Entrepreneurial Leader: Winner
Jill Van Gyn
CEO, Fatso Nut Butters
Jill Van Gyn returned to her hometown of Victoria in 2015 with few prospects. After earning an MA in human security and peacebuilding from Royal Roads University, she’d spent six months doing research in Uganda, with plans to pursue a career in international development. At 35, she found herself jobless for a year and a half. “Nothing in my life was working,” Van Gyn recalls.
That soon changed. Helping manage a health food restaurant to pay the bills, Van Gyn became obsessed with a local peanut butter brand called Fatso. The owners spurned her offers to get involved—until health authorities learned that they lacked permits and seized their basement-made inventory. Buying Fatso in 2016 “for about the price of a used car,” Van Gyn set out to grow it, with no experience. “I was just crazy enough at that point to be like, Well, I guess I’m going to make peanut butter.”
Van Gyn, who started doing that messy job herself in the back of the restaurant, soon found a local co-packer. She also launched a two-year publicity campaign, driving up and down Vancouver Island every weekend to deliver Fatso to stores and demo it for shoppers. “It seemed to have this snowball effect,” she recalls.
The CrossFit devotee optimized Fatso for nutrition and sale, too. Working with a nutritionist, Van Gyn added other plant-based fats such as coconut oil, chia seeds and flax. She also saw a gap in the nut butter market, which consisted of low-cost peanut butter and expensive specialty offerings. “There was nothing in between that had nutritional density, ingredient diversity and was also accessible to a lot more people,” says Van Gyn, who now has her mid-priced product manufactured in New Brunswick.
Today, Fatso sells its peanut butter and new almond-and-seed butter nationwide—at smaller retailers and at major chains such as Loblaws, Sobeys and Whole Foods Market—and in Washington and Oregon. Next up for the four-member team: California.
From the start, Fatso has balanced purpose with profit. Van Gyn, who entered recovery from drug and alcohol addiction in 2010, says she supports underfunded and underserved causes that other businesses often shun. For example, she sits on the board of Peers Victoria Resources Society, an advocacy group for sex workers.
Fatso, which recently became a B Corporation, has also stepped up during COVID. Last year, it donated $200,000 in product and money to food banks and communities here and in the U.S. “I was like, We’re not a peanut butter company right now; we’re a food security organization,” Van Gyn says.
The company uses its social media clout to help others be heard, she notes. “We have a business that has a loud voice in the market and the community, and if we can lend that out, we will. It feels like our responsibility.”