Creating Character – Winnipeg Free Press
Shira Bellan was tired of seeing Homer Simpson and comic book logos staring at her as she browsed the bangs online.
She and her then-girlfriend, Shanda Gagne, wondered: where are the sleek, aesthetically pleasing products?
“We wanted to find products that would appeal to women, and we found that was really forgotten in the (cannabis) industry,” Bellan, 35, said.
So she and Gagne started their own business. At Character Co. (2090 Corydon Ave.), Batman and Superman were nowhere to be found.
Instead, glassware of different colors and painted designs mingled with greenery along the wall shelves. Bath bombs and locally made hoodies lined the front. Edibles, flowers and other items found in Manitoba cannabis dispensaries took their places near the store’s faux brick wall.
“Every little detail of this store we thought about and planned,” Bellan said.
It’s minutes from his childhood home. Her mom will often stop by to buy a bath bomb or give conception advice, Bellan said.
“We have a lot of women who have no experience using any type of marijuana,” she said. “It’s easier for us to understand a lot of things. If someone says ‘I have cramps’, we know what to say to them.”
She, Gagne and store manager Jody Donnelly run the reception – it’s a three-way show.
Although the co-owners wanted their feminine appeal, they cater to all genders. Or, to all the characters, hence the name.
“We knew a lot of different characters enjoyed cannabis,” Gagné said. “It’s just that (some are) silent because of all this stigma.”
“We knew a lot of different characters enjoyed cannabis…It’s just that (some are) quiet because of all this stigma.” – Shanda Gagne
Many customers are middle-aged or elderly, she added.
“We love everyone, and for us, anyone can be a character,” Bellan said.
Character Co. has been selling cannabis accessories online for over four years.
Bellan met Gagné in a Toronto bar while on vacation about eight years ago. The two clicked, and soon Gagné moved to Winnipeg to be with her partner.
They launched the Character Co. website in 2016 after becoming frustrated with the male-dominated market. They bought products in bulk like bongs and sold them online.
“It was just a side project. Shanda was still working, I was still working,” Bellan said.
“Anything we can support women for, we are,” she said.
She called Laura Kuzyk, a resin artist, in December. Bellan had searched the Creations by Kuzyk Instagram page and wanted the coasters and trays.
Kuzyk experimented with Manitoba-grown hemp leaves for Character Co. and works on ashtrays.
“Just that she wants my stuff in her store, it was really nice to hear that,” said the craftswoman, who has been running her business for a year.
Kuzyk said he was asked to send more merchandise to the store – they gained popularity.
“It was really exciting,” she said.
There are more female-led cannabis companies than in previous years, but the gains have been slow and weak, according to Sherry Boodram, co-founder and CEO of CannDelta, a Toronto-based cannabis consulting firm.
Several factors, including a lack of funding or connections, are often barriers for women and people of color wanting to get into the industry, Boodram said.
“When you see someone in the space representing you, (it) gives you the confidence and even the network to be able to participate as well,” she said.
“When you see someone in the space representing you, (it) gives you the confidence and even the network to be able to participate as well.” – Sherry Bodram
According to a Boodram study cited by Health Canada’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Forum, 14% of licensed commercial cannabis companies in Canada are run by women, compared to 86% by men.
She did not have the statistics on the Canadian cannabis retail sector, occupied by Character Co.
Having different genders and ethnicities in leadership roles will expand the cannabis industry, Boodram said.
“They will bring their own lived experiences,” she said. “They can target different markets, they can produce different products.”
Bellan said he’s noticed more cannabis accessories that appeal to women since Character Co’s inception.
“I think the women in the industry are starting to be a bit 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.
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