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.


JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Edibles for sale at Character Co. Shira Bellan said she’s noticed more cannabis accessories that appeal to women since Character Co’s inception.

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JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Edibles for sale at Character Co. Shira Bellan said she’s noticed more cannabis accessories that appeal to women since Character Co’s inception.

“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.




<p>JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Shira Bellan said pandemic-related politics had reduced sales: potential masked customers turned away when they saw people without masks in the store.</p>
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<p>JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Shira Bellan said pandemic-related politics had reduced sales: potential masked customers turned away when they saw people without masks in the store.</p>
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<p>At the start of their business, Bellan was a dog owner and walker while Gagné worked in finance for Dufresne Furniture.			</p>
<p>“It just got to a point where it was like, do we continue as a hobby where we only put 20% of our investment into it, or do we really want to take it to the next level?”  Gagne, 37, said.			</p>
<p>After Ottawa legalized cannabis in 2018, business partners decided to take the plunge: they wanted a dispensary.			</p>
<p>But, they had to wait.  Government approval has come in waves, the first being for large retailers, Bellan said.			</p>
<p>Then it took a year of paperwork and backend logistics before receiving approval.  Bellan wanted a site in River Heights, near his family home.  There were renovations to do and a pandemic to deal with.			</p>
<p>Character Co. officially opened last September;  Bellan and Gagné work there full time.			</p>
<p>“It’s terrifying, no doubt. I constantly wonder if I made the right decision,” Gagné said of his resignation.			</p>
<p>“It was a no-risk, no-reward mentality back then.”			</p>
<blockquote class=

“We love everyone, and for us, anyone can be a character.” –Shira Bellan

It’s been a tough few months with COVID-19 and the blizzard-filled winter, Gagné said. Many locals have avoided the Corydon Avenue mall because it contains Monstrosity Burger, a restaurant known for its anti-mask and anti-restriction stance, Gagné said.

“I would say that I (had to) expel two people a day, at least, for not wearing a mask, and I (have) at least one who (would) like to argue with me because they have an exemption ( medical),” she said.

Bellan said pandemic-related politics had reduced sales: potential masked customers turned away when they saw people without masks in the store.

“I’m a 5-2 woman. I’m not about to walk into a…man’s face over a mask,” she said, adding that the company was following government rules. .

Launching Character Co. as LGBTTQ+ women didn’t add any hurdles. On the contrary, people seem more supportive, Gagné said.

Bellan is looking for female and local businesses to promote in the store.




<p>JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Character Co. has been selling cannabis accessories <a class=online
for over four years.

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JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Character Co. has been selling cannabis accessories online for over four years.

“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.”

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Gabrielle Piche

Gabrielle Piche
Journalist

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.

Jennifer C. Burleigh