On a rainy Thursday morning in St-Henri, scented candles were being made by a group of women from very different backgrounds, all of whom were learning the ropes.
Clémence Tshikangu and Maria Maksoudian were unpacking jars in which to pour a fresh batch of hot wax. Both employees were referred to the new company, Riau Canada, by community organizations that help those in need.
(Above) Riau Canada director of operations Louise Bourassa, left, pours hot candle wax into a mold while president and founder Franca Ciambella looks on at their Montreal plant on Thursday Nov. 18, 2021.PHOTO BY PIERRE OBENDRAUF /Montreal Gazette Riau’s director of operations Louise Bourassa and CEO Franca Ciambella took a break from making calls and talking strategy to offer a tour of the small loft space to a Gazette reporter and photographer.
Ciambella admits she feels like a fish out of water. Having worked most of her career overseas as a lawyer specializing in international mergers and acquisitions, financial technology and cryptocurrencies.
“I was a high flyer — I still am, in many respects,” she said, “flying all over the place, staying in the best hotels, having blue chip clients and being in a certain milieu. I’ve acted for all the big Canadian companies; they all know me. But you get to the point where you want to give back.”
Ciambella had the idea for a candle company that employs the underprivileged when she returned to Montreal in January 2020.
“I came back … at the beginning of COVID, wanting to look after family members after living in Singapore for 30 years,” she said, “I noticed so many people in the street, a lot of homeless people. It really affected me.
“Then I remembered some American missionary friends of mine in Asia who had started a candle-making business employing people off the streets. They’re based on a tiny island (in) Indonesia, in the province of Riau.”
She spoke with her friends, and decided to launch Riau Canada as the North American branch of Riau Candle Company, using many of the same recipes to make hand-poured, eco-friendly soy candles for a cause. The candles come in four sizes and over 15 fragrances, including wild rose, amber and ash, spice market and blue hydrangea, plus the seasonal Christmas tree and merry mistletoe.
While Riau Canada is a for-profit company, 35 per cent of its earnings will be donated to reintegration counselling services in homeless shelters and community organizations, according to Ciambella. But the most immediate results can be seen on the faces of the three employees hired through community organizations since operations launched at the beginning of October.
Some of them have dealt with issues including homelessness and being out of the workforce for an extended period of time.
“They’re helping people who have difficulty finding work,” said Tshikangu, who was referred to Riau Canada by the Welcome Hall Mission and started work just over a week ago. “They’re looking for people like us.
“I like it,” she added. “I did a bit of training. The work is good, peaceful and calm.”
Maria Maksoudian was referred by Mouvement pour l’intégration et la rétention en emploi (MIRE).
“The atmosphere is really, really good here,” she said. “I had a bit of trouble finding work before. But this is good. We smell nice at the end of the day. I’m happy. I feel good. At least I found a job.”
(Above) Riau Canada director of operations Louise Bourassa, right, with president and founder Franca Ciambella.PHOTO BY PIERRE OBENDRAUF /Montreal Gazette
Ciambella hopes to help many more people re-enter the workforce. She has plans for expansion across the country and into the U.S., with help from Riau Candle Company’s stateside connections. Riau Canada is already filling orders and its website ( riaucanada.com ) is open for business.
“What makes it really purposeful is when I look at the people (working here) and think, ‘Maybe we’re making just a little dent,’ ” she said. “Our slogan is: ‘Bounce back with honour.’ We’re trying to help people bounce back.”