How Leila Keshavjee Turned a Healthy-snack Craving Into an Ice Pop Empire

When she couldn't find decent options in her local grocery store, Leila decided to make some of her own
Leila Keshavjee, owner of Happy Pops (Photography: Carmen Cheung)

In early 2016, I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in kinesiology at the University of Toronto. I was also working part-time as a research assistant and coaching gymnastics, and I’d been accepted into master’s programs. Life was busy, and I pretty much lived on smoothies I made for myself.

That spring, I decided to take up a new hobby: making my own healthy ice pops. I’d found that grocery stores lacked snack options that were low in sugar and additives, so I gave it a go. I got access to a tiny commercial space near my home in Toronto that belonged to a family member and got to work. For my first batch, I mixed fresh mango, water, lemon juice and organic cane sugar into a base that I then froze to make 50 ice pops. I’m a South Asian Canadian, so fresh fruit was a staple snack at home growing up—we always had some in the fridge.

The ice pops turned out impressively tasty, so I decided to try selling them at a local farmers’ market. Seeing people enjoy the treats brought me so much joy that I bought more equipment on Kijiji, started lugging cooler boxes filled with my ice pops to more farmers’ markets and incorporated under the name Happy Pops.

By the fall, despite having no entrepreneurial experience, I’d put my studies on hold and joined an incubator program at the University of Toronto called Impact Centre. I went on to land catering contracts with clients like Google, Scotiabank and Aeroplan. I then launched at local food stores, like Summerhill Market in Toronto.

In 2018, searching for new ways to grow, I auditioned for Dragons’ Den on a whim. I landed a spot on the show and received an offer from Arlene Dickinson for $150,000 for 30 per cent of the company. I took the deal on-air but later decided not to proceed because I was not ready to give away such a big chunk of the business. Still, the show was a huge moment for me. Until then, I’d hesitated to tell people that I had paused my studies to become a food entrepreneur, because it sounded like such a random pivot. Getting Happy Pops on TV was an inflection point for the business.

Related: How to Pitch Your Start-up to Investors

The exposure helped me scale. I invested the money I made into renting a larger commercial space with more freezer capacity, hiring a manufacturing team and an accountant, outsourcing marketing and design and developing new flavours, like Passion Fruit, Guava, Matcha, Lychee Lemonade, Orange N’ Cream and Lemon Mint. Meanwhile, I was sending pitches to Canada’s largest grocery stores. In 2019, Sobeys started stocking Happy Pops in its stores in Ontario, and eventually across the country; Metro followed suit in 2020 with its stores in Ontario and Quebec. We began shipping coast to coast in cooler boxes with dry ice. The ability to ship across Canada and fulfill orders from our new e-commerce store helped keep us alive during the pandemic.

Seven years into this business, some parts of it have not changed: I’m still Happy Pops’ sole owner, our base recipes remain the same and we’re still selling at farmers’ markets on weekends. On the other hand, there are some things that I never could have predicted: We had a partnership with Aeroplan and created a custom flavour for Sesame Street. We’re also currently developing limited-edition ice pops for Mattel, which will launch later this year. We produce more than one million ice pops annually, and they’re sold in 1,500 grocery stores across Canada as well as at attractions like Canada’s Wonderland and Ripley’s Aquarium.

And yet our team remains lean—we just hired our first administrative assistant. Along with making the executive decisions, I still run our social media and develop and taste-test flavours. It’s busy, but I have become better at finding a work-life balance by carving out time in my day to ride my bicycle, play golf or be with family and friends. Hearing that people love my ice pops and knowing that kids have access to a high-quality snack that I didn’t have while growing up makes it all worthwhile.

As Told To Alex Cyr
As Told To Alex Cyr
Alex Cyr is a Toronto-based writer born and raised on Prince Edward Island. He lives in Liberty Village, and can be found running on the Martin Goodman Trail every day between 4 and 6 pm.