Rustum Southwell has waited years for the Black Business Initiative to receive the government funding it needs to expand its services beyond just Nova Scotia.
Mr. Southwell is a co-founder and the chief executive officer of the Black Business Initiative (BBI), a business development group addressing the needs of African-Nova Scotian entrepreneurs. It was created by the federal and provincial governments in 1996, making it the longest-running Black business development initiative in Canada, according to its website.
This year, the BBI has made its services available to the rest of Atlantic Canada for the first time, after the federal government selected it as one of the organizations to use funding from the Black Entrepreneurship Program throughout the region.
The program was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September, 2020, as a partnership between Black-led business organizations, financial institutions and the federal government, which committed $265-million over four years to the initiative. The BBI is receiving $2.3-million over three years to expand its services through the Black Entrepreneurship Program Ecosystem Fund, Mr. Southwell said.
He has been interested for a while now in an expansion of BBI’s services and a pan-Canadian partnership between Black-led business development organizations. He’d been involved in pitching the idea to previous federal administrations with no luck.
“So we were glad to see that, this time, the stars aligned, and it gave us a national organization that should make some difference,” Mr. Southwell said.
The official announcement of BBI’s expansion isn’t coming until early summer. But Jocelyn Stevens, who was hired as the BBI’s entrepreneurship engagement manager for New Brunswick in December, 2021, said she’s already been working with entrepreneurs in the province who were eager to take advantage of the BBI’s services.
“When you’re contacted before you can even get your office seat warm, then there’s an obvious need,” she said.
Ms. Stevens was attracted to the role because of her experiences as a Black entrepreneur in New Brunswick.
She knows navigating entrepreneurship can be frustrating for everyone. “But just imagine, for the Black business owners and entrepreneurs, they also have to encounter systemic racism amongst other obstacles.”
The BBI provides Black entrepreneurs with financial assistance, business training and networking.
“If I need anything, I go straight to BBI first,” said Cathy Akinkunmi, chief executive officer of Eunoia Lifestyle Shop Inc., a Halifax-based gift and decor store.
The BBI excels in getting the most out of its funding, according to Abdullah K. Kirumira, chief executive officer of TheraPBios PHARMA, a Windsor, N.S.-based biotechnology company.
“For what the government invests in BBI, I think we as Black entrepreneurs have benefited a lot more dollar for dollar compared to how much we have benefited from the other incentive programs,” Mr. Kirumira said.
Black entrepreneurs in other Atlantic provinces are looking forward to this benefit.
“I was ecstatic to know that there’s even such an organization,” said Naz Ali, the owner of Caribbean Flavas Restaurant & Catering, in Fredericton.
Mr. Ali’s restaurant began as a project in a business course at the University of New Brunswick, inspired by a lack of ethnicity in Fredericton. His professors thought it was a bad idea and he received a C+ grade. Nineteen years later, Caribbean Flavas is the highest-rated restaurant in the city on Tripadvisor.
Mr. Ali said the discrimination he faced starting his own business is what makes him so excited about the expansion of the BBI.
It will also help the growth of the Black Business and Professional Network Inc. (BBPN), a Saint John-based business development organization, according to its president, Olaitan Onyebuoha.
Founded in 2021, the BBPN was directly inspired by the BBI’s existence, Ms. Onyebuoha said.
She hopes to work with the BBI to develop better data on Black entrepreneurship in the province that will help identify issues and create solutions.
On April 23, the BBI hosted its first event in Newfoundland and Labrador: a Black entrepreneurs workshop with the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship, a business development centre for students at Memorial University in St. John’s.
It was an opportunity for young entrepreneurs to learn and for the BBI to hear about the barriers they face, said Precious Familusi, the BBI’s entrepreneurship and engagement manager for Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island.
Amy Burridge, acting director of the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship, said the BBI’s expansion responds to a need.
“For our Black student population, if we don’t have mentors or speakers here to connect them with, now we have the Black Business Initiative to reach out to, to help us kind of fill that void,” she said.
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