In 2011 a young yoga teacher in Vancouver decided to develop a small business selling her authentic yoga props and meditation cushions. In the last four years that modest one-person business has developed into Inner Fire Apparel, a thriving international company creating yoga apparel and lifestyle products. Muuyu was delighted to have the chance to discuss organic business growth, following passions and giving back to your community with inspiring Inner Fire founder, LEAH EMMOTT.
When did you establish Inner Fire Apparel and what was the momentum behind it?
Back in 2011, I was working as a yoga teacher when I suddenly had to be rushed to the hospital for the removal of a giant ovarian cyst, which left me in recovery for 6 weeks. I had a lot of friends who were yoga teachers so I decided to make some gifts for them while I was off during the holiday season. The first items I made were yoga props and meditation cushions.
After giving some out as gifts, I had some people from my yoga studio ask if I could sell them some there. I just followed the demand and started to make and sell yoga props, bit by bit. After selling a fair amount I decided it was time to call the company something. I decided to call it Inner Fire because the area of my belly where I had the cyst was the same area where the 3rd chakra resides. It is an area with fiery qualities that is responsible for passion, creativity and drive. I really felt like this fire got lit during those 6 weeks off.
When I was back teaching, I started to brainstorm some cool shirt design ideas that had been mulling around in my brain for a while. I took a local screen printing workshop and then started to print my own shirts at home. I would wear them out and to class and had even more people ask me if I could make some for them. It grew very organically.
About a year ago, I added a line of eco-friendly leggings made from recycled water bottles as a medium to express my love for nature and art. The clothing side of the business grew so quickly that I decided to no longer offer the yoga props. It’s funny how a business evolves!
How difficult was it to progress without a background in fashion design or experience in setting up a business (that needed a home, staff, funding, etc)?
My business never intended to be a fashion business when I started out. It was strictly yoga props and casual tanks and tees at the beginning. I didn’t even want to get into cut and sew apparel until a couple of years in (and with the help of people with actual backgrounds in the fashion world). I let it grow organically; letting my creativity drive the direction rather than the industry. I was just lucky that what I was doing ended up being what the industry was looking for!
As for the business side, I have a degree in business but I can’t say that it helped much when it came to all the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. I was lucky to be able to move back home to focus on the business, which allowed me to put a lot of sweat equity into the project without too much financial risk. I bootstrapped the entire business off of my savings and worked on the side when I started. As the business continued to grow, I experienced some major growing pains. It was clear after the first year and a half that I needed to move into a proper space and hire staff. At the time, it definitely was scary to be taking those risks, but I am so glad I made the decision to go big or go home.
As a fashion brand Inner Fire is fun and playful but can you explain how you keep it grounded in a genuine yoga philosophy.
My inspiration comes from my experience as a yoga practitioner and as a yoga teacher. To me, yoga, at its core, is simply the practice of being fully present and connected. Being in that state of mind opens up the potential for more fun, joy and playfulness in one’s day-to-day life. It can be expressed in so many different ways. For me it is through words and art. I always make sure that the phrases I put on my shirts honor the practice of yoga and the person wearing it, however tongue in cheek the saying might be.
I feel so indebted to yoga for helping me get through tough times and reminding me what is important in life. It has also introduced me to a community of deeply loving and conscious individuals. It has humbled me in so many ways. The practice reminds me that we are all connected and that we can really create a positive impact through our actions.
You are now the designer and the CEO of a yoga clothing company – what inspires you in both these roles, and do you find one role fits you more easily than the other?
As with any business, the founder needs to wear a lot of hats to get the work done. The business side and the creative side have to go hand in hand in order for the whole business to be successful. It’s less compartmentalized and more of a continuum for me though. They blend with each other because that’s the nature of the day-to-day of small business. The business side is primarily about people, whereas the creative side is primarily about thoughts and feelings. The two roles balance each other out naturally.
I’ve had people refer to me as the CEO before, and for some reason, I never liked that title. Although I believe in leadership I don’t see the need for corporate hierarchy. This company is definitely something that came from me but I feel like now it’s grown bigger than me. It’s created a community of conscious individuals, of which I see myself as an equal.
Which of your collections (or pieces within a particular collection) are your favorites and why?
It’s really hard to choose any one collection, but I would have to say my favorite is the ‘Laughing Yogi Collection’. It was my original collection of yoga puns and funny sayings. When I initially came up with it, I thought that no one would have the same humor as me but it turns out I was definitely wrong! I love that it brings out the lighthearted side in people.
An important part of the Inner Fire philosophy is giving back to the larger community – can you talk about why this is integral to the company what it entails exactly?
When I started the company I finally felt like I had found my life calling. I felt like the fire was lit within me to make a positive impact in the world. One day while meditating I felt the need to somehow give this same feeling to others. Everyone has a passion – but not everyone is fortunate enough to have the means to make it a reality. I had a friend in university who had started an organization called the School Fund. Their mandate is to help link up youth in developing countries with micro-donors in order to fund their education. The light bulb went off in my head – I could donate a portion (10%) of my profits to The School Fund to help other young people realize their dreams too!
Most of the students we support are looking to attend post-secondary or vocational programs in their communities. It’s been quite eye-opening to learn how little there is out there for students in their late teens and early twenties. In order to maximize our contribution we usually engage in matching campaigns with other organizations. So far we’ve funded educational scholarships for over 10 students in Africa and Ecuador.
The company has grown at quite a rapid rate – how have you coped with that?
2014 was the turning point year for me. I can’t believe how fast it’s grown! I went from making everything myself to having to locally outsource production just to keep up. It was super rewarding to see how far I was able to take it on my own. Of course, I had a lot of help from friends and family during those first two years – of which I am eternally grateful.
I did find it hard to let go and give up some control but I found myself overworked and unable to enjoy the things I used to enjoy when I had spare time. I had to hire some help so that I could live a normal life again. The people on my team have been amazing. I feel like the big growing pains phase is finally over.
What are the future priorities for you and Inner Fire Apparel?
I hope to continue to build a strong team of conscious people who enjoy working in a dynamic environment. I have plans to expand the wholesale side of the business into international markets, like Australia, the UK, Singapore and Dubai. It’s been really crazy to see how many people from all over the world know about Inner Fire. Gotta thank the internet for that one! I hope to be able to impact more people through our philanthropic activities as well.
As a business woman as well as a yoga practitioner and teacher, what advise can you give to other working women in relation to using yoga both on and off the mat to live a fulfilling life?
I have learned many things along this journey and one of the biggest things is that the best thing you can do is be true to yourself and open your heart to those around you. When you live in a state of authenticity, gratitude and selflessness you attract the things that you are looking for. You attract the right people and from there the opportunities start to flow.
You can call it the Law of Attraction or manifestation, but it’s basically about living as though we are in this together. It really works!
Oh, and it’s OK to show up to a class and spend the whole time in Savasana! I think there’s a shirt for that! 😉
All Inner Fire Apparel products can be found on their website http://www.myinnerfire.com
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