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Catherine Addai, owner of Kaela Kay Fashion Boutique, in her showroom in Toronto on March 23, 2021.

Jalani Morgan/The Globe and Mail

Four years ago, Catherine Addai was at a crossroads: return to her job as a health information analyst when her maternity leave for her third child was over, or dedicate herself full-time to her fashion brand Kaela Kay, whose designs are inspired by her West African roots.

She chose the life of an entrepreneur. It wasn’t easy – “I didn’t have a business plan at that point,” she says – but she enrolled in a program with Futurpreneur, a national non-profit that helps young Canadians get their companies off the ground.

She said the funding and mentorship provided by Futurpreneur helped her build the business to the point that she is now able to do it full-time from a bricks-and-mortar store with a thriving digital presence.

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‘It’s been a sprint’: A new wave of business creation is taking hold

Futurpreneur is aiming to create many more success stories such as Ms. Addai – and build a wider network of Black entrepreneurs – through an initiative it is launching Wednesday: the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program.

The program, a funding collaboration with the Royal Bank of Canada , will provide up to $60,000 of startup financing to Black entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 39. As well, it will pair them with an established mentor and provide networking opportunities. Entrepreneurs are eligible for a further $40,000 in financing based on the first two years of business performance.

The money comes from both RBC and the Business Development Bank of Canada, a Crown corporation that helps finance some of Futurpreneur’s other programming. RBC is committing up to $40-million to support the program, a spokesperson said, part of a $100-million pledge the bank made last summer to provide financing to Black entrepreneurs over five years.

The Black Entrepreneur Startup Program is designed to help address some of the historic barriers that Black entrepreneurs face when starting their businesses, such as obstacles to raising capital and difficulties accessing networks of contacts.

Janelle Hinds, founder of the non-profit Helping Hands and a Futurpreneur board member, said Black entrepreneurs are often underestimated when they are starting out.

“As a Black entrepreneur myself, a lot of times you walk into a bank, stand in the business line and you’re told: ‘You’re in the wrong line,’” Ms. Hinds said.

“People will sometimes refer to Helping Hands as a project, and I’m like: ‘I have staff. Their salaries go towards their mortgages.’”

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She joined the Futurpreneur board in the summer of 2020, after being approached by chief executive Karen Greve Young. Ms. Hinds said she helped design the program after Ms. Young and Futurpreneur staff got the ball rolling.

Njeri Watkins, a Vancouver-based business consultant who is a Futurpreneur mentor, said it can be helpful for a Black entrepreneur to receive advice from someone who has also experienced being the first or only Black person in a work environment.

And the experience of being a mentor can be just as valuable, she added.

“The best part of mentoring is really staying on the cusp of what’s happening in the hearts and minds of the next generation of entrepreneurs.”

She said she hoped the initiative was the start of a new ecosystem of Black entrepreneurs across the country.

Futurpreneur is actively recruiting Black mentors, a spokesperson said, though not all entrepreneurs in the program will be matched with one.

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Having the ear of an experienced businessperson really helped with establishing herself early on, said Ms. Addai, who reported recently signing a deal to get her clothing into a Los Angeles boutique.

“The money was great, obviously, to help the business move forward, but I’ve said many times that getting the mentor was a life changer for me.”

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