Convocation 2024: Mikayla Balfour finds her fit as snowboard clothing company founder

Grad focused on fostering inclusivity in sport that she loves

At the end of 2020, Mikalya Balfour (Marketing ’22) decided it was time to take up snowboarding. She and friends had talked about it for years without anything coming of it. When the pandemic arrived to emphasize the fact that life is short, she got on with it, as was the fashion at the time, on her own.

“That winter, I made it my mission to teach myself how to snowboard,” says the 25-year-old JR Shaw School of Business student, entrepreneur and soon-to-be Bachelor of Business Administration graduate. Balfour would sit atop a hill near her Sherwood Park home, watch an instructional YouTube video, and get up and try.

“I’d fall so many times,” she says, “but then just kept going and kept going.”

In four weeks, she was carving her way down the hill. In two more, she was hitting jumps. Soon enough, waking at 4 a.m. to drive to the mountains for a day on the slopes before heading home exhausted but exhilarated was routine. With that, Balfour realized she’d found her passion.

“It was really something I wanted to do, and was committed to and just love doing,” she says.

There was just one problem: while the sport fit her, its clothing didn’t. Being a shorter woman, she'd either roll up sleeves or pant legs on men’s smalls or try her luck in the kids’ section. Neither seemed like a sustainable, or fair, solution.

Then, on one of those long drives home from the mountains, an idea occurred to her that, in her time at NAIT, would define her future. She’d been alone in her early efforts to learn the sport but she doubted she was alone in her efforts to enjoy it. Why weren’t jackets and snow pants tailored specifically for women easy to find?

What’s more, Balfour thought, why couldn’t she be the person to change that?

Learn about what you can do with a Bachelor of Business Administration from NAIT

Perfect timing

photo of mikayla balfour pitching her business nexarina at draper university

Ushering in that change is the aim of Nexarina, the company Balfour has since founded to supply women with stylish, functional snowboarding apparel that actually fits. There’s a team of advisers and supporters behind her, but it’s essentially a one-woman show.

“I pretty much wear all the hats,” says Balfour, who was recently named Student Entrepreneur of the Year at the YEG Startup Community Awards. The hands-on CEO does design, logistics, marketing and everything else that’s been needed to bring the company to its first major outerwear launch this fall, with plans for online sales and placement with retailers.

Despite that love of the sport, it’s almost a wonder that Balfour is in this position at all. Following high school, a struggle owing to then-undiagnosed ADHD, she was in denial of an innate entrepreneurial bent. As a kid, she’d set up lemonade stands and do pedicures. But after graduating, she started on the path to being a paramedic – before abandoning it upon being severely shaken by a nightmare about the profession.

She’d spend the next couple of years as a lifeguard, wondering what to do next.

When a friend suggested she try business school, she balked. “Everybody goes into business,” Balfour said. The friend persisted. “Yeah, but there’s a reason for that,” she said.

Balfour acquiesced. She started looking into NAIT, finding herself impressed by the variety of business options on offer. If it didn’t work out, she reasoned, two years spent on a diploma wasn’t much to lose for someone in their early 20s.

The possibility of starting her own business came about when she was considering a co-op placement to augment her diploma program. When none of the available options grabbed her attention, a newsletter from NAIT’s Mawji Centre for New Venture and Student Entrepreneurship did. It offered support for students who might consider developing concepts through pitch competitions and conferences.

That is, Balfour could create something of her own while at school, even develop it by way of class projects, rather than work for someone else. The idea she had on that drive home from the mountains would be the springboard.

“It was kind of a perfect timing of events,” she says. But it ended up being more than just timing. That innate talent came to the fore.

“Every pitch competition she went into,” says former Mawji Centre co-ordinator Cecile Wendlant, “she basically won.”

“Why is this happening to me?”

photo of mikayla balfour at a booth explaining her product line

Balfour’s approach to those competitions – in which students pitch to panels of entrepreneurs and industry members in hope of seed money – speak to what may make Nexarina work.

“A lot of people don't get how important it is to listen and take feedback and evolve,” says Wendlant. “And she does that.”

While waiting her turn to take the stage, Balfour would watch and learn. “I would make notes about the thoughts I had after people pitched,” she says. She’s since won half-a-dozen events, racking up thousands of dollars that have fuelled Nexarina.

It hasn’t all been that easy, though. For one thing, a rebrand was required when Balfour’s attempt to trademark the company’s previous name, Grit Snow, turned up a hockey bag manufacturer that had beaten her to it. It struck like a crisis; the name was, in fact, an acronym that stood for the values of the company: growth, resilience, inclusion, technology.

“Why is this happening to me?” Balfour recalls wondering.

She didn’t dwell on it long. Instead, she got creative, finding analogs of the lost name in Latin and Spanish, then mashing them up. Turning adversity to her advantage, she realized that the change opened the door to eventual expansion into other sports such as golf or dirt biking.

"She sees her business as equipping women to succeed at something that they love to do.”

“I can make up my own meaning,” she says. “I’m really happy that we’re Nexarina.”

That attitude doesn’t surprise Dale Schaub, lead entrepreneurship consultant at the Mawji Centre, which also facilitated Balfour’s attendance at Draper University, a prestigious entrepreneur bootcamp in Silicon Valley, in May 2023.

“She works on her business idea in the off hours,” he says, meaning outside of not just school but work, (Balfour is still a lifeguard on the side – another Nexarina funding source). “She's always moving forward. She's taking action on things that will directly help her business.”

Schaub has worked with hundreds of student entrepreneurs. Right now, he says about 20 have the potential to generate revenue and attract investment.

But “nobody's in a similar position to Mikayla,” he says. “She's an original.”

Not about the money

photo of mikayla balfour on a snowy hill with spruce trees in the backgroundWhat may ultimately determine Balfour’s success lies in where her drive originates.

As Balfour carried on at NAIT, working on her degree after the diploma, instructor Keven McGhan (Finance ’89) recalls seeing her in action when she showed products to customers at a shop at an Edmonton hospital, a project run by NAIT students. They were pre-sales to help fund the fall launch.

“She's very authentic,” says McGhan, who also saw Balfour develop confidence at business case competitions he helped students participate in.

“Even though she really needs this to pay for prototyping," he says about sales at the hospital, "it was still low pressure. It was about the customer.

“Her motivation is not money.”

(Nevertheless, Balfour sold $3,800 worth of clothing during her few days of showing at the store.)

“I think she sees her business as equipping women to succeed at something that they love to do,” McGhan adds. No matter what Balfour does going forward, he believes “that will be a theme in her career.”

Balfour admits that her upcoming launch has taken more effort, time and money than she expected. It’s a pivotal moment, and the outcome has no guarantees. But, in many ways, Nexarina is already a success.

Balfour may have once stood at the top of a hill uncertain about how to make her way safely to the bottom. Now, having watched, listened and learned, she has what she needs to take a run at it, turn a bump into a jump, and feel comfortable as she goes.

“I just always felt out of place,” says Balfour, looking back on her years of uncertainty. “This is what I was meant to do. I’m at peace.

"I’m solving my problem – and I’m about to solve a problem for so many other women, too.”

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