How This Brand Owner is Nurturing Indigenous Wisdom, Wellness and Entrepreneurship

Leigh Joseph, founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals, blends her passion for ethnobotany with Indigenous plant knowledge. Here’s how BMO helped her scale.
Leigh Joseph, founder of Sḵwálwen Botanicals

Recently, a select lineup of Canadian-owned beauty and wellness brands have claimed center stage. In an ever-evolving industry, it takes passion, a sense of purpose and an innovative mindset to succeed. For Leigh Joseph, founder of the skincare line Skwálwen Botanicals, connection and purpose are especially important.

“I started Skwálwen in 2019, the same year I started my doctoral studies in the field of ethnobotany. I wanted a way to work creatively with plants and to focus on the beauty of reconnection to Indigenous plant knowledge,” says Joseph.

A member of the Squamish Nation, Joseph sustainably harvests and sources botanicals like devil’s club—called Ch’átyaý in Squamish and native to the lush British Columbian coast where Joseph’s forebearers have lived for generations—and Mimts’, Squamish for Usnea lichen, which she crafts into skin cleansers, serums and balms along with fragrant room sprays and candles.  Skwálwen products are available online and in over 75 locations across Canada, including select Holt Renfrew locations.

A Business Honouring Indigenous Practices 

“Ethnobotany is the study of the cultural interrelationships between people and plants,” Joseph says. “I started formulating products based around the cultural application of plants, but applying them into new and creative formulations.” 

The company name, Skwálwen, is the Squamish word for heart. Each of Joseph’s products has a Squamish name to honour the place where this plant knowledge comes from.

“I am on a path of reconnecting to plant knowledge and related practices, linked to exploring identity. I’ve found that working with plants and Indigenous knowledge holders has helped me to draw strength and purpose to contribute to (Indigenous) knowledge renewal,” says Joseph.

Formulated with Joseph’s own skin sensitivities in mind, Skwálwen embraces the values of Joseph’s ancestors, cherishing and upholding precious wisdom that was nearly erased. She strikes a careful balance between drawing on–while never exploiting–Indigenous wisdom.

Sḵwálwen Botanicals offers a wide selection of skincare products including cleansing bars, toners, moisturizers and more.

“I feel that I am contributing to positive change I wish to see in the world”, says Joseph. “This is my way to honor my ancestors who endured trauma, attacks on culture and worked tirelessly to preserve knowledge. Their resilience in carrying forward our culture is inspiring.”

Joseph’s mission for Skwálwen is also about boosting generations to come. In Canada, there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned businesses, companies that collectively contribute $48.9 billion annually to the economy, according to Census Canada data. Joseph believes that’s just the start of what can be accomplished with increased Indigenous representation in Canada’s entrepreneurial economy. 

Fostering Indigenous Entrepreneurship with BMO

 “The more that Indigenous peoples, especially youth, see themselves reflected across society, the more they will feel seen and inspired to share their voices and gifts,” says Joseph. 

But she knows from experience that inspiration is just the start of the challenging path to entrepreneurial success. When it comes to starting a business, developing a professional network can be a huge differentiator. 

“It is very important for Indigenous businesses to find the right financial institution to work with,” Joseph says. “Banks have the ability to open doors for Indigenous entrepreneurs who might not have the experience to navigate financial options.”

“There are ongoing barriers to Indigenous entrepreneurs accessing traditional financing if they live on reserve or don’t have assets to put against loans,” she notes as one significant and common challenge. 

Winner of a Celebrating Women grant from BMO, Joseph says her own banking relationship was critical in growing Sḵwálwen into what it is today. 

“I met my banker through a women’s business organization called Coralus, who helped me access a business Mastercard, line of credit and an overdraft which helped me manage the growth of my business and our overall cash flow. Later, opportunities from BMO’s Celebrating Women grant helped scale. Without these opportunities, I might still be navigating how to build up my banking relationships and resources”

Relationships like this, Joseph believes, are imperative to boosting not only her business but all those she hopes will follow.

“This is a huge opportunity to be the first Indigenous brand to move into new spaces,” she says. “My mission is to increase Indigenous representation in academic spaces and through my entrepreneurial journey.”