It all started with an innocent question while Aileen was on a co-op term in Ottawa. "Where can I get my hair done?"
The Environmental Engineering student’s search for a nearby hairstylist who knew how to work on afro-textured hair turned into a much bigger quest — a journey to entrepreneurship and the launch of her tech startup, BeBlended.
While that project has been a central focus of Aileen’s experience at Waterloo, it’s just one aspect of a multifaceted adventure that’s involved everything from trying six different co-op positions to working abroad in Belgium to coaching other student entrepreneurs just like her.
Through it all, Waterloo has given Aileen the resources and encouragement to pursue her passions: supporting women, solving systemic problems, and exploring the world of technology, all while discovering her true potential as an entrepreneur.
Transforming failure into fuel
It wasn’t always clear to Aileen where her path would lead. “I didn’t necessarily know where I wanted to go for university, but I knew I had a passion for chemistry, physics and calculus.”
Embarking on Environmental Engineering at Waterloo has challenged her to push past her limits, immerse herself in real-world problem-solving, and even learn about failure.
“In first year, I actually failed my second semester and had to repeat it a year later. It builds resilience and grit and perseverance. It’s not pretty because failure can be devastating, but if your mindset is correct, you really can come back stronger.”
And that’s exactly what she did.
More than just hair
Aileen’s “resilience and grit and perseverance” proved invaluable on her journey to build a company that uses technology to make hair care inclusive and accessible for Black women.
On that pivotal day in Ottawa during a co-op term with the Government of Canada, Aileen says, “I googled hair salons near me and within a two-kilometre radius there were fifteen. So, I walked into every single one. All of them turned me away and half of them were hostile.”
“[My hair] is typically an afro and a lot of the stylists I encountered didn’t know how to work on my curly hair texture. But there are a lot of Black women in Ottawa, so I had to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘So, where are you guys going?’”
A self-described apprehensive entrepreneur, Aileen found the encouragement to research, pitch and ultimately launch her startup through Waterloo's Greenhouse, a social impact incubator.
Aileen discovered a whole network of stylists not easily found online. That became the catalyst for BeBlended, an online marketplace that connects Black women to hairstylists worldwide.
A self-described apprehensive entrepreneur, Aileen found the encouragement to research, pitch and ultimately launch her startup through Waterloo's Greenhouse, a social impact incubator on campus, as well as Concept by Velocity, Waterloo’s pre-incubator program.
While she never thought entrepreneurship was something she could do, now Aileen is all in. “My eyes were opened at Waterloo. I’m a fan of the business world and I love what it entails.”
After wrapping up her undergrad, she’ll be starting a master’s in Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET) at Waterloo this fall.
Tapping into a world of experience
At Waterloo, exploring the world of business while balancing her degree has been possible thanks to unique opportunities like the Enterprise Co-op option at the Conrad School of Business and Entrepreneurship, which enabled her to work on her startup for two co-op terms.
“That’s the beauty of Waterloo that I don’t think other universities offer. I was able to work on BeBlended full time and get a credit. I got to really explore ‘can I be an entrepreneur full time?’”
All in all, Aileen has had six co-op terms, amounting to over two years of paid experience in diverse areas – including the IT department of Maple Leaf Foods, project management at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and product development at Shayp, a startup in Belgium.
While working abroad, she travelled to ten countries in Europe and North Africa. “You grow very quickly over a short period of time when you do an international co-op. You’ve got to put your big adult pants on and figure things out. I personally grew in empathy for anyone who moves to a new country for the first time.”
Engineering teaches you how to solve problems with so many constraints and minimal resources. Realizing that engineers are problem solvers really helped me lay the groundwork for my entrepreneurial journey.
Connecting to your purpose
Although her business venture may not be directly tied to environmental engineering, Aileen says it all connects back to the problem-solving skills she’s learned as an engineering student.
“Sure, you learn a lot of theory. But in Engineering at Waterloo, you apply what you’re learning to the real world. In general, engineering teaches you how to solve problems with so many constraints and minimal resources. Realizing that engineers are problem solvers really helped me lay the groundwork for my entrepreneurial journey.”
The connections she’s made at Waterloo have been key to achieving her goals. She’s found friendship through the Christian club Power to Change, academic and social support in residence, and encouragement from peers in her faculty.
"The Engineering community is very tightknit. And I think the Faculty has done a really good job of being aware of how strenuous the degree can be, and providing resources and people to talk to. With your cohort, you all go through it together and you don’t feel alone."
What to expect during your first year in Engineering
Aileen shares her experience with joining clubs and getting involved on campus, the differences between high school and university, and how she knew Waterloo was the right university for her.