#WEW: Jillian Mariani, Founder of ​Niyama Yoga Wellness

“Empowered women, empower women”, is a phrase that came to mind when we decided to launch this new series on our blog. As a female-run business, we’re always looking for new and invigorating ways to support women within our community and shed light on some really amazing businesses. 

This is why we’re excited to share with you the launch of #WEW, or Women Empowering Women. In this series, we’re sharing stories of inspiring women entrepreneurs within the beauty, lifestyle and fashion spheres - Letting them share their story on our platform and amplifying the voices of many around the world.  

Today, in order to kick off the series, we are sharing our first interview with self-made business owner Jillian Mariani. As the sole Founder of Niyama Yoga Wellness, a plant-based natural nutritional supplement brand with the purpose to promote healthy and sustainable living, she’s made tremendous strides in reimagining what it means to live a healthy lifestyle and supporting local. So keep reading, and get to know this week’s #WEW, Jillian Mariani.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and why you decided to create Niyama Yoga Wellness. 

First off, thank you so much for including me in your Women Empowering Women interview series.  One of the absolute best things about being a female entrepreneur is meeting and collaborating with other women building their own businesses.  For me, as a reluctant entrepreneur, the way other women were so willing to share learnings and experiences was such an unexpected bonus, and something I try to do as much as possible too.

I mostly describe myself as a wellness geek, mother & bonus-mother (I have one biological daughter with my husband, and he came as part of a bonus pack including 3 kids from his first marriage), wife/soulmate, and yogi.  

My professional background is 20+ years corporately in the natural health supplements category, working with both small and large brands in sales, marketing and product development roles – the last 10 years at an executive level.  I was incredibly lucky to spend my corporate career in a category that is so personally relevant to me, and so much a part of how we as a family live.  Not everyone gets to work in a field they are passionate about. I left my last corporate role as VP Marketing Innovation with Jamieson Wellness, in 2017 after 12 and a half years with the company. I’d worked with amazing people and teams and learned, and accomplished, so much.  But I was totally burnt out, and had been working 60+ hours a week for years, which proved a little unsustainable, especially if you actually like your family, which I do! 

I knew it was time for a change, I just didn’t know what that would look like.  

I took some much-needed time off, cooked a lot of great meals, project-managed a renovation, volunteered for every school event and trip and re-committed to my admittedly lapsed yoga practice. I even took a 200-hour yoga teacher training – something I’d wanted to do for over 20 years! It was during my teacher training that the idea for Niyama kept coming back to me.  It wasn’t a totally new idea; earlier in my career, when I worked for another Canadian company called Body Plus, which owned the brands Progressive and Precision, I was first introduced to sports nutrition.   

After incorporating many of those ingredients into my own regimen, my yoga practice improved, as did my recovery.  But the sports brands really didn’t appeal to yogis, so this little seed of an idea of a yoga-inspired line of supplements formed.  Fast forward to 2017 and it just kept coming back, and I knew that I could use everything I had learned in my corporate career to create a line of really effective, really clean products that would perfectly complement a yoga lifestyle, and improve the health of yogis on and off the mat. We had a soft website launch in late 2018, but our real start was January 2019, and Niyama became a reality

As a business owner, what does a day in the life look like for you? 

Owning a business means every day can be a little different. In a small business you are wearing a lot (if not all) of hats, but there is also more flexibility when compared to corporate roles, at least for me.  It has also been a bit different these past months.  It’s been calmer in some ways…and less calm in others.  

I wake at 7am now – it used to be earlier but COVID has made mornings later. I start each day with 5 minutes of meditation, followed by movement – for me that is usually yoga. Prior to exercise, I take Niyama’s Daytime Zen first thing every morning, followed by Green Energy as my clean, caffeine-free pre-workout.  After exercising I have my coffee - then a quick shower and to my desk to check emails and get started working. 

 I mostly worked from home pre-COVID, but since COVID all external meetings have gone online with no retail sales calls, coffee meetings, product demos or consumer shows – all of which were a big part of my pre-COVID work life. Right now, where I work is pretty much the same every day but, the work I do has variety.

I usually break around 10:30am for a protein smoothie.  I make them in a blender with frozen fruit, Niyama’s Plant Protein, a healthy fat (MCT oil or nut butter), and sometimes a handful of greens like spinach, plus ice and water.  

I am still primarily a solo-entrepreneur as Niyama is still very small, and cash flow is tight. My husband helps a lot with sales and business development, and then I am fortunate to work with a few key freelancers and consultants on digital ads and the website. I work with Charming Media, on PR and influencer programs.  And Natural Sci Regulatory for our regulatory work with Health Canada. And for branding I work with Unbound. They are all phenomenal and help make us look really good.

Work-wise, some days I am doing more high-level strategy and analysis, and other days I am putting on a designer hat and actually creating images for content. Or doing bookkeeping – which I dread, or forecasting inventory needs or taking things to the courier.  That is the biggest difference from Corporate to owning a start-up – it is pretty much all you. There are days when I really miss working with a larger team and having support but, I also love the hands-on aspect of it and how quickly decisions get executed. Every day is a bit different, which keeps things interesting. And, the day is yours - that makes a difference.

I try to end my workday by 5:30 or so, but that totally depends on the day. Some days are longer and some are shorter and I may jump back on to my laptop or into my social platforms in the evening.   

One of the really nice parts of being home these last months has been the evenings because they are much less busy.  We’ve used that time to cook together as a family, have movie nights and play board games.  I’m in bed by 11pm – I keep a strict bedtime as my sleep really suffers when I don’t practice good sleep hygiene. I end each day with Niyama’s Sleep Like Buddha before I journal or read in bed.

Your philosophy starts with nourishing the body and providing natural health products that are made in Canada. As an ethical and sustainable brand, this is something that deeply resonated with us. Why did you choose to source locally?  

I am extremely fortunate to have been born in Canada, I’m actually a Torontonian from birth, and I was brought up to really appreciate that I had won the birthplace lottery. I’ve spent the majority of my career working for Canadian companies – and I love that. Corporately, it means you are working on brands that have control over their own destiny – they aren’t just adapting US plans to the Canadian market, which is far less interesting. Canada is powered by small to medium businesses; we have so many and they make up almost 70% of private-sector employment.  We have some incredible Canadian owned and operated businesses here, especially in the nutritional supplements space.  And our regulations for NHPs (natural health products) are some of the best in the world, so the manufacturing plants for NHPs are held to an extremely high standard by Health Canada, to ensure Canadians are protected. 

 It really never occurred to me to make the Niyama products outside of Canada – the expertise is here, and the Canadian businesses I work with to bring the products to life share my values and will really go out the way for me and my business.  And our clients care that Niyama is made in Canada.  I think it not only gives them peace of mind, but they also like spending the money they earn on businesses that support other Canadian businesses in the supply chain.  I know that as a consumer, I go out of my way to support businesses that align with my values, and made in Canada is a big one for me.  We do source our ingredients from all over the world though, to ensure we are getting the most efficacious extracts possible.  Wherever possible, ingredients are grown here, but the reality with herbal extracts and supplements is that you cannot source it all locally. 

I should also note that every agency or consulting or freelance partner we work with is also a Canadian small business and all are women led except one.  This happened sort of organically, in the best possible way.

You have a strong background in Sales, Marketing and Innovation. How would you say that, that has helped you flourish your business today? 

I think for me, that background is what actually gave me the confidence to take the leap and start Niyama.  I am a person who loves learning, but also really likes to have a roadmap.  I love school and had I been able to, would have stayed in school forever, doing degree after degree.  I like to meet and exceed expectations.  It is just part of who I am, and I thrive in environments where I can do that. Working corporate gave me some of that framework: mentors to learn from, feedback mechanisms, goals and targets to meet and exceed.  That was very comfortable for me. High pressure, but secure. Knowing that I could succeed in that environment was what finally gave me the courage to take the leap. I was also inspired by lots of founders who didn’t have that background, but had an awesome idea and a ton of tenacity and just did it.  But my background has been a huge help – I’ve been able to leverage what I know, and it is easier to work with manufacturers and formulation and regulatory experts when you have that shared knowledge base and language – it makes things a little smoother.

Starting out, what were some of the biggest hurdles you faced as an entrepreneur? Is there anything you wish you knew when you started? 

It has been really interesting, as some of what I thought would be straightforward was actually quite challenging. There were many aspects that I didn’t have hands-on experience with previously and was intimidated by - they turned out to be easier than I thought.  The single biggest challenge was definitely finding the right co-manufacturer to partner with to actually make the products. I thought, given my background and relationships, this would be easy, but it was not.  There are many manufacturers in Canada, but the challenge was finding one that was really skilled at working with all-natural flavours and sweeteners. This is because natural flavours are so much harder to work with and will vary from batch to batch with crop conditions so it is a bit of an art. The manufacturer also had to be willing to work with very small production runs for a start-up brand.  Often the top manufacturers will only work with big production runs, which makes it impossible for small brands.  I wanted the Niyama powder products to be insanely delicious, so people would actually look forward to taking them.   

I wish I had known more about graphic design.  I’d always worked with an in-house design studio, so I was very spoiled by that.  I work with an amazing branding agency (Unbound Productions) for the larger brand and packaging work, but the day to day social posts and ads are things I do myself.  Canva does make it much simpler because I am hopeless at Photoshop, but when you are starting out you have to do as much as you can on your own.

What would you say has been the most rewarding part of being a business owner thus far? 

Definitely the feedback from our customers.  When someone emails me and says that they took Sleep Like Buddha and slept better than they have in months, it is incredibly gratifying.  I have suffered from insomnia so I get it.  Not sleeping well is awful, and good sleep is life-changing. 

Last week a long-distance runner emailed me about our After Practice, which is an all-natural electrolyte and amino acid powder you add to your post or intra-workout water for hydration and repair.  She said that she could not tolerate the sugary, artificial sports drinks on the market and this was delicious and had improved her recovery significantly so she is now running further and faster.  How amazing is it to know that you made something that has actually helped someone reach a goal?   It makes it all worthwhile for sure. 

What’s one thing you do that keeps you balanced throughout the day and keeps your creativity flowing? 

I take my Daytime Zen every morning when I wake up.  It has plant-sourced adaptogens for adrenal support, to help reduce the perception of stress. It helps me feel calm, and focused and “in the zone” without that overwhelmed feeling.  And I try to spend some time outdoors at least 5 times a week – even in the winter.  It might be a 15-minute walk, or it might be working outside with my laptop on nice afternoons.  But I notice a huge difference when I get outside – it improves my mood and the ideas just flow.

Gratitude is a big part of your brand’s mission and values, in addition to Yoga as a whole. How do you show gratitude throughout the day? 

I’ve always struggled to stay present.  Like many Type-A people, I’m prone to future-worrying and not taking the time to enjoy the moment.  My New Year’s resolution every year is to be more present.  I try, but it is so hard. These past few months have been very difficult as a small business, but personally I think they have forced me to sit with more uncertainty.  That isn’t comfortable but I think it has taught me lessons I needed to learn about staying more in the moment and being grateful for everything we have. As a family, we are incredibly lucky to live where we do, in this country, with our health and with enough to eat and our needs met.  What is truly important in life became so clear in that first month, and knowing my family and friends were safe and healthy made gratitude so much more crucial to express.  There is a quote I really like that goes “the difference between privileged and entitlement is gratitude” and I think that is so true. Gratitude really gives back too – the more you practice it and express it, the happier and less anxious you actually feel.  It makes what you have enough.  When I’m tucking our youngest in at night, we often share the 3 things we are grateful for from the day, which helps put the day into a positive focus before sleep. And when I’m stressed during the day, I find a few moments of deep breathing, and making a gratitude list in my head really puts things in perspective.

Do you have any wellness tips that you can share for those in quarantine looking to feel more balanced or to boost their mood? 

Human bodies love and crave routine.  And that doesn’t have to mean a mundane boring routine.  A routine sleep/wake cycle is one of the best things you can do for your health, and your mood.  Going to bed at the same time and waking at the same time – even on weekends (or trying to minimize the variance, keeping it to an hour at most – I like a weekend sleep in just as much as the next person) really sets you up for better sleep overall, which is key to healthy mood balance.  Daily movement – find what you love so it doesn’t feel like a chore.  Good food – as Michael Pollan says “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”  Spend a bit of time outside each day if you can.  And stay connected - phone calls, video calls, texts, distanced in-person meet-ups - we need human connection.  And above all, laugh every day.  

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs? 

Top 3:  

  • Get started. Know that it will take longer and be tougher than you think to do your research, get to market and eventually start to break even – if you can’t do it full time right away, start it as a side hustle, but find a way to start sooner than later. Don’t put it off – you won’t ever regret doing it, but you will regret not doing it.
  • Connect with other female entrepreneurs – they (we!) tend to be incredibly generous with their time and will share their experience and tips in the most collaborative way.  It’s not competitive in nature, feels very supportive and often shortcuts something that would have taken much longer to figure out.
  • Prioritize sleep.  Seriously.  Being an entrepreneur is an “always-on” job. Yes, it’s flexible but your brain is always running it in the background.  And it can be hard to stop working – especially if it starts as a side hustle.  So, make sure you are getting enough sleep – you need to to be your best self!
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