Ellie Bianca’s Three-Year Journey To Launching At Its Dream Retail Partner

Evelyne Nyairo’s first trip to the Canadian Health Food Association’s trade show three years ago was an eye opener. “I sat there with my one oil and all the retailers walked by,” recalls Nyairo, who was hoping the exposure would net business for her fledgling brand Ellie Bianca. The intrepid entrepreneur returned the subsequent year armed with greater knowledge and a full array of products.

Nyairo caught the eye of an executive from Whole Foods, her dream retailer. Although she wasn’t the beauty buyer, the executive was so impressed with the brand that she pitched Ellie Bianca to the right person at the retailer. In her note, the executive said she was “struck by Nyairo’s dedication to natural resources, supporting the environment as well the women in the communities where some of the products are sourced from.” She also mentioned the products were natural, luxurious and local.

Even with that endorsement, it took Nyairo two years of continuous follow-up to secure Whole Foods’ order. “It is so easy to give up, but my last note was perfect timing,” she recounts. The buyer was ready to expand an offer, and Ellie Bianca recently debuted in Whole Foods’ 12 Canadian locations. The Whole Foods stores augment the brand’s distribution in its own boutique and website, and at hotels and natural retailers across Canada.

“I want this to be a $1 billion brand,” says Nyairo. She’s certainly on her way to developing a formidable beauty player. Sales during January and February this year almost tripled for the brand, which has estimated revenues approaching $8 million.

Beyond Whole Foods, Nyairo has signed a distribution deal to expand Ellie Bianca in Canada. She also plans to spread the brand in the U.S., China and select African countries. “There are women in Kenya who want good quality, but they are not getting it with the ingredients in products available to them,” says Nyairo. “We are already getting online orders from Kenya. With social media, the world is so small.”

Ellie Bianca founder Evelyne Nyairo
Ellie Bianca founder Evelyne Nyairo

Ellie Bianca, named after Nyairo’s 15-year-old daughter, almost started out as a chewing gum brand. After witnessing women being marginalized, especially in her business life as a biologist, chemist and consultant, the single mother decided to establish a business to empower other women. “My daughter said, ‘How about a gum that you can chew endlessly?” remembers Nyairo. “We can charge $2, 50 cents to make it, 50 cents profit, and the rest can go to women.’”

Nyairo had another idea and sought out a chemist that could adhere to her strict demands for natural ingredients such as shea, coconut oil, mango butter and calendula. Finding a lab that could meet her demands was difficult, but she eventually landed on a match to create Ellie Bianca’s initial product, a lip balm. “I spent a lot of money in the beginning, but I knew how I wanted the lip balm to work,” says Nyairo. “Even the percentage of bee’s wax can throw something off. I had to have the consistency just right.”

Ellie Bianca’s 14-product lineup now features face serums, bath salts, oils and lip balms. Nyairo sources the shea central to the products in person from women-run coops in Africa. Her brand has a pipeline packed with products, including body butters, supplements and color cosmetics. “Once a chemist, always a chemist,” says Nyairo. “I am always playing with stuff. I’m looking at oil-based products to use a night, too.”

“Have a business plan. Know your brand story. Who is your customer? That has grounded me and, when I get scuttled, I always come back to my brand position.”

Currently, Whole Foods is stocking Ellie Bianca’s oils in its natural beauty department, with staged rollouts of additional items coming. Bath salts is up next. Prices range from $5.99 to $187.36. To ensure Ellie Bianca’s origin story is communicated, Nyairo pounds the pavement, visiting stores and talking to shoppers. She asserts, “This isn’t just transactional. It is about building relationships.”

To date, Nyairo has invested more than $1.3 million of her own money into the brand. “You probably can start a business for $50,000, but it is expensive to expand into new markets, and I spent a lot of money in the beginning that I didn’t need to,” she admits.

Early on, Nyairo struggled with pricing Ellie Bianca’s products and was losing money until she took a deep dive into understanding her ingredients and packaging costs. Too often, she cautions, company founders get wrapped up in the products and overlook what they are spending. “Look on a monthly basis,” counsels Nyairo. “How much did I spend? Don’t wait until the end of the year for tax reporting. And don’t forget your own worth…We aren’t working for free.”

Ellie Bianca
Ellie Bianca has a flagship store in Calgary, Alberta. Victor Panlilo

To date, Nyairo hasn’t taken any loans, although banks contact her frequently. Her goal is to build a solid foundation and perhaps seek outside investment when Ellie Bianca’s sales are in the $20 million to $50 million range.

Nyairo instructs her fellow beauty entrepreneurs to have a clear focus on their target customers and avoid launching too many products at once. Ellie Bianca’s customers fall into two groups: millennials and more mature women. “Have a business plan. Know your brand story. Who is your customer? That has grounded me and, when I get scuttled, I always come back to my brand position,” says Nyairo. “We know who is going to be a customer, and we’ll never be in a discount store.”

Ellie Bianca’s growth has allowed Nyairo, a native of Kenya who moved at 16-years-old to Canada, where she put herself through college, to realize her goal of giving back. She’s initiated the Ellie Bianca Scholarship program to support single women pursuing education. “Our company pillars are to be kind to the skin, be kind to the earth and be kind to women,” says Nyairo. “My own journey as a single mother helped me see the need to help others.”