Child’s Play: Corunna entrepreneur ventures into the Dragon’s Den

Helen Smith, her son Kai, and brother Rozin Abbas pitch their product “The Joey” to the Dragon’s Den panel in an episode airing Dec. 9 on CBC. Photo courtesy, CBC

Tara Jeffrey

Helen Smith never dreamed her hobby as a new mom would turn into an international business being featured this week on CBC’s Dragon’s Den.

“I was home with my son who had just turned one, and a lot of kids’ stuff is super bright and colourful, and that’s just not my style,” the Corunna mom-of-three said of firstborn Kai, who was teething at the time.

“So I started making silicone teethers at home, myself.”

Her neutral, modern and chemical-free designs were so popular she started selling them at tradeshows, and quickly realized she had a knack for creating quality, affordable children’s toys.

Choo Choo Baby Roo was born, and things took off.

When the pandemic arrived Smith added a new product — the Mask Buddy — a silicone lanyard designed so kids won’t lose their face masks. Around that time, Smith’s younger brother Rozin came on board, along with husband Matt.

“That fall, I wanted to get a play couch for the boys but it was pretty much impossible to get,” Smith recalled. “I already had experience with manufacturing, so I was like, ‘maybe we’ll just make our own.’”

The Joey is a modular, foam play couch that works like a set of building blocks.

Smith and her small team worked with a trusted manufacturer and launched a pre-order to gauge interest.

“It just kind of blew up,” she said. “It’s just not anything we were expecting at all.”

Chew Chew Baby Roo, since rebranded as Roo and You, caught the eye of a producer at the popular CBC TV show Dragon’s Den earlier this year.

Helen, Rozin and five-year-old Kai attended a taping in May to pitch their Joey collection to the ‘Dragons’ panel. The episode airs Thursday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. on CBC and the CBC Gem streaming service.

“I’m a huge Dragon’s Den fan and have seen every episode,” said Smith. “So when the offer came, I thought my brother was playing a prank on me.”

The experience, she said, was surreal.

“We just kind of tell them about the business, and they ask their questions. Some of them are really hard and they really put you on the spot.”

Smith said it’s still hard to believe how far she’s come in just a few short years — from hand-making teethers for a newborn at home to successful business owner.

The former child and youth counsellor also donates funds and products to groups like Mamas for Mamas, supporting mothers and caregivers in crisis.

“We set out with two goals — to make awesome kids’ stuff affordable and accessible while making parents’ lives easier, but also give kids the awesomest imagination ever (by) cultivating play and imagination,” she said.

“With our parents being refugees, we saw how difficult it was for them to see us want something and not be able to afford it.”

Smith, Rozin and their parents are Kurdish, and fled to Canada in 1994, when she was 12.

“We left because of the war, and we saw a lot of crazy stuff living there — shootings, having to run home from school when the sirens were going off.

“So, to be able to do this with my brother has been really amazing,” she added.

“We always wanted to make our parents proud because they did so much for us when we moved here.”