Canadian beauty

Written by Rick Spence

You could be the hero of Ben Barry’s new book. Barry is the overachieving author of Fashioning Reality: A New Generation of Entrepreneurship, the best autobiography of a 24-year-old you’ll ever read. It documents his fascinating journey since starting his modelling agency by accident 10 years ago, when he helped a 14-year-old friend who’d spent $3,000 on modelling lessons and couldn’t get a booking. Today, the Ottawa-based Ben Barry Agency has 20 staff, clients such as The Bay, Unilever and L’Oréal, and consistent profits.

But Fashioning Reality is not just about the fashion industry. It’s about the power of business to create change in society—and the starring role you can play in the process.

Barry’s career took an unexpected twist early on. Proud of his ability to get Ottawa models booked into glossy magazines, he was enraged to discover that some of his high-school classmates felt inferior to size-zero models, suffering depression and eating disorders as a result. “When I started out, I was following the usual model of beauty,” he says. “Then I discovered that my friends didn’t like what we were doing.”

While his agency does supply young, thin models in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., Barry’s trademark is encouraging clients to embrace diversity. Fashion designers and cosmetics firms may adore waif-like models, but Barry says consumers would rather buy from a company that promotes its products using models who look like them.

Barry’s business might be larger had he swum with the tide. But diversity has become his mission, and the agency his activist tool. He majored in women’s studies at the University of Toronto, running his company and haranguing marketers in between classes and homework. He has had many victories, from introducing visible minorities to mall fashion shows to finding diverse models for the “Real Beauty” campaign run in 50 countries by Unilever’s Dove brand.

Although Dove’s campaign boosted some product sales as much as 700% in the U.K. and other markets, posh fashion magazines and couture houses still shun diverse models, dismissing Dove as a “drugstore” brand. And there are no credible statistics that prove willowy models are good or bad for business. So, two years ago, Barry began studying innovation and strategy at Cambridge University, where he’ll earn his PhD with a three-year research project on beauty-industry marketing called “Why Reflect Reality?” He has received a US$50,000-a-year grant to conduct consumer surveys on the effectiveness of model advertising. Based on early findings, Barry is confident the study will supply the data he needs. “We’re about to reach a tipping point,” he says, citing the recent decision by Vogue to feature plus-sized singer Jennifer Hudson on its cover. “I think you’ll see major changes.”

As a lone crusader, Barry loved meeting other young entrepreneurs and seeing how many of them are as committed to principle as to profit. In this way, Fashioning Reality is a manifesto for young entrepreneurs. Criticizing the Naomi (No Logo) Klein school of endless complaint, Barry says today’s smartest activists aren’t found “on the sidelines throwing stones at some big scary monster called ‘capitalism.’ They’re inside the system. They’re tackling social issues as businesspeople.” Several of them are profiled in Barry’s book.

Why are young people starting socially conscious businesses? Barry credits the media for cuing them to problems, from poverty to pollution. I think there’s more to it. Growing awareness of the need for responsible solutions has created an explosion of new opportunities. Who else but visionary, risk-taking entrepreneurs are going to sell us the solutions we don’t yet know we need?

In fact, there’s huge opportunities here. Only the strongest economies have the time and money to fuss over crowded landfills, rain forests and hybrid cars. As one of the world’s most advanced consumer societies, Canada can become a leader in marketing “pro-social” products and services around the world. Given our eroding manufacturing base, a new generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs could be our best hope for creating products the rest of the world wants.

This is where you come in. “Established businesses have a huge role to play in helping young entrepreneurs grow,” says Barry, who admits he’d never have succeeded without support from many people.

So, why not play fairy godmother to young entrepreneurs? Volunteer at a school or mentor through associations such as the Canadian Youth Business Foundation. Throw business their way, and encourage others to give them a try. Help them form advisory boards. Introduce them to your friends or suppliers. Barry succeeded because one adult contact let him borrow his office two nights a week; how might you make a difference in some young revolutionary’s life?

You won’t just be helping one startup. You’ll be strengthening the tendrils of entrepreneurship in your community, and contributing to Canada’s prosperity. You can make entrepreneurship a renewable resource.

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