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Canada 150: Indian immigrant Ratana Stephens repeatedly named one of country’s top employers

April 6, 2017

Vancouver Sun | Stephen Hume

To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, we are counting down to Canada Day with profiles of 150 noteworthy British Columbians.

Ratana Stephens rose from lecturing at a girls’ college in India into the stratosphere of B.C.’s business world, named one of Canada’s top 10 female entrepreneurs and one of B.C.’s most influential women.

Her remarkable trajectory into the province’s business firmament began when she met Arran Stephens, a young idealist on a spiritual quest.

He was the son of Vancouver Island farmer Rupert Stephens, well-known in horticultural circles for advocating the now-common practice of using sawdust as mulch for field berry crops and as developer of the successful Goldstream strawberry variety. Rupert’s grandmother was the daughter of a general with the Bengal Staff Corps at the height of the British Raj.

Arran became interested in Eastern mysticism, and in 1967 travelled to India. There he met and later married Ratana. She held an MA in English literature, an undergraduate degree in psychology, and had studied Sanskrit, the ancient language of the sub-continent, at Agra University.

She accompanied her new husband to Canada in 1969 and immediately began working at Golden Lotus Natural Foods, Vancouver’s first vegetarian restaurant, which he had opened in 1967. It was a hotspot for a generation of flower children discovering Buddhism and Hinduism — it offered a Buddha’s Feast dish for 50 cents.

The Golden Lotus closed in 1971. But it paved the way for popular vegetarian restaurant The Naam; for Banyen Books, which had its genesis in a reading corner in the Golden Lotus; and for a host of health food, organic and environmentally conscious retail outlets.

The business model had merely changed direction. It evolved into LifeStream Natural Food, although initially a small health food restaurant called Mother Nature’s Life continued in the back. The health food business expanded rapidly to multiple stores, a wholesale distribution company with warehouse and bakery. LifeStream was sold in 1981. The Stephens opened a new vegetarian restaurant, Woodlands, and launched Nature’s Path Foods Inc., of which Ratana was chief operating officer and is now general manager.

Today, Nature’s Path is the largest organic breakfast and snack foods company in North America, with hundreds of employees. Perhaps more important, in keeping with the philosophy of its guiding executive, who has been described as the “heart and soul” of the company and the creative force behind its diverse and evolving product lines, it’s repeatedly been named one of Canada’s top employers.

The company remains an acclaimed leader in green initiatives and sustainability.

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