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Leila Keshavjee is the founder of Happy Pops

by Scott McAuley

We all scream for ice cream, but why not popsicles? Leila Keshavjee wants to change your popsicle perception from a sugary artificially flavoured summer treat into a healthy year-round snack. With her company Happy Pops, a passion for customer service, new exciting flavours and a family background in the food business, she has all the right ingredients to make it a reality.

Health and nutrition have played a big role in Leila’s life. A recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Kinesiology program, she understands the importance of staying healthy and eating right. But, as with many businesses, the idea for Happy Pops wasn’t a straight path from her education to business plan.

“There is nothing like working for yourself since whatever you put into it is what you get out. And I’ve always been a huge fan of Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank!”

Leila always knew she wanted to run her own company. Having family in the food business introduced her to the excitement, and challenges, of owning a business. It gave her insight into both the healthy and upscale food markets and an understanding of the supply chains and manufacturing requirements for food products. Although she could have stayed in the family business, she had always been drawn to health products and knew she wanted to work for herself.

Her introduction to formal business plans and the intersection with science came through the IMC200 – Innovation and Entrepreneurship course. The course teaches undergraduates the path from idea to the market and one of the course assignments is to produce a video pitch for a new product. Drawing on her interest in nutrition and the family experience in the ice cream business, Leila pitched a dairy and gluten-free ice cream.

“For me it was probably the highlight of my undergrad. I was able to get something out of the course because the professors gave me the opportunity to apply the concepts we learned, and instead of asking us to regurgitate the components of a business plan, allowed us create our own.”

The next year she decided to take the IMC390 – Internship in New Venture course working with Impact Centre Senior Fellow Charles Plant. While digging through articles on entrepreneurship and researching small business support programs, she realized that starting a company was something that she could actually do.

“That’s when I realized that there is so much support for entrepreneurs and that I wouldn’t be on my own. Knowing that was a turning point.”

But why popsicles? She tells the story that the family business once looked into purchasing a popsicle company. While learning about the deal she saw the value in their products, but also an opportunity to create something new. Smoothies and ice cream are enjoyed all year, but why not popsicles? And with confusing nutrition labels along with a boom in food allergies and sensitivities, she discovered she could make something that was simple, healthy and delicious.

“The vision of Happy Pops is to create all-natural popsicles that are made without artificial colours or flavours. There is a fine line between what tastes good and healthy, and I want to be right in the middle. If we make a strawberry banana popsicle, using the same ingredients used for smoothies, then it can be a year round treat that people can give to their families.”

After speaking with Charles about her ideas, she decided not to do a Master’s degree and applied for Techno, the Impact Centre’s summer entrepreneurship workshop. The rest, they say, is history.

Since starting the company, Happy Pops have been sold at venues across the province . She has worked with the city’s top catering companies Peter and Paul’s Event catering to customize popsicles for private events and collaborated with Daniel et Daniel for the Eaton Centre Nordstrom opening. Leila has a full-time employee helping make the popsicles, and their biggest challenge is keeping up with the orders.

On adjusting to life outside of school, she says “It’s weird. You’ve been in school since three years old and all of a sudden you are running a company.” As for other students who are thinking of starting their own business. “Take a year off and take a risk. It’s a time to learn and as long as you are developing skills you can transfer beyond the business you shouldn’t be afraid.”