Partners: From High School Sweethearts to Serial Entrepreneurs
by Shuang Esther Shan Founder Stories Mar 4, 2020 9 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
In this heartfelt and candid series, Partners—in Business and Bed, couples discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of living and working together.
Jaz Fenton and Jamil Bhuya, former high-school sweethearts turned husband and wife, are the owners of Yellow Beauty, a turmeric-based skincare company that uses partial proceeds to empower girls and end child marriages. Jaz and Jamil left the nine-to-five world to bring their business ideas to life. Jamil also runs Burgers and Fries Forever, a chain of fast-casual restaurants, and the serial entrepreneurs plan to expand both their business ventures and their family.
How did you two meet?
Jaz: We went to school together during Grade 7 and 8. We didn’t actually know each other very well, but there was one time when Jamil came and said hi to me and—I don’t fully remember this—apparently, I just ran away from him. So, that was the extent of our interaction at that school.
Jamil: That was funny and awkward because there were a few people around. So, it wasn’t just me going up to her randomly. There were a couple of mutual friends. I tried to say hi, and that kind of blew up in my face. Then in high school, we reconnected through mutual friends and volleyball.
Jaz: You said that you liked me in grade 7. You had a little crush, and I didn’t really know who he was at the time, because we were in totally different classes. I was in French immersion. He was in English.
Jamil: She was a cutie back then. She’s still a cutie now, so not much has changed there. We got to know each other in high school through mutual friends. We started hanging out more through friends, and, eventually, I asked her out to a movie or two.
Jaz: Pirates of the Caribbean and that scary one.
Jamil: 28 Days Later and Disturbia, too.
Jaz: Oh yeah, Disturbia. That was the one where you reached and held my hand because you were like, “This would be a good movie to make a move.”
After you reconnected and were together for a while, at what point did you realize you could be each other’s business partner?
Jamil: It just kind of happened. With my first business, Burgers and Fries Forever, she was my consigliere, if you know that word from The Godfather. She was my sounding board and, because of her design background, she helped me with a lot of the marketing, coming up with the menu, the website, and the branding. She was also the best employee out there in the sense that we didn’t have to pay her anything.
Jaz: There was never a moment where we sat down and were like, “OK. We should be working together and not just dating.” It was more that our skill sets really complemented each other. Jamil went to business school. I did not have that type of background at all, but I knew how to showcase a good brand.
Some people say you can’t really mix business and romance. How do you feel about that?
Jamil: It’s tough to be objective. Many times we might not agree on something and we might not communicate well. We might get our roles mixed up. I might speak to her more like my wife rather than my business partner, so it’d be more of an emotionally charged response. It’s about learning over time how to communicate. How not to piss off the other person. How not to take it personally.
Jaz: Because you’re life partners, your business goals and you life goals typically tend to be very similar.
Jamil: Honestly, for us, the creativity of coming up with business ideas or ways to solve problems is fun. So, it makes the romance part of it easy. Obviously, when things get stressful and hard, that’s when it becomes difficult.
Jaz: But we can also lean on each other. If I was at a corporate job, I might not understand when he gets really stressed or anxious. But since we both understand each other’s work, we can comfort each other better as well.
Did your thoughts about working together change over time?
Jaz: The only thing that changed is that we understand each other’s roles a little bit better, and when to leave the other person alone to do their own thing. We don’t get in each other’s face as much. We know when to back off and let go and trust the other person instead of making it super emotional and trying to win.
Jamil: I respect her opinion and decisions a lot more than I used to. When you first start, you can be a bit of a know-it-all, but over time you get humbled. You learn that other people’s options are just as important.
Sometimes you might undermine your partner because they’re your partner romantically and not take them as seriously on a professional level. That’s something I sorely regret, though it’s not something I would have learned without actually going through it.
Can you share a difficult situation you’ve run into together, either professionally or personally, and how you worked through that situation?
Jaz: Our cultural differences were huge for a long time. Not with each other, but Jamil’s family’s expectations were a huge thing we had to work through and stick together throughout.
Jamil: It was always tough because we’re from different backgrounds, so there’s different expectations of what the future’s going to be like. That was really hard for both of us because I was always caught in the middle of it. I always say I’m the straddling generation. I understand where my parents are coming from, but I equally, if not more, understand where Jaz is coming from.
Learning to balance expectations, and communicating the difficult things to both sides has been a challenge but also a growing experience. Just learning to cut through the bullshit, speak honestly, and not be afraid of what I want, being able to stand up for that on both sides because sometimes I do want some of my tradition or culture, and other times I don’t.
Jaz: And with Burger and Fries Forever being Halal. It’s not like other Halal restaurants. It’s a hybrid that showcases both of Jamil’s world in that sense.
How do you divide responsibilities, and do you define your roles within your business and at home?
Jamil: Honestly, when it comes to Yellow Beauty, I call Jaz the CEO. She does the majority of the work, while I have the three restaurants to run.
Jaz: But things shifted because when we started that business I was still working full time.
Jamil: That’s true. I was actually the one who ran it the majority of the time.
Jaz: Then it shifted when I moved to do Yellow Beauty full time, and Jamil was able to focus more on the restaurant again. It comes in ebbs and flows in that sense. For example, you were able to work on Yellow when BFF was doing really well. You didn’t have to be in the restaurant at all. So, you were able to focus a lot of your time on Yellow, but, when I started to work on Yellow full time, the restaurant needed a bit more help. So things are constantly in flux.
Throughout our entire relationship, don’t think we’ve ever had a point where we’ve both been making an awesome salary at the same time.
Jamil: Often, no. It’s been one of us supporting the other during the time where they’re working on their thing.
Jaz: And at home, it’s typically—
Jamil: 80% Jaz.
Jaz: I am a clean freak, and I really like to keep things organized. I mean—
Jamil: She’s OCD, borderline. Enough that now I know not to poke the bear.
Jaz: But, to be fair, you’re a really good cook. Jamil will be the one who’s whipping up all these good dinners.
Jamil: She’ll do laundry. She’ll do a majority of the cleaning.
Jaz: It’s also because I’m better at it.
When you do face conflict, and there’s disagreement, how do you work them out personally and professionally?
Jaz: We used to be really horrible at this. Jamil used to be a hothead. So, we’ve since learned that it’s really important to remove ourselves from the situation for a few minutes, think about it individually, and return to talk about it rationally, because we can both get pretty emotional.
Jamil: Especially me. If I get emotional or my buttons get pushed, I can just explode. That’s a product of my upbringing. That’s how we dealt with conflict when I was a kid: scream it out, and then when things chill, everything was fine.
Jaz: And that was not something I was used to at all.
Jamil: So that didn’t fly with her, and it took a lot of time. A lot of communication. A lot of patience on her end. A lot of humility on my end. It’s not easy. Being in a relationship is just as hard as being in a business. You’ve got two different people.
What does work-life balance mean to you?
Jamil: We work to live our life, really. It doesn’t feel like work, but at the same time we really try to set hard rules.
Jaz: We have weekends. It’s almost this pride thing to brag about how much you’re working, but we’ve never been like that.
Jamil: That’s not the type of life either of us wants to live.
Jaz: We don’t want to pretend that we’re living that either. We’re like, “Yeah. We only worked three hours today,” but that’s because that day we couldn’t be creative.
Jamil: If we’re not productive or whatever it is. Whereas other times we’ll be working weekends or at night. It really is based on when you’re productive.
Jaz: We’re OK with success taking a little bit longer so we can enjoy the day today.
Jamil: The business itself can be extremely stressful and have a huge emotional toll on you, which eventually will have a mental and physical toll on your body. So, if you’re going to go through that anyway and burn yourself out and not appreciate where you’re at in life currently, what the fuck are you doing really?
Jaz: There’s also this culture in North America of competition. I need to show that I’m super hard working or I’m putting in more hours than this person and that somehow makes me more successful. We both believe in working smart and not working hard if that makes sense. That’s another huge thing that we’ve learned. It’s a waste of time to try and learn something when we can pay someone else to do it and get there way faster. That was hard for me for a while, because I wanted to learn and do all of it.
Do you have any goals you’ve set together, for the business and also for your relationship?
Jaz: We actually just created this massive five-year plan on a big bristol board. We wrote everything out because we’re weird like that. We do have a lot of goals.
Jamil: I don’t remember the timelines, but within the next five years, buy a rental property abroad. Be financially free or financially independent within the next five to 10 years. I love starting businesses, so starting a new restaurant concept. Possibly a new e-commerce concept with Jaz. We have certain sales and business goals for our current and existing businesses. And start a family.
Jaz: We’d love to live in Europe for six months to a year.
What’s a typical date night?
Jaz: Going out for dinner, going for a walk, getting bubble tea. Just spending time together. We really like to walk a lot.
Jamil: If it takes us an hour to walk somewhere versus 15 minutes to take public transit or a car or Uber, we’re going to walk there because, for us, it’s just spending time walking around with each other, chatting, holding hands.
What’s a dream date night?
Jamil: Going to a restaurant and … I don’t know.
Jaz: Ordering more than one drink.
Jamil: Getting whatever we want and not worrying about the bill.
Jaz: Especially in Toronto, oh my God. Whenever we go out to eat we’re like, “Damn, we could have gone grocery shopping for the week.”
Illustration by Shout
About the author
Shuang Esther Shan
Shuang is a storyteller at Shopify, fascinated by how change is created through commerce. When she’s not obsessively researching or glued to hearing the stories of merchants, she’s discovering new places—with a camera in hand.