NU Grocery - Valerie & Sia
Tell us about your professional background. What led you to where you are now?
Sia: We both have changed our careers at some point. Valerie has Bachelor's in Education and MBA. From working at a corporate level in food industry for over 10 years she switched to education and has been teaching with Ottawa Carleton District School Board for the past 10 years. She is also super passionate about politics and led the Field operations and French Media Relations for 2015-2016 Catherine McKenna campaign.
After graduating with Economics degree, I realized that I wanted to do something more meaningful and switched my domains to Environmental Sciences and finished my Master's in Sustainability Management. Combined with over 10 years of experience in the food industry, I have been a research scientist in sustainable food systems and sustainability advisor over the past 5 years.
We both have been working towards living zero waste. It's been a 6 year journey for me and 2 years for Valerie, of course, with its ups and downs! We opened the store with an idea of having a one-stop shop for zero waste shoppers like us to make this lifestyle more accessible and convenient. I think what we are doing now is taking everything we've learnt from our professional experiences and zero waste living and putting it towards changing current business practices by setting an example with NU and consulting other businesses, changing consumer behaviour and educating about responsible consumerism.
How did you approach minimizing waste in your own home?
Valerie: one of the easiest places to start is the bathroom - and that's where I started. I made an inventory of the products I had in my bathroom and counted 27 bottles, jars and tubes of hair products, skin products, hygiene products... some of which I had barely used. I asked myself: what do I really need? and came to the conclusion that I *really* needed very few of them. Now I'm down to a bar soap (that I use for skin and hair), a conditioner, toothpaste, a moisturizer, a natural deodorant - the last 4 I get in bulk at the store. All completely waste-free. And honestly, my skin and hair are doing great! I don't miss any of the products I had before.
Tell us about your neighborhood. What role does NuGrocery play in the community and why did you choose this location?
Sia: Hintonburg is an up-and-coming neighbourhood, it has changed tremendously over the past few years! It's trendy, it has its own vibe like no other! It feels homely, but also very lively - it's buzzing on weekends! We love to see more and more people moving into the neighbourhood, or just spending time enjoying small independent shops, cafes and restaurants, theatre and various arts venues. And of course, we love the people! They get it. And happily join the zero waste movement!
We are excited to see locals getting into the habit of bringing their own containers and totes, and nearby businesses catching on and encouraging their customers to BYO! We see the change already happening within such a short time since we opened!
What does a typical morning/day look like for you when you are working? /On your days off?
Valerie: When you start a business, there barely is a "typical day"... One minute you give a radio interview and the next minute you mop a floor. Sia and I do a lot of the "invisible" work that comes with running a business, which is why we're less present in the store than we would like to. Admin work takes a lot of time!
As for the "day off", I don't recall any day off. We breathe the business. I know that Sia's husband tried to take away her laptop when she had a day off but she would work on her phone every time he wasn't watching :)
Finding a balance is a challenge for us and for any entrepreneur, particularly in the start up phase. The work is never done.
What are your goals for the store in the future?
Sia: We are very ambitious and have a vision for NU. We are definitely thinking of more stores and looking for locations! We are expanding our online store and would love to offer delivery services in the near future.
We have also launched our two new branches: NU Outreach and NU Consulting. We would love NU to be a platform for education and activism and that's what NU Outreach is about. Our workshops and talks are gaining momentum at schools, universities, government organizations and businesses. And two big campaigns are underway - an educational program #GenerationZeroWaste and a political campaign #BanTheBag.
NU Consulting is focused on helping both people and businesses to become zero waste - whether you want to minimize your waste at home or your office, or you want to become a zero waste restaurant. We are excited to be working with our first clients!
Since you opened your store 6 months ago, how has the business grown?
Valerie: It has been a steady growth. Every month has had higher sales than the previous month. We're hoping that the trend will continue, and that the Hintonburg store will benefit from the new building that is being built right next to it. There's definitely a lot of potential. So many people are still discovering the zero waste lifestyle and our store. The zero waste movement is growing, and so are we! We are also placing big hopes in the development of our service offering in the areas of education and consulting, as Sia already mentioned.
What is your favorite corner of the store and why?
Sia: I love our feature wall - the taps that dispense liquid laundry detergents, shampoo, conditioner, dish soap, cleaners, etc. We have been troubleshooting it for the first three months to make it perfectly functional and now that it's done, we absolutely love it! It's a neat idea and its neat implementation! It's a zero waste heaven :)
What is your favorite part about your job?
Valerie: Definitely the people! When you create a business, you have this unique opportunity to surround yourself with people that are a good fit in terms of character, values and work ethic. We have amazing people on our team, and we have also established great relationships with our regular customers. Feeling a sense of community is what makes all the work and lack of free time and sleep worthwhile. Because then work doesn't feel like work.
Who inspired/s you?
Sia: What inspires me? Nature. In all its perfection and intricate details.
Who inspires me? Generation of our grandparents who have always lived in a very minimalistic, resourceful and conscious way. They made do with what they had, lived closer to nature and enjoyed simple pleasures of life. There is a lot to learn from them.
What are the challenges of advertising a Zero Waste lifestyle/ products to the community?
Valerie: Advocating for a different way of life is always a challenge because humans are creatures of habits. Plus, we've been conditioned by decades of consumerist messaging. Slogans like "own less, waste less, live more" don't resonate with everyone.
Also, zero waste shopping might seem complicated at first. Coming to the store with jars and bags means that you have to plan in advance, and some people hate that thought, which is why we try to communicate that you can also shop at our store without any preparation. We have jars to borrow, paper bags for dried goods... you don't have to be a seasoned zero waster yet, although we hope that you will see the merit of it over time! We're up against a very powerful trend in modern society which is convenience. Disposables and single-use items are convenient, but at what price for the planet?
What are you reading, watching, or listening to right now?
Sia: There can never be too many TEDTalks!
Coffee or tea?
Valerie: I could not survive without coffee!
Your favourite place in Ottawa?
Sia: A walk along the Rideau canal and Ottawa River Pathway of the Trans Canada Trail!