Joella Hogan

Soap and Success: Yukon Soaps Company CEO Joella Hogan Cleans Up in Indigenous Business

In a small town called Mayo in the center of the Yukon, one Indigenous entrepreneur is really “cleaning up”, lathering up profits and opportunities in her community that won’t go down the drain. Joella Hogan is the founder and CEO of the Yukon Soaps Company, a business that has experienced growth driven by her stories about the land, community, plants, people, water and of struggles for cultural and environmental reclamation. “It's so much more than soap, it really became about building the community,” she recalls, thinking about the astonishing market response that came from her sharing her journey on social media.   

Inspired by young people making change and showing leadership, she’s older than most of her team and excited by their new ideas and energy. The land and all that can be learned from it inspires her, too. She reflects on the idea of plants as elders who can provide guidance if their behaviour is observed and of the elders and leaders in her community who shared a vision for the youth of the future. 

“It was really about creating better communities and supporting our people along their path to wellness. When I think about the role that my business has, it's really just not about myself and my dreams, but I'm really trying to implement and honor their vision,” she explains. 

After growing up in Whitehorse, she spent the last two years of high school at a Vancouver Island boarding school, coming home for school breaks to maintain her cultural and family connections. She went on to the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George to study environmental planning given her interest in the land, the earth and sustainability. She wanted to work from a preventive perspective, instead of cleaning up messes, and to create sustainable communities.

She lived in Australia and Finland after she graduated, then returned to work for the federal government in Yellowknife. Later, she moved back to the Yukon to work in her Nation’s lands department and to get her Master’s degree. Craving a program built in the North from the North, reluctant to attend another Southern institution, she took an Alaska-based program by phone, learning by distance before the internet. Her learning journey was a balance of Western university education and being grounded in community, learning from her neighbours. 

While managing heritage and culture in her Nation, she decided to start a small side business but ended up buying a local business with wholesale clients and established recipes. Not knowing how to make soap or run a business, Hogan had to learn both in a hurry. Ultimately, she decided to use Northern ingredients, styles and images and to stay true to her values and inspiration, engaging in cultural sharing online.

Hearing happy customers grateful to learn about the Yukon and her culture is her favourite part, even more than the profits. She appreciates the opportunity to advocate for her community. Positive reviews and compliments on her packaging give her a welcome reminder of her “why”, along with the steady stream of people lining up to work at her company when they could work anywhere else. 

Illustration by Shaikara David

Access to capital was one of the biggest barriers she faced trying to build a building for her business. Working full time, she was able to bootstrap her business for the most part but not enough for a building. Being self employed and living in First Nations housing, she needed a solid business plan and good financial forecasts to demonstrate creditworthiness. Rejected several times, she finally found financing after spending a long time feeling she might need to give up. 

Her dream of a building would move her business out of her home’s basement it had long since outgrown, while creating additional housing above her space. The Yukon government supported her to build apartments to bring more life to the downtown core. It wasn’t just production space, it was reclaiming space downtown, in the economy and from the neighbourhoods once overtaken by the mining industry. “Now I have this beautiful, funky little building downtown that is bright and colorful, and full of life,” she beams. 

The other barrier she faced was criticism from her own community attacking those reconnecting with culture. “At the end of the day, I know that what I'm doing is right. I have spent a lot of time with elders and community knowledge holders. I have an incredible support network,” she reflects, reinforcing the value of mentorship. 

When it comes to hopes for the future, Hogan is focused on enjoying the present and getting things done now, while she recognizes she might need a bigger space down the road. Lately, she’s felt the sacrifice of small business ownership keenly and she’s trying to maintain her relationships and mental health. She hopes to export outside of Canada, to hire more people, and of another business sharing skills training and knowledge in a safe, culturally rooted space. She will need to decide to grow the soap business or start something new. 

Before buying the business, she thought about if it was something she would want to get up early and stay late to work on and if it was worth it. Hogan wanted something aligned with her values and the combination of natural handcrafted soaps, essential oils and plants was ideal given her love of science, chemistry, plant knowledge and her inner hippie spirit. For those reasons, the business made sense, combining her interests while making money. 

“I think that's important for young people to know, especially Northerners and Indigenous people, that making money is okay. Our people have always supported each other and supported our community through systems of trade and sharing and now that just looks so much different in the cash economy, but it's still important, so don't be afraid of  making money,” she asserts. Having experienced lateral violence in community when people drag others down for succeeding, she wants aspiring entrepreneurs to remain inspired to thrive. 

She’s working hard to make it happen for herself from a small Yukon town, “cleaning up” as an Indigenous entrepreneur, lathering up profits and opportunities for her neighbours that won’t go down the drain. As the founder and CEO of the Yukon Soaps Company, Joella Hogan is creating something so much more than soap, she’s building community. The world is taking notice of the stories of her people and the quality of her product, helping her add a new shine to Downtown and show others it’s more than bubbles that can be washed away. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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Key Parts

  • Career
  • Identity
    First Nations
    ,
    ,
  • Province/Territory
    Yukon Territory
  • Date
    December 12, 2023
  • PSI
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  • Discussion Guide
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