St. Thomas University third-year international students, Khanh Do and Melissa Peña, are not only full-time students. They are both passionate business owners.
Do, a political science and business major from Vietnam, created Azusa Studio, an ethical and sustainable tie-dye athletic leisure clothing brand. Azusa is the Japanese word for “tree.”
Do had the idea for Azusa in December 2019, but started the business when she was laid off as a Page for the Legislative Assembly Building in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
“[I thought,] now that I have all this free time in quarantine, why don’t I start what I’m passionate about?” she said.
Peña, a business and economics major, launched MelQui Desserts with her partner, fourth-year business and economics major Martín Carvajal. Both are Ecuadorian. MelQui’s name combines Peña’s first name and Carvajal’s home city, Quito. The business sells healthy desserts including cakes, muffins, energy balls and “crownies” – MelQui’s unique creation made of a layer of brownie with a layer of cookie dough mixture on top.
People always associate desserts with sugar, Peña said. What MelQui is trying to do is prove to people that they can treat themselves and still give their bodies nutrients.
MelQui Desserts began when Peña started baking more during the early days of quarantine last year.
“I found baking was more than a distraction. I discovered it’s something I’m passionate about,” she said.
Once MelQui Desserts was registered with Service New Brunswick, the business started with banana chocolate chip cake, lemon blueberry cake and orange cake. The menu quickly grew as demand increased and Peña expanded her culinary knowledge. She said she tries to keep learning and innovating.
Do also got her business registered, applied for government funding and then searched for an ethical clothing supplier in Canada. She said it took four months to find the right one.
Do tie-dyes all the clothing herself. She carries a wide range of clothing sizes and uses Black, Indigenous, people of colour and LGBTQ+ models in her marketing campaigns because she values diversity.
“It’s my mission to create a brand that represents POC, immigrants, ethics [and] doing what’s right,” she said.
Do said she is aware of social injustice issues and part of the company is to raise awareness. The business’ revenue also goes towards keeping their staff in school.
While Azusa Studio and MelQui Desserts are doing well, their owners have faced challenges.
The pandemic delayed processes and applications Peña and Carvajal had to go through to start MelQui. As a new business owner, Peña said she found it hard to attract new customers at first.
“Because you’re new in the market, you need to build that trust,” she said.
Do said she has also experienced difficulties. Running Azusa by herself has been tough on her grades and her mental health because she works 12 hours a day.
She has also dealt with systemic racism as an immigrant in Canada and said she had her business idea stolen in the past.
“Being an ethical worker is hard, especially when the whole system is oppressing you,” she said.
Both new businesses have exciting plans for the near future. Peña said in the summer MelQui will be looking for a production facility and expanding by selling products at the farmers market in Fredericton as well as at the ECO Market at The Ville. MelQui also plans to launch its website later this year.
Do is looking to hire people for a creative team.
Due to financial reasons, Do can only offer unpaid internships but as Azusa grows, she may be able to offer paid positions.
Peña shared her advice for fellow students dreaming of starting their own businesses.
“Just take that first step. If you have a good attitude, if you’re willing to grow and if you have the passion, that’s key,” said Peña.
Listen to The Aquinian’s Editor-in-Chief, Diana Chávez, interview Azusa Studio and MelQui Desserts in a radio piece for the STU Digital Journalism class.