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From employee to entrepreneur to innovator

Posted by Margaret MacQuarrie on March 6, 2023 in Alumni & Friends, News

“I had no clue about skin care products,” says Stephen Aikman (MBA’11), which is surprising when you learn that in 2019 he sold the skin care business he started in his basement, All Natural Advice, for tens of millions of dollars.

By most people’s measure, Stephen was a success long before that. For 25 years he’d worked at RBC in various senior leadership roles, including vice president and head of commercial strategy.

“Getting the MBA was intense”

Banking had not been his dream job, he admits. But after he’d completed his Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA’95) at Brock University, it was just about the only position he could apply for. “The job market was horrible at the time,” says Stephen. “About 700 people applied for the two available positions and I got one of them.”

For a time, banking looked like a secure future, leading Stephen to get his MBA in financial services from Dalhousie in 2011.

“Getting the MBA was intense,” remembers Stephen. “At the time I lived in Hamilton and worked in Toronto. It was an hour train ride each way. I’d study on the way in, and on the way home. Then at night, I’d study some more.”

Two years in, and his start-up was worth millions

While the program may have been focused on helping bankers become even better at their jobs, it managed to have a different effect on many in Stephen’s cohort. “I stayed connected with just about everyone in my program,” he says, “and over half of us left our jobs to become entrepreneurs and do something else. And we’re all successful.”

In Stephen’s case, that “something else” came in 2013 in the form of a skin care product a friend was selling to hotels and spas. Stephen had the insight to rebrand it and sell it exclusively online—a place where the big brands weren’t playing yet. “They didn’t care about e-commerce; they cared about in-store experience.” By 2019, that little start-up was worth millions and in 2020 he left RBC.

Professor Carolan McLarney had our best interests at heart

“I saw a market need for organic natural products, steering away from corporate synthetic products, allowing consumers to make a choice that was healthier for the environment and themselves,” says Stephen. “We were also able to tap into economic innovation for global growth.”

Stephen credits Dal “100 per cent” for giving him the courage to take the plunge and change careers. “The people at Dal were invested in me,” he says. “The staff were so engaging. The entire program was a community.”

Stephen singles out Professor Carolan McLarney as especially inspiring. “When I told her about this opportunity, she said ‘Just do it.’ She was someone who looked after us as students and had our best interests at heart. I’m an entrepreneur today because of her.”