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When Alice Tam opened a Soft Dough Co. location at Toronto’s Stackt Market, she included an in-store BIPOC market featuring goods from other vendors.Lucy Lu

Remember when we were all obsessively baking bread during the early days of the pandemic? Toronto’s Alice Tam channelled her lockdown energy into handcrafting her carbs of choice into a new business venture.

“I’ve always baked for family and friends; it was something creative to do while stuck at home,” explains Ms. Tam. “I kept seeing little businesses popping up during the pandemic.”

Ms. Tam took a leap of faith in her baking skills to become a newbie entrepreneur with the launch of Soft Dough Co. in July 2020, a Toronto-based bakery and delivery, featuring toothsome treats such as Basque burnt cheesecake, classic madeleines and black sesame cream cake. She also took on a new position as manager of growth marketing for Loblaw Digital.

But she wasn’t content to balance just two jobs – Ms. Tam also saw the need to make space for BIPOC businesses as she grew her own side hustle.

In 2021, Tam launched Dream Set to highlight Asian-owned bakeries who are pairing traditional Asian flavours with western influences in contemporary desserts. Dream Set 2021 packaged four desserts from four bakeries for a one-off sweet delivery. Thanks to Soft Dough Co.’s Instagram fans, it quickly sold out.

“I wanted to raise awareness for Asian businesses, putting a spotlight where there’s not often one,” she says.

Success through collaboration and promotion

From lockdowns to supply chain difficulties to creeping inflation, the past two years of the pandemic have presented challenges for small businesses in Canada. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) reported in March that two years into the pandemic, only 35 per cent of businesses have returned to normal sales, while debt levels and the share of businesses considering bankruptcy remain high.

However, amongst these challenges and market uncertainties, the pandemic has also sparked opportunity for small retail businesses. An RBC survey from September 2021 showed that three-quarters of Canadians planned to spend more at local businesses as the economy reopened. Plus, six in 10 of those surveyed said they have sought out or will seek out businesses with BIPOC owners.

Meanwhile, like Ms. Tam, small retailers and other grassroots organizations across the country are working together to collaborate and promote each other in order to share that opportunity.

For example, Green Guide Montreal features a Google map of BIPOC-owned and operated restaurants in the city. Black Owned Toronto highlights vendors through its Instagram account (with 72,000 followers and counting) as well as selling products in its bricks-and-mortar retail store in Scarborough Town Centre. Victoria’s Hands On Collective promotes local ceramic artists in-store and online. Coho Commissary provides shared kitchen space for a diverse array of small food operations in Vancouver.

Sharing favourite local products

Ms. Tam has expanded her own commitment to shine a light on fellow BIPOC small businesses. During the first half of 2022, she released a second edition of Dream Set and opened a retail location for Soft Dough Co. at Toronto’s Stackt Market.

“It wasn’t in my plans for year two, but when opportunity presents itself, say yes,” she says. “Things will work out.”

Her Stackt location features an in-store BIPOC market highlighting her own favourite local products, which currently include soy candles from Slowly Surely, gourmet sauces from Kopi Thyme, Darvina Chocolates, Golden Hour silk essentials, Birdyuen pins, Lost in the Sauce vegan sauces and Twofold calligraphy art.

Ms. Tam says she’s always on the hunt for more businesses to promote.

“Owning my [own] business, I get to choose the partnerships and events [I participate in],” she says. “It helps my creativity, and helps to build a strong BIPOC business community.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at

Question: A potential employer asked me for personal references. It surprised me because I’m not applying for an entry-level position and I have plenty of work references. How important do you consider personal references to be? And why would an employer ask for those instead of (or in addition to) work references?

We asked Toronto-based leadership coach and HR consultant Cindy Harvey to field this one:

Asking for personal references isn’t common practice – I’ve been in the hiring and HR game for years and I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever asked for a personal reference. But I know there are companies who have that as part of their process. In thinking about the ‘why’ behind that, I take it one step further and consider what a company’s objectives are during the hiring process.

One important objective during hiring is reducing the risk that is inherent in bringing someone from outside the organization into the company. Particularly when it’s a more senior position, making a bad hire can be very costly in dollars, time and resources. When you look at it from that angle, all of the steps of the hiring process really aim toward finding that right person, and references – both professional and personal – can drive toward that overall goal.

A personal reference can give the company another view of who you are as a candidate and does so in a way that is removed from the workplace. One of the most important factors that determine success in business is how well people work together. That’s not just about the actual outputs and results that are produced, but about those interpersonal dynamics can make or break a project or a team’s success. Especially for someone who is in a more senior level role, they will have more broader impact potential in a positive or negative way.

Personal references can give employers a different view into how someone will show up to work, but without that frame of the workplace. That’s really important because it can affect the way employees or teammates feel, and the way people feel impacts the work that they do.

In terms of who you should choose as a personal reference, think about your life outside of your 9-to-5 and who you interact with in those other areas. I would probably stay away from immediate family, but if you do volunteer work, for example, are there people that you interact with through that capacity? Or perhaps a longtime friend – someone who has been in your life and seen you in different scenarios or potentially a former colleague that has turned into a friend. Maybe someone from a religious or spiritual community, or a teacher if you have done an advanced degree.

The idea is to choose someone who you interact with outside of the frame of the workplace, and who can give insight into your values.

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