In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a nearly $221-million investment in Canada’s first Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP). This program will help thousands of Black entrepreneurs across the country not only recover from the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, but grow their businesses through the years (hopefully) beyond the pandemic.
Through the BEP, the federal government will distribute $93 million over four years, including $53 million for a new National Ecosystem Fund to help Black business owners access funding, mentorship and business training. Another $33.3 million will be provided through the new Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund in partnership with several financial institutions (including Canada’s Big Five banks), which will grant Black business owners between $25,000 and $250,000 in loans. A Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, with up to $6.5 million in funds, is also in development in order to collect data on the current state of Black entrepreneurship in Canada and help identify the resources necessary to change the status quo.
Based on a Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce report, women of colour entrepreneurs have faced the highest percentage of loss of contracts, customers or clients, along with negative mental health impacts, due to COVID-19. And according to data by FoundHers and the Canadian Venture Capital Association, 0% of Canadian Black women-led businesses have received venture capital funding, while one of Black female entrepreneur’s key challenges remains a lack of funding.
Many of the business owners who the fund is intended to help have some questions. Primarily, they’re asking: why now? The systemic barriers facing Black entrepreneurs in Canada have long existed, with Black Canadians afforded less access and opportunities than their white counterparts. Since March 2020, when the pandemic began, these barriers have become even more glaring, leaving many businesses struggling or forced to shut down.
A month on from Trudeau’s announcement, few other details have been announced regarding the BEP, including when it will launch, when entrepreneurs can begin to apply or how the funding will be allocated. And many entrepreneurs have said what the government is offering is simply throwing money at a deep-rooted systemic issue, and that the fund’s focus on loans feels counterproductive.
Adeela Carter and Amoye Henry, co-founders of Pitch Better, a Toronto-based organization dedicated to helping women advance in business, explain. “When we look at the past and how government funding has been deployed in even recent years, history has shown us that federal resources have not always reached the communities who need it the most. There are negative stigmas surrounding it. In Black and immigrant communities, loans are often looked at negatively because there are systemic barriers that have prohibited BIPOC from having access to good credit. Black women founders may feel that it’s not for them because they may specifically feel like they don’t fit the criteria or they may not want to take the risk out of fear of failure and having to repay a loan. [They] may not trust the ‘system.’
“We have so many promising stories of resilience and creativity by many Black founders [in the U.S.], but in the Canadian context, the funding and the data is just not there—yet,” Carter and Henry say. “To live within a world where you are deemed invisible within the confines of the mere concept of ‘diversity’ is sad in itself.”
Many of the women looking to apply for the BEP have taken the root of the matter into their own hands, working to innovate and uplift Black businesses together through their own work. Carter and Henry have made it their mission, for example, by providing female entrepreneurs with the tools they need to succeed in business (more on that in a minute). There is no mistaking, after all, that ethnic and racial backgrounds can influence and limit access and opportunities. And while the BEP may be far from a perfect plan or catch-all solution, it is a start according to many of the Black women in business I spoke to across Canada. Each of them, including Carter and Henry, plan to apply for the BEP, and feel this initiative—despite its limitations—is a step in the right direction.
Adeela Carter and Amoye Henry, co-founders, Pitch Better, Toronto
As friends and entrepreneurs for over a decade, it seemed natural that Carter, the owner of consulting firm Carter Strategy Group, and Henry, a small business consultant and the founder of the AfroChic Cultural Arts Festival, would one day go into business together. Over the years, when the pair attended business conferences together they realized there was little programming and funding available for Canadian women of colour. So they took action.
“We realized that our definition of diverse is different from Canada’s definition of diverse,” the pair say, describing how white women are often the beneficiaries of funds directed at helping those in need in business. “The resources set in place to support marginalized founders were not touching the people that actually needed it, so we formed Pitch Better.”
Pitch Better bridges the gap between women-led start-ups and the means to acquiring capital through grants and investments, connecting entrepreneurs with seasoned professionals through workshops and coaching sessions. The company also collects data across Canada through FoundHers, its own national research study, to identify the tools needed to help women entrepreneurs and to assist them in applying for grants and investments.
“We founded Pitch Better to equip female leaders, which is largely made up of women of colour, with the resources, tools and networks to even the playing field and position them for success in scaling their businesses and penetrating the global market,” Carter and Henry say. “We have decided to apply for the fund because our business needs to operate on a substantial scale. We have had an overwhelming response from women-led start-ups and small business owners across the country. Our staff is growing quickly and the work needed to be done has become an endless battle.
“We are here, seated at the table, ready to do the work. Despite the [aforementioned] potential doubts and challenges, we feel this program is overall a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to take their businesses to the next level. We are grateful to be able to live in a country where the government has stepped in to identify this as an issue that needs to be addressed and to be part of those conversations.”
The CEO of Made by Africans, an eCommerce platform for African vendors all over the world, Ejibola Adetokunbo-Taiwo is dedicated to shining a light on those business owners and artists who may not otherwise have reach outside their own communities. “I believe that entrepreneurship drives economic growth, and economic growth drives global impact and global impact makes the world a better place,” Adetokunbo-Taiwo says, explaining that when Black businesses grow and have a platform, they inspire young entrepreneurs of colour everywhere. She adds: “By empowering local African brands who would normally operate their business within their country to scale on a global level, my company broadens their sales scopes, enlarges their customer bases and raises their sales revenues.”
But Adetokunbo-Taiwo, determined to offer her peers a leg up in a field where she’s carved out her own success, hasn’t stopped there. Having also founded de Sedulous Women Leaders, a mentorship, training and coaching initiative for women entrepreneurs in her hometown of rural Grande Prairie, Alberta, the “empowerment program” now has sister chapters in Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and even Surrey, U.K., with two more in development in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
“The goal is to raise a tribe of women leaders across Canada with significant emphasis on immigrant Black women,” Adetokunbo-Taiwo shares. “I am a strong believer that when a successful woman shares her hustling business journey with others, the storytelling creates an inspiration that can elevate other women to want to discover more of their potential and skills. The platform is quickly becoming a movement. My mantra is always ‘see you at the top—the place where we all belong.’”
“I believe the BEP is coming at a time when Black entrepreneurs are yearning for support and longing to make their businesses stronger,” Adetokunbo-Taiwo says. She’s hopeful that the fund will help her with everything from technology upgrades to boosting marketing. And that, unlike the government’s original COVID-19 relief fund for businesses, which has—to date—spent over $30 billion in loans and which 70% of Black-owned businesses are not eligible for, this one will benefit more minority business owners. “The intent is clear and it is needed now more than ever. It might be minimal compared to what the government spends on other communities, but it is going to change a lot of things for the Black business owner in Canada.”
Adedoyin Omotara, CEO, Adoniaa Beauty, Calgary
It may come as a surprise to some that trained electrical engineer Adedoyin Omotara spends most of her days working in her true passion: beauty. The founder and CEO of Calgary-based Adoniaa Beauty, Omotara offers not only her own line of cosmetic products, but beauty classes as well as makeup, hair and skincare services. The company’s goal is to support and empower women from all backgrounds through beauty as they find themselves at each stage of their lives. But that doesn’t make it an easy job, she says. Omotara has loans to consolidate, which she hopes to accomplish with the help of the BEP and in order to finally feel “stress-free” so that she can focus entirely on growing Adoniaa Beauty.
“It’s about time,” Omotara says of the fund. “Our voices are being heard finally and the government is responding to our inability to thrive in the community, especially as business people. I think it will go a long way for new start-ups and existing businesses. Especially in this economy, we all need some sort of cushion and confidence boost.”
When it comes to the criticism of the fund, she says, “Whether you like it or not, money is the currency that the world uses and how it shows support. Having one solution is better than having none as the conversation continues. It’s not the end of systemic racism, of course, but it’s a means to an end. I’d just really love to have more seats at the table, more opportunities to be involved in politics and to assume more leadership roles so that the generation coming after us can see us in these positions and be able to dream as well.”
As the founder of The Diversity Agency, a Toronto-based speakers’ bureau representing diverse voices across Canada, Andria Barrett has made it her career goal to make space for people of colour at the top of their game, from the business world to the art world. The company even offers workshops on anti-Black racism and racial bias training for the workplace.
“I started my agency because Black speakers like myself are unrepresented and our voices are missing in the event and conference space,” Barrett says. “I wanted to give the dynamic speakers in my community who have been turned away from mainstream agencies a platform to be showcased.”
But since the start of the pandemic, The Diversity Agency has seen many of its bookings cancelled, and is now pivoting to virtual events, leaving one of Barrett’s biggest concerns—that the BEP’s funding will not be awarded quickly enough. “Business owners need this money now, not six months from now,” Barrett says. “It won’t make up for what Black people have had to endure due to systemic racism, but it will allow us to stay in business, at least for now. So is it enough? No. Is it a start? Absolutely.”
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A former competitive cheerleader herself, Alice Charles now co-owns and operates Legacy Cheerleading, a Manitoba-based program for youth interested in learning the sport. “We promote confidence in our youth and put an emphasis on safely developing the body and minds of our kids into the most successful versions of themselves,” Charles says. “Cheerleading is a team sport like no other, where literally any type of body can participate. Each person has an integral role in the team. I have always wanted to be a part of creating a safe and supportive space for children where they have community. The goal could be building friendships, overcoming anxieties, gaining new skills or confidence. Empowering youth creates empowered adults, which means a better future for us all.”
When it comes to that better future for the company itself, Charles has found accessing funding to be a challenging process. “We’ve run the business debt-free since the beginning, when we built it from the ground up. When it came time to getting our own facility, we were met with so many barriers, especially when we had to submit our photo identification,” Charles says. “Getting funding will finally allow us some flexibility within our operations. We can build on ventures within our business without the restrictions we have had and without worry. We can provide resources to our community in terms of education, equipment and other resources to help the young athletes and their families that come through our door.”
“Money will not fix systematic racism, but it will hopefully allow Black people access to take a step past the gatekeepers,” Charles says. “It’s momentum. This hopefully allows Black entrepreneurs to have more visibility, the opportunity to educate and, as a result, create impactful lasting change.”