Sweet studies: Makers of sweetgrass soap stay true to Indigenous roots

Posted 2020-02-11

Sisters Lynn-Marie and Melissa-Rae Angus transitioned their soap-making hobby into a bonafide health-and-wellness retail startup, thanks to an Indigenous business program at the UBC Sauder School of Business.

The Ch’nook Accelerated Business Program (ABP) is a two-week-long community entrepreneurship course for Indigenous students.

Ch’nook’s mission is to provide business education that will develop leadership and management skills needed for business success and economic independence for Indigenous learners, leaders and entrepreneurs. Ch’nook programs actively promote and incorporate Indigenous identities, culture, language, values and ways of learning into its business education programs.

Sisters Sage is testament to its successful approach. The Ch’nook ABP program helped the Angus sisters get their business idea, which started as a hobby, off the ground. Sisters Sage is a line of handcrafted Indigenous soaps and self-care products inspired by cultural traditions and ingredients.

The Vancouver-based business is the result of years of twists and turns in the winding career paths and life’s journeys of the sisters that finally came together at UBC Sauder.

Both worked for years in the culinary arts, cooking in restaurants, mostly for low wages. After rising to the position of sous-chef at a popular tapas restaurant, Lynn-Marie, 35, was still struggling to pay the bills. She changed careers and moved into construction, where the pay was better but the atmosphere was worse for her, and she experienced racism and sexism on the job.

The pivotal moment came when she was working as a “flagger” on a construction site, controlling traffic. “It was a difficult job,” she says. “You’re in the elements and at the disposal of everyone’s anger."

One afternoon, a carload of men drove by yelling obscenities at her, which prompted her to leave on the spot and never return. She headed straight to see her younger sister, Melissa, who was pregnant at the time with her first child and still working in the food industry.

The sisters had a heart to heart. They knew now was the time to make a career change. “We went back and forth for about a month, trying to figure out what we could do together. It had to be Indigenous, and it had to speak to us culturally,” says Lynn-Marie.

They drove down to the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society to access job postings and information. They saw a pamphlet for UBC’s Accelerated Business Program (formally called the Community Entrepreneurship Course) – a business program focused on turning entrepreneurial ideas into fully-fledged business plans.

Lynn Marie Angus

“The program started the very next day,” Lynn-Marie recalls. “I immediately said: ‘That’s it Melissa. That’s what we both came down here for.’ ”

They contacted Ch’nook at UBC Sauder, but there was only one space remaining which Lynn-Marie took, promising to teach her sister everything she learned.

That was a year ago. Today, Sisters Sage is not only a fully developed plan, it is a revenue-generating business that puts some income into Lynn-Marie’s pocket every month, although Melissa has yet to take a salary.

“Lynn has learned a lot about the markets and human resources, pricing out how much one single bar would cost – micro- and macroeconomics,” says Melissa-Rae. “She has taken us further than I ever thought possible, and it’s because of all of the studying and hard work she’s put into the business.”

Born and raised in East Vancouver, the sisters’ heritage is Gitxaala, Nisga’a and Metis. Their father, David Angus, is from B.C.’s northwest coast and their mother, Jeanette Angus, is from the Prairies. Their family and cultural history are deeply embedded in the products they make and sell.

The West Coast soap is a beautifully designed orange-and-black bar made of seaweed extract, which acts as a moisturizer, and bamboo-activated charcoal, which exfoliates the oils and toxins from the skin’s pores. It smells of the sea. Pow Wow soap is a rainbow of colours made of Prairie sweetgrass and fragranced with sage essential oil.

“These are tributes to our parents,” says Melissa-Rae, the youngest of six children. “When we think of pow wow, we are reminded of these bright beautiful colours shining in the sunshine. We think of powerful dancers and medicine. Our soap cleanses your body and spirit.”

The Ch’nook ABP taught business basics, which set a strong foundation for the two entrepreneurs. At the end of the course, the sisters had developed a few products, such as soaps, some sprays and bath bombs. Most importantly, they had a pitch, which they put to a jury, and won some startup funding. “It was the beginning of Sisters Sage,” says Lynn-Marie.

It also ignited a desire to learn more and take additional business studies through Ch’nook, which the sisters say has been supportive in immeasurable ways. Not only did Lynn-Marie apply and get a scholarship to participate in Ch’nook’s Aboriginal Management Program, a five-month, three- module intensive program, she also received a scholarship to participate in the Ch’nook Scholars Program while pursuing business administration studies.

Each day started with a smudging ceremony, something that UBC students don’t typically see. “It was pretty cool,” says Lynn-Marie. “Who gets to start school that way? For myself, it was to give thanks to being able to live and learn on Musqueam land, to pray for our education and to pray that it will prepare us for a better life.”

She said all of the professors, whether Indigenous or not, were respectful and welcoming, acknowledging the land that they were on and using examples of Indigenous business leaders wherever possible.

“You can’t put a price on it. The program was huge for me,” she says. “They’ve helped me exponentially.”

Sisters Sage products are available online at For more information on The Ch’nook Accelerated Business Program, visit

First published by the Globe Content Studio