Ratana Stephens’ path to becoming the co-founder of a company that generates more than $450 million in annual sales started in the British Punjab city of Lahore.
It was 1947. British India had been partitioned, and Lahore became capital of Pakistan. Her entrepreneurial Hindu parents fled rioting in the city, abandoned property that included a confectionery factory, and sought a better future in India’s Uttar Pradesh region.
Their daughter would enjoy opportunities that were not present for past generations of women in the family.
Stephens’ grandmother could not write. If she needed to sign a document, she would use her thumbprint. Stephens’ mother, who obtained a Grade 3 education, had five daughters, but only Stephens was privileged enough to go to university.
“My grandmother loved me very much and she nurtured me to the point that she ignored her own sons,” Stephens remembered.
“My father said to her, ‘Why is she going to university? Why shouldn’t she be married off?’ My grandmother stood her ground and said, ‘She will be what she wants to be.’”
Stephens successfully set out to be a college lecturer. She studied psychology and Sanskrit before obtaining a master of arts degree in English literature.
On a visit to Dehli, she met her future husband, Arran Stephens, who was in India’s capital to study meditation and yoga.
The two quickly married and she joined her new husband in his native Canada.
She began working at Golden Lotus Natural Foods, which her husband had opened a couple years earlier. She calls the bistro Vancouver’s first vegetarian restaurant.
In 1971, she and her husband opened Lifestream Natural Foods, which she describes as Canada’s first natural-foods supermarket, wholesale bakery and flour mill.
She bought Mother Nature’s Inn, which was a restaurant at the back of Lifestream Natural Foods.
“At one point we had four restaurants,” Stephens remembered.
The business that changed the Stephens’ lives, however, was Nature’s Path Foods Inc., with its staggering success.
That venture, which launched in 1985, now generates what Stephens said is more than $450 million in revenue from sales of organic cereal, granola, snacks and other products.
The couple decided early to split up the responsibilities.
“I knew that for a husband and wife, it’s not very good for them to work together, especially when they are two strong people,” she said. “We are strong individuals, we have our own views. So I said to Arran, ‘I will look after the restaurants.’”
By 1992, however, she joined her husband to help manage and develop Nature Path’s factory, while also lending a hand with the human resources and finance departments.
The company now has about 750 employees, and manufacturing facilities in Delta, B.C.; Blaine, Washington; and Sussex, Wisconsin.
One major step that helped propel Nature’s Path to its current size the couple’s 2012 acquisition of Richmond’s Que Pasa. The Stephenses closed some of that company’s product lines and bundled Que Pasa’s popular tortilla chips into one of Nature’s Path’s fastest-growing products.
The help Stephens received from her grandmother is reflected in her willingness to go out of her way to help women who work for the company.
“Indirectly, I mentor all of my women here,” she said. “They are wonderful people and I am grateful. If there is ever an opportunity and I am called upon, I am always there.”
Her time through the years has also been spent being a mother to three daughters and a son.
Outside work, Stephens sits on the boards of directors at organizations such as the Royal BC Museum and BC Children’s Hospital as well as on the advisory board of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems.
That faculty has been the recipient of a seven-figure donation from Stephens and her husband, who have also donated generously to BC Children’s Hospital. Nature’s Path in the past decade has provided about $27 million in either cash or food donations to charities and food banks across North America.
Stephens in January returned to her alma mater, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar University, formerly Agra University, in Uttar Pradesh, and set out a new scholarship program that will start with providing $1,000 to 12 girls. It’s not the first time she has financed scholarships.
The Rodale Institute established the Ratana and Arran Stephens Scholarship Fund in 2012, thanks to a donation from Nature’s Path.
It is awarding scholarships to war veterans who are students of organic agriculture.
Business in Vancouver celebrates the 21st annual Influential Women in Business Awards, March 6 at the Fairmont Waterfront hotel. For more information, visit www.biv.com/iwib.