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Fragrance industry entrepreneur

Becoming a fragrance industry entrepreneur wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for Ashlee Firsten, BESc’06, when she arrived at Western.

She had strong math and science skills, was inspired by her brother’s engineering experience, and was certain a chemical engineering degree would lead to a career. But Firsten wasn’t clear what that career would look like.

Many of her classmates had dreams of working in the gas and oil industry, but Firsten just couldn’t see herself fitting that traditional mould. Then a conversation with engineering professor Lauren Briens changed how she looked at her future.

Lauren was the first person to tell me that my engineering degree could help me do anything,” Firsten says. “She asked ‘You don’t think there’s engineering in makeup or jewellery plants or anything else that you might have an interest in?”

With a fresh perspective and renewed excitement, Firsten looked for internships in the cosmetics industry, eventually finding a quality assurance position at Ahava, a skin care company in Israel. It became a stepping-stone for her career.

While researching internships, Firsten was surprised to discover Estee Lauder had facilities in Toronto. She later learned the company doesn’t post jobs externally – ever. Unfazed, she continued to call their HR department every two weeks for months, until she was successful in snagging an interview and eventually a position with the quality assurance team.

After a year and a half with Estee Lauder, Firsten started to develop a keen interest in how the business was run. Next stop: an MBA in Marketing in Luxury Goods from International University of Monaco.

Firsten returned to Toronto in 2008 at the peak of the recession and the jobs that had once looked promising started to disappear. Around the same time she met her future sister in-law and business partner, Kirsten Menkes. After getting to know each other they realized with Menkes’s experience in event management and public relations and Firsten’s engineering and business background, they made a dynamic team.

The pair decided to make their mark in the fragrance industry by creating a customized fragrance experience based on personality traits. For the next six months, they researched fragrance production and developed a business plan.

From there, they formed Aromachology, a fragrance company that matches personality to scent.

With a perfume bar prototype, Firsten and Menkes pitched Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel, two of New York City’s largest department stores. Bergdorf Goodman turned them down, but Henri Bendel signed on for a fall 2009 launch.

Firsten and Menkes promoted Aromoachology at the ground level by working at Henri Bendel, directly serving their customers, allowing them to gather firsthand knowledge about their target demographic.

Soon after, the pair returned to Canada to further build their business, expanding their fragrance line to include candles and bath and body products.

But the Big Apple has beckoned them back, and Firsten and Menkes recently signed a contract with Sephora, a powerhouse in the world beauty market, to test one of their perfume bars in the company’s Union Square store in New York. Firsten calls it, “probably one of the biggest opportunities we will ever have.”

With Firsten’s blend of confidence and drive, there are sure to be more ‘big’ opportunities to come.

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