U of T Kinesiology alum Leila Keshavjee’s startup has landed a sweet deal.
On the recently aired season 13 premiere of reality television show Dragons’ Den, Keshavjee’s healthy ice popsicle startup Happy Pops was offered a $150,000 investment and access to a business accelerator in exchange for 30 per cent equity.
“It was definitely a little more equity than I said I wanted to give up initially going in,” says Keshavjee. “[But] I went with my gut… I have this offer now and I think it’s 100 per cent the best fit.”
Happy Pops was born out of Keshavjee’s desire to create a product that was “a healthier alternative to what’s already out there but still tasted good.”
Through her Kinesiology degree, Keshavjee learned about nutrition and the many ways that sugar can be hidden on food labels. “I wanted to have a product [with ingredients] that anybody could pronounce… There was no hiding.”
While still an undergraduate student at U of T, Keshavjee enrolled in IMC200 — Innovation and Entrepreneurship and IMC390 — Internship in New Venture, where she learned about what it takes to start a business.
Later, she sought advice and support from U of T’s Impact Centre, which she credits with supporting her entrepreneurial adventure. “When you’re running a business, you’re often alone in the startup phase… The opportunities to interact with other entrepreneurs… is one of the most valuable things. You can learn so much from each other.”
She started her ice pop business after graduating from U of T in 2016, when, with funding from her father, she purchased an ice pop business that had a 1,000-square-foot commercial kitchen but no retail products.
“When I started, I made all the popsicles myself for the first month. So I used to cut the fruit, blend it all, put it in the popsicle mould, seal them, wash all the dishes and all that.” Now that the business has grown, Keshavjee’s role is primarily focused on sales and marketing.
She describes running her own business and building a brand as filled with constant ups and downs. “You could be cold-calling for days. Or, someone could reach out to you and say, ‘Hey, I wanna have you in my store’… Getting people to know who you are as a brand and trust you hasn’t been easy but it’s definitely been a great learning experience.”
On the encouragement of her friends, Keshavjee auditioned for Dragons’ Den in Toronto, which was among the 38 stops the show made across the country. She waited for four hours among many other worthy businesses. She describes the audition process as intense: “You really just have to block out everybody around you and focus on your pitch.”
After being placed on the standby list, she was called and given three days’ notice to appear on Dragons’ Den. She had to prepare her presentation over that weekend, making sure it was entertaining and that the product looked perfect.
Going into the den, Keshavjee was nervous. “I was nauseous, I was sleep-deprived, I was excited… I [had] watched this show for so long.” However, she relaxed when she saw that the investors liked her product.
During her 45 minutes of filming, four of the six investors made offers for Happy Pops.
Keshavjee made her final decision in about a minute. Originally seeking $50,000 for 10 per cent equity, she is finalizing an offer from Arlene Dickinson, whom she knew that she wanted to work with going in, of $150,000 for 30 per cent equity.
To other students looking to start their own businesses, Keshavjee says, “Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t be afraid to take a risk, especially while you’re young. Now is the time to try these things.”