a small shop. My main customers are Yukoners and those that love the Yukon. Many of the products are sold in stores and gift shops around the Yukon, but one of my biggest clients is a shop at the museum at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. I’m also really lucky to have such wonderful support from my community, family and friends.
SAY: What makes your business unique and successful?
Hogan: A lot of it has to do with the power of storytelling and sharing my journey. People want so much more than a bar of soap. They want connection to the maker, the land and the values. It has taken me some time to have the confidence to speak and to share. Nowadays, I’m fairly transparent about the things I’m doing in my life, and I think a lot of people can relate to me on a personal level. My customers know that the products come from a good place, are made with good intentions and are based on strong cultural values.
I also incorporate my language—the Northern Tutchone language. One of my personal goals living in Mayo was to learn the language because I didn’t grow up with it. It is incredibly difficult to learn, so I decided to learn the language through soap making. I started learning the words for soap and made language cards to pair with the products. I recently designed new language cards that have an inspirational message on one side and then the words (in English and Northern Tutchone) for tools that my ancestors used, and continue to use, on the other side. It’s a way to help others connect with me, my community and my culture.
SAY: What does celebrating cultural entrepreneurship mean to you?
Hogan: For me, it’s about a value-based business. It’s not just measuring success based on finances. Obviously, I need my business to make money, but it’s also about employing people in my community, promoting culture through family and connecting to the land. I wouldn’t want to have a business that didn’t support my cultural values.
SAY: What is your hope for the future of your business?
Hogan: I hope to scale up the business (out of my house) so that I can hire people in the community. Our region has a long history of mining, but that industry is not for everyone. I would like to see other opportunities in the community for people to find employment, and I hope that my soap business can contribute to that and, more widely, to the local economy.
SAY: What is life like outside of The Yukon Soaps Company?
Hogan: I have a whole other career that I enjoy doing, some of which is consulting work for other organizations. All of the work I do is about connecting people with the land, culture and language. One recent project was a partnership with the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse and the Whitehorse Public Library, where I facilitated an Indigenous book club gathering. I am also involved in tourism initiatives for our region with the First Nation Development Corporation, and I continue to work for the first nation on a project to build a cultural centre in our area.
SAY: What advice do you have for people interested in starting a business?
Hogan: If you’re interested in entrepreneurship, find your support group; find peers, mentors and other leaders, because
you will need others to bounce ideas off of. Stay true to your values, and stay true to who you are.
Throughout the interview we could hear Hogan’s passion for the environment, her community and her culture—all of which is evident in the way she runs her business. For more information visit www.yukonsoaps.com.