Alexandra Daignault was at a coffee shop in downtown Calgary purchasing a tea. Challenged with the task of thinking about resistance in everyday experiences for a university class, Daignault asked herself a question: What if tea could be sold to support marginalized individuals in local community?
In February of 2017, Sarjesa was born.
Working together with Elders and Indigenous individuals from local communities, Sarjesa sells loose leaf tea and donates part of the proceeds to the Awo Taan Healing Lodge to support programming for Indigenous women. Another of its goals is to help raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The business idea, the idea of business
“I was actually [at a local coffee shop] and I looked down at their teas and coffees, and I realized that I was buying a product that was supporting Indigenous communities elsewhere in the world,” Daignault, 25, recalls. “If you walk through the grocery store, look at the packaging. You have Big Chief Beef Jerky, you have Land O’ Lakes butter, you have Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and all of these things. None of them really, to me, represent the women I see every day.”
Daignault talks passionately about the business, as she sits across a round table and sips from her cup. She wants to help other marginalized women, including her own community, but recognizes, she says, that violence towards Indigenous women is at the root of the problem.
“I think that it's really important for all of us to acknowledge our position on Treaty 7 territory,” Daignault begins.
“It's such an inherent characteristic of colonialism, because so often in different communities women are the carrier of culture or traditional knowledge because they can give birth to children. If you kill or harm women, you’re eradicating that essential part of how communities live on.”
Daignault herself is not Indigenous. As a self-identified Indo-Caribbean woman, she recognizes the importance of making sure her actions aren’t mistakenly trying to “save” the people she works with, but rather working together with them.
That’s where the idea of social innovation comes into play. Her business is considered a social enterprise, aiming to shift a system and create impactful social change, not focused on making money alone.
“I work with two elders from Kainai [Board of Education] and they're amazing,” says Daignault. “They pick their own tea. They've taught me a lot about medicine, but they've also taught me a lot about my own community. My mother and grandmother are involved in this relationship and we spend a lot of time just being there for each other.
“What I admire about Indigenous activism is that they have a language of intergenerational trauma and words to describe experiences that are often really not talked about in my community, and ongoing, but we don't necessarily have language yet to describe all of that history,” she explains.
“I find I learn a lot just about how to process from sitting with elders and talking to them but also, it's good to have those relationships with community and build community as well.”
Daignault was born in March of 1993 in Calgary, but that’s not the beginning of her story. Before she was born, her grandmother, Meena Miles, who originally comes from Trinidad where she attended a missionary school, immigrated to England to study nursing. Then, after marrying her husband and having a daughter, she immigrated once again to Canada, where she worked as a nurse.
Miles is a big part of Daignault's life.
“In my first semester [at Mount Royal University] I ended up in a postcolonial theory class. My professor ... I couldn't understand the things he was telling me wasn't matching the stories of amazing missionaries from my grandmother. According to her, they were the reason why I had an education and running water.”
“So she said: ‘You tell that man I'll come teach his class for him.’ So I went and told my professor this, and he started sending her books, and she would read them and write back with notes. Out of this, this beautiful friendship formed,” Daignault explains.
Her Mount Royal experience, which she just completed, consists of an English degree, an Indigenous studies minor, an Innovation and Entrepreneurship minor and a citation in Community Service Learning. She is the valedictorian for her convocation coming up this November.
Daignault wasn’t always a busy student with a business, but according to her mother, Natalie Darwent-Lynem, she was always charitable.
“One summer, she mustn't have been more than ten, she organized the whole community of kids. She was the director of the play, and they did ‘The Secret Garden.’ It involved, I don't know, 30 different kids from the neighbourhood. They charged cans of food for the food bank to get in — that's the kind of kid she was, she could organize to the end,” Darwent-Lynem says.
“She was very creative. She was always coming up with a play or writing a book. One summer when she was a teenager she stayed in her room until she completely, she knit a blanket, and it was knitted and crocheted from all these amazing things that she just put together. Some of her baby clothes were in there. She's so creative, she's uber-creative.”
Daignault went to a Waldorf school from preschool to Grade 5, a type of schooling based on anthroposophy, which is a type of creative-based learning established by Rudolf Steiner. It seeks to use natural means to optimize physical and mental health and well-being.
The school was arts-driven and focused on relationships and children’s creativity. Daignault explains they used lots of natural materials to create things and didn’t engage with technology.
When Daignault eventually transferred to Senator Patrick Burns school in Grade 7, after skipping Grade 6, she remembers being confused.
“I just remember sitting there in my big pink Gap hoodie not knowing what was going on,” she explains. “What do you mean I get an ‘F’ for this piece of math that has beautiful artistic borders on it? Don't I get partial marks for putting effort in?”
The Waldorf experience still reflects on her personality today. She’s not as plugged-in as others, but she’s attentive, curious and prefers reading over watching television.
The lack of technology as a child isn’t just the result of going to a Waldorf school, though. Both Daignault and Darwent-Lynem note they were relatively poor when Daignault was a child.
“We didn't have a TV, we didn't have a computer, we didn't have any of those things. We used to go to the library a lot, and I would get audio books and listen to them on my little cassette thing that I had gotten at a garage sale,” Daignault says.
“I didn't know who Elon Musk was until six months ago,” she jokes.
Her mother was a single parent for most of Daignault’s, and her sister Katarina’s, childhood. She had to work multiple jobs to keep them in the private school and provide for them as best she could. She says it has taught Daignault, in many ways, to be the person she is today.
“She's also aware of the fact that she wore secondhand clothes to school and that we didn't always have enough,” explains Darwent-Lynem. “I was teaching at the Waldorf school, and I was teaching there part-time so that I didn't have to put my girls in daycare. I babysat kids before and after school, and I was a housekeeper, and I did art lessons on the side, so quite a jumble of things.
“Sometimes you have to work really hard for the purpose and the vision you have, and I think that she saw that firsthand.”
Activist, entrepreneur, activist-entrepreneur
Hard work, a purpose and the vision are exactly what Daignault has, but she hasn’t always wanted a business. She hesitated when her then co-founder and her talked about taking an entrepreneurship class at Mount Royal University to kickstart Sarjesa.
“I had no idea what I was really doing because I was really scared of business,” Daignault says.
Daignault was hesitant to become an entrepreneur because her father had previously been in trouble with the law over different sorts of bad business dealings.
“I remember going to Ray DePaul’s office and being like, ‘I can't do this. Sorry. I'm an activist, not an entrepreneur,’ and he was like, ‘No, no, no, just take my class, you'll see!’”
She took the class and worked on what was then called Solidaritea. That name, unfortunately, had to be changed because it was already registered by a company in the U.S.
DePaul, the professor of that class and an entrepreneur in his own right, remembers meeting Daignault for the first time.
“I always look for a few things in people: Are they actually passionate about what they're doing? Because it's really hard, and if you don't have that passion as a fuel to keep you going you're probably going to run out of energy and stop,” DePaul says.
“So she clearly had that. The other quality I always look for is just: Are they coachable? Do they come thinking they have all the answers, and we're just wasting each others time because they're not open to ideas? She was just all ears, and was just a sponge.”
It was difficult for Daignault, in a space of entrepreneurs and for-profit businesses, to explain what she wanted to do, but when she confronted the idea of being both an activist and entrepreneur, she succeeded.
“[Ray DePaul] and this other student had said, ‘You don't really have any sales yet. You have no proof that you actually have anything.’ And I was so angry. I had no reason to be angry, I was just super annoyed. So I went home, and I put all the labels on our tea, and started selling two days later. And we sold 100 in the first week and it just kept going,” Daignault recalls.
“Then, two weeks later, I get this phone call from this other student founder at 10 o'clock on a Saturday night being like, ‘I need you to help me build a community for women!’ says Daignault. “I was like, ‘Yes! yes!’ Because finally I was able to articulate what I was trying to do. It's all about different measurements, right? I knew that I had something because even if I sold no tea but engaged the community, the point is to raise awareness for missing women.”
In the pilot of her business, which ended in June 2017, she donated $1,500 back to the community. By the end of 2018, she hopes to give even more. For both Daignault and DePaul, Sarjesa began to form.
“She's inserted into my lexicon this activist-entrepreneur notion which I love,” DePaul says.
“I believe it was important for her to get to the point where she was selling a lot of tea, so now she's empowered to think about impact as opposed to, if you never sold any tea, impact would be hard to try.”
DePaul explains Daignault has struck a balance of selling tea so she can eventually pay employees, but also understanding that the message is what’s truly important.
Listening to the community
Like any entrepreneur might tell you, running a business takes a lot of energy, which can be especially true when you’re working in a community you aren’t directly a part of. Working as both an activist and an entrepreneur, there is the possibility of being “called out” when it comes to doing the work in a respectful manner.
“I actually think it's really good to be called out,” Daignault explains. “I think it's awesome when community challenges me and asks me questions and all of those things, because it's — those are the questions that we should always ask, all entrepreneurs. And especially social entrepreneurs because there's a real tendency to let ambition get in the way of actual community consultation.”
She has been called out on her actions in other areas of her life too. Seeing it as a positive, she uses it as a building block to do better. Once, she was tasked with taking a strong position on a social issue for a university paper, and she chose to discuss why Canada should close its borders.
“I took it home, and my grandma reads it, and she looks at me, and I was so proud that I took a firm position and I had my arguments all lined up, and she's just like: ‘We are immigrants. You were born here, but we came, what would happen?’ I was just like, ‘Oh yeah!’ So it's just like moments where we do have authentic teaching.”
Usually, she explains, people can see you’re making an effort to take their advice to heart.
“I sometimes take up space in inappropriate ways and have to be checked on that, but you come to a point where you can do the self-checking, but also be kind with yourself,” says Daignault.
“There's no perfect allyship, and people are empathetic with that. People can see if you're trying to do good and are mostly empathetic.”
Just like the original name of the business said, the foundation of the venture is solidarity. Daignault doesn’t make a salary from Sarjesa, and says she won’t for a while. She’d rather hire women from the community to work instead. Sitting in a coffee shop on 17th Avenue, Daignault scrolls through her phone so she can read aloud a quote about solidarity.
It’s from Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar. It goes: “Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.”
That’s what Sarjesa, and Daignault, are trying to accomplish.
Editor’s note: Since this story was written, the reporter has begun working as a digital storyteller under Ray DePaul at Mount Royal University.
- By Amber McLinden