How do you change the world?
“Entrepreneurship,” says Harry Julmice, co-founder and head of Never Was Average, a Black-run collective and production agency. “It’s one of the best ways to have an impact.”
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This story is part of our Empowered Entrepreneurs series, which profiles some of the inspiring businesses taking part in Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Businesses from American Express which provides mentorship and grants to support the advancement of 100 BIPOC entrepreneurs across Canada.
Founded in 2018, Montreal-based Never Was Average uses the power of conversation, community and culture to facilitate social change through artistic and cultural experiences.
“We wanted to create a platform where we could make a difference and share our knowledge,” says Julmice of his work with partner Hanna Che, “but also create a space where BIPOC people could come together in an exchange and find the tools that they need to take care of their well-being.”
To date, the duo has collaborated with a roster of leading brands on projects ranging from custom content and art exhibits, to the design of inclusive spaces and conversation workshops, all with the aim of building meaningful relationships and positive representation in the BIPOC community.
Refurbishing a basketball court with a vibrant artistic mural to uplift the next generation in the Rivière-des-Prairies area of Montreal during the pandemic in 2021 ranks among Julmice’s proudest projects.
“It was a hard summer, the youth were impacted tremendously by social inequalities and a lack of support,” he says. “We wanted to bring peace, joy and imagination back to the neighborhood and their day-to-day lives.”
Providing the BIPOC community access to spaces, innovation and experiences is central to Julmice’s work, and heavily informed by his own encounters with systemic racism as a Black small business owner. Having started out co-owning a menswear boutique with Che that has since shut down, Julmice knows firsthand that how you’re treated in business can vary depending on your skin tone.
While seeking out labels to carry in the shop, he found initial excitement about working together expressed on a brand’s side via email would shift after an in-person meeting.
“We’d share photos of the shop, and they’d say we’re a perfect fit,” he says. “Then someone from the brand would come in and ask for the store manager, I’d say it’s me and their demeanor would change.”
Follow up exchanges would then request Julmice commit to a previously unmentioned minimum order or fizzle out completely.
“I initially thought that it was just part of the game as far as being an entrepreneur, because you always hear people saying it’s a tough road,” he says. But through talking to other shop owners in the area, which he grew up in, Julmice learned his experience was unlike his peers.
“That’s when I started noticing that we were being treated differently. We always felt like we were being looked at as a higher risk,” he says. “Brands can create systemic barriers. And a lack of accessibility didn’t allow us to grow.”
Still, it was through that professional venture that Never Was Average was born. “We became an inspiration for the local BIPOC community by just owning the store. People would come in to ask for guidance and how to get started with a business venture or a project,” he says, “And we understood that our community didn’t have representation because they didn’t think that these things were possible for them.”
A study commissioned by Amex Canada shows BIPOC business owners face barriers to running their businesses at a rate higher than their white counterparts, especially in the areas of accessing capital and mentorship. American Express Canada’s Blueprint program seeks to offer support through a 15-week comprehensive mentorship and training program, along with $1,000,000 in grants dispersed between 100 Black, Indigenous and People of Colour small business owners across the country.
Recognizing the significant impact of the joint elements of the Blueprint program, Julmice was thrilled to be accepted and ready to take it all in.
“Raising capital is definitely a big issue. Not everybody has the money to invest in their dreams. Most of us are in survival mode,” he says.
Coming through the pandemic with higher demands on digital content and virtual connections, and preparing for future experiences, the $10,000 program grant has been used to invest in tech upgrades at Never Was Average. “We were able to purchase the right cameras, laptops, software and server to make sure we will be able to connect with our community,” says Julmice.
Blueprint also provides access to workshops and small group sessions with fellow recipients, as well as an online learning program. Julmice has appreciated the on-demand nature of the workshops and the Blueprint community as a whole.
“Being able to go back, re-watch and make sure I didn’t forget a step has been helpful,” he says. And with exposure to vetted tools for important tasks, such as financial forecasting, he is finding guidance and reassurance in equal measure. “I was using similar tools, but I didn’t know if they were actually up to date. When I saw the one in the program it gave me confirmation,” Julmice says. “My biggest takeaway is just knowing that I’m on the right track.”
Eager to maximize every element of the program, Julmice was also very excited about the mentorship component. The specific opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of a BIPOC mentor has only enriched the exchange. “Representation is another big issue. There’s not too many BIPOC mentors in any field I can easily access,” he says, adding: “Information is everything. Because once you have access to capital, you need to know what to do with it.”
The next chapter of Never Was Average will include an official studio launch and the release of a new corporate workshop series called The Future of Work is Wellbeing.
“After facilitating conversations with our community about their well-being, we realized the Covid-19 crisis and social inequities have profoundly altered their perception of the workplace,” Julmice says.
Hearing the call for jobs that bring a sense of purpose and connectivity while supporting diversity, inclusion and equity, plus mental health, Julmice is doing what he does best: Bringing people together to move the world forward. In-person and virtually, of course.
To view the full list of 100 businesses taking part in the Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Businesses mentorship and grant program, visit dmz.to/AmexBlueprint.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with American Express. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.