My interview with the inspiring Canadian co-founder of Cha's Organics was completed before the horrific deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet but Marise and I both felt it was necessary to use our voices and this platform to address recent events and for Marise to share her personal experience with and thoughts on racial injustice and privilege, especially in relation to COVID-19.
Montreal-based Marise met Chanaka, who is from Sri Lanka, on a dance floor in Tokyo in 2003 and their romance blossomed. Marise admits, "we've faced stereotyping and prejudice over the years" though she considers Canada quite accepting overall. Marise and Cha are partners in life and in business, running the successful Montreal-based organic food company Cha's Organics. On their website About page it says:
Cha's Organics was created by Chanaka and Marise, two people who come from opposite sides of the world and are no strangers to diversity and all that it has to offer. This love of diversity and staying true to one's roots is reflected in the sourcing of Cha's Organics raw materials, which are grown on biodiverse, small and medium scale organic farms. Because let's face it, monoculture is just plain boring.
The above and following are excerpts of my conversation with Marise on Sunday May 31st 2020:
To be honest, I feel that one of our most important privileges right now really comes from the industry we're in, and for the sake of those who have recently lost their livelihoods, I don't want to downplay that. The last CFIB Survey I read shows that while only 5% of Canadian independent businesses are seeing an increase in revenues since the arrival of COVID-19, a staggering three quarters have seen their revenues drop 30% or more, and close to half have seen a drop of 70% or more. This has obviously led to massive layoffs which are affecting people of all backgrounds but will lead to worse outcomes among those who have the lowest incomes, many of whom are immigrants and racial minorities - especially those who can not access government aid due to their legal status.
The wholesale grocery food industry has fared better than most and we have a lot to be grateful for, but we must do everything we can to support others in need who are far less fortunate right now and the many, many people who are struggling to put food on the table. I read a UN report estimating that hundreds of thousands of children will die of hunger this year as a result of COVID-19 measures, and this includes children from all backgrounds in "first world" countries like Canada. I think that all of us who have the privilege of still having a functional business or a job to pay the bills should be thinking about how we can better advocate for those less fortunate.
I certainly condemn all forms of brutality, including police brutality, and I am both disgusted by the behaviour of those cops and deeply saddened by this loss of life. That said, while I understand how one act of injustice can galvanize an issue, I think it's also important to be mindful of other forms of brutality and share some of the less widely spoken about stories so that more people can find justice and more lives can be saved.
I'm specifically thinking of the heartbreaking testimony of Nicole Sirotek, a nurse who recently took to social media and tearfully begged for help in saving her minority patients in New York. Of the hospital where she was stationed, she said "I am telling you that they are murdering these people... Literally, black lives don't matter here." I know this might be uncomfortable to hear at a time when we are being asked to celebrate all healthcare workers as heroes, but if some hospitals are not treating their patients with dignity and people of colour are dying, at least in New York, not from COVID-19 but due to gross negligence and medical mismanagement, then I think at this time we need to condemn not only police brutality, but hospital brutality as well.
What’s the status of your business? Did you have to pivot, go online, temporarily close?
Cha's Organics is in the fortunate position of being considered essential and having our manufacturing done overseas so we were not forced to shut down and it was fairly straightforward for our team to shift to a mostly work-from-home model. We have remained fully open and have been shipping online orders from our fulfilment center, which we are running at reduced staff, in addition to wholesale deliveries from our warehouse, which is run by a third-party logistics provider. Our demand is actually quite high right now, and though we have experienced some slowdowns in supply we are doing our best to meet the demand and expect to be back on track with no out-of-stocks by early summer.
What’s been the hardest part of this pandemic for you?
Work-family balance is certainly a challenge these days with both of us parents running the business from home and both of our children out of school. Juggling their needs with the important leadership roles we play in our business while meeting our own work obligations has become even more of a challenge with the addition of remote learning, class Zoom schedules and an assortment of ever-changing homework assignments. Working part-time is simply not an option for us right now, in fact, we are working more hours than ever, albeit from home. Despite this, it is now expected that we will also homeschool but without the flexibility homeschooling would normally offer due to the rigid schedules and deadlines imposed by the schools. It's actually quite insane and I was pretty much going insane until my wonderful mother, a retired school teacher, stepped in this week to offer her support.
What can we as a community do for you?
I think one of the most important things we can do as a community is to continue encouraging local, independent female and family-led businesses. At Cha's Organics, we are so grateful for all of the support and loyalty that has been extended to us in recent months - from the buy-local initiatives that have sprouted up to all the wonderful shares, features and reviews on social media. For me personally, I would love to have more opportunities to network with other female founders. It's something I miss from attending in-person trade shows and conferences, where I am always amazed at the incredible women I meet in our industry.
What advice would you give women?
Follow your intuition, always. Make your life choices in alignment with your deepest knowings, your values and your own unique perspective. Be open to the advice, teachings and expertise of others but be unafraid to forge your own path regardless of their opinions. When you stop pushing back against your intuition and begin trusting in it, you may start to notice that our world is truly serendipitous and there's a place in it for you to express your own unique talents in ways that satisfy your soul while creating a positive impact. If the pandemic is bringing challenges into your life, you may be amazed at what opportunities lie on the other side of those challenges when you trust in yourself to move through them following your own intuitive process.
What is your greatest hope right now?
I should probably say something like that I hope humanity will come together to forge a better future, that critical thinking, a thirst for truth and a deep respect for all living beings will usher in a new era of environmental regeneration, health freedom, social fairness and overall resilience and abundance. That the basic goodness in humanity will prevail and that we will come through the pandemic stronger than ever to co-create a beautiful future. Honestly, I think there is some hope in these ideas and these changes are certainly happening in small but growing pockets around the world. I've been around long enough though to realize that placing my hope in anyone outside of oneself is really just another layer of distraction from doing the inner work. So instead I place my hope in myself and hope that I will continue to grow, evolve and heal while meeting life's challenges head-on, reflecting the inner changes I know are necessary to bring about the outer world I want to live in. As within, so without.
What are the 3 things keeping you sane?
In no particular order:
3. Good friends.
With all this great talk about food, we recently started asking women to share a favourite plant-based recipe with their interview. Here is one from Marise.
We love to complement this recipe with some refried beans for extra protein along with our organic mango or roasted sweet potato cubes for their added colour and sweet taste.