By Jumol Royes
Ask Dan Gunam why he does what he does for a living and his answer is likely to be: Love made me do it.
As co-founder of The Love Group – which owns and operates Calii Love, an ever-expanding chain of healthy eateries in downtown Toronto, as well as the coworking and event space, Love Child Social House – Gunam is committed to using his platforms to spread positivity and build up communities.
By all accounts, Gunam is a successful entrepreneur, but he also knows what it feels like to be lying face down in the arena. His battle with depression taught him what it means to love himself and his work, and now he inspires others to do the same. May 6-12 is CMHA (Canadian Mental Health Association) Mental Health Week so we connected with Gunam to find out how he took control of his mental health and turned his passion into profits.
After years spent working in the nightclub and entertainment industry, you changed course and launched a new company, The Love Group, that promotes being positive and inspires healthier communities. What prompted the shift?
I got into the nightclub and entertainment industry because I love people and creating experiences. However, while I was working in this industry, I started to see what it could do to people and how negative and toxic it could become. I quickly learned the hard way that not everyone shares the same vision. I lost a lot of money and friends who I had vouched for and ended up being taken advantage of by the people I partnered with. It led to depression, not being able to sleep and waking up in the middle of the night with sweat and anxiety. I wasn’t happy with myself. I was ready to call it quits. If it weren’t for my dad finding my note before I did something, there wouldn’t have been a Love Group. The talk he gave me and a promise I made him in January 2016 led me to open Calii Love. The idea was born out of desperation to keep me alive and to make me wake up every day and not give up. It started out as something I did for myself and quickly evolved into something bigger. The people who walk through our doors each day, and our amazing team members who put their love into this business, became the purpose for continuing to evolve The Love Group by spreading positive messages through various projects.
#lovemademedoit is one of your personal and professional mantras. Where does love fit into your business plan?
I always believed in doing something you love, because when you love what you do it’s no longer work…it becomes part of your life. The mantra “Love Made Me Do It” resonated with me because when I was at my worst and ready to give up, it was my dad who encouraged me to keep going. He made me realize that it wasn’t my time yet and that I shouldn’t let failures define me, but instead use them as lessons to guide me to do something better. If it weren’t for that love, I wouldn’t have had the strength to do everything I have done to this date and continue to do. We all need to find that love; it could be something we are passionate about or the strength we get from someone in the community that pushes us to keep moving and to get up every time we fall.
How do you ensure that your passion and guiding principles around love for life and cultivating community trickle down to your team and customers?
I try to connect with our team members to share my past experiences and to find ways to motivate them to be better and stay positive. The best way to pass on the passion and culture to our customers is by taking care of our team members. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be; as we grow and add new people to the company, the culture changes because I can’t be in every place all the time. We did create a procedure that allows us to hire based on personality rather than just skills. We find positive people who love to work with others and who could become friends with their co-worker. We want a sense of community among our team members. We ask each store to invite all their staff to order pizza and food on the last day of the month to celebrate birthdays or just to bond. We recently hired a couple of amazing individuals who are going to help us build a better foundation and training program to cultivate this culture and to teach our team members not only about work but also life skills so they can better themselves and grow as individuals. At the end of the day, if we can cultivate love among our team members, they can, in turn, spread it to our customers.
One in five Canadians are affected by mental illness every year and you’ve been open about your depression in the past. What role has that experience played in helping you become a successful entrepreneur?
I have always been an optimistic and positive person, but going through that experience taught me to find happiness within myself instead of from things around me. It also taught me not to give up no matter how tough things get. Giving up might be an easier route to take, but you can end up hurting the people around you, as I did when I went through that experience.
As an entrepreneur, this led me to make decisions in business that are not just for me, but also those who trusted in me to be part of this company. Some of these decisions have included the addition of a health benefit plan for our full-time team members that have been with us for six months or more. This plan includes the ability to see a therapist if team members have any issues with depression. We have a yoga and meditation studio above our King West location, which is open for our team members to attend, as well as talks and speaker series at Love Child Social House on various topics from business to self-growth which are also open to our staff.
My experience has led me to ensure that I do my best to share the same love and strength that was given to me when I was at my worst. This is something I believe all business owners and entrepreneurs should build into their companies. That is why we are also working on launching a corporate wellness program for other startups and businesses which will include hands-on workshops and presentations on nutrition and wellness tailored to their employees’ needs.
With four Calii Love locations in downtown Toronto, as well as the coworking and event space, Love Child Social House, you’re one busy guy. Are there any new projects on the horizon?
Yes…right now we’re focusing on growing Calii Love and hope to open a few more locations in Toronto and hopefully on the west coast. We’re also working on a new bar concept that we hope to open later this year.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to emerging entrepreneurs looking to turn their passion into profits?
First, find out why you want to do it – and it shouldn’t be because you just want to make money (yes, we all want money) – dig deep and figure out what your purpose is. Remember: Your love is your passion and that will make it possible because when you love it, you will stick to it when things get tough. Maintain that purpose and apply it to everything you do. I guarantee there will be tough times and times you will need to make hard decisions, but when you believe in that purpose and you truly stand by that purpose, those hard decisions one day will be well worth it.