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Nicole Antoine, photographed in downtown Montreal, has spent much of her career working to bring Black women and other racialized people together in safe spaces.Hatrick Mirville

Nicole Antoine is used to seeing Black excellence up close. Her mother was a director at several major companies whose circle of friends included CFOs, accountants and lawyers.

Having grown up in a community of Black women who constantly uplifted each other, Antoine and her group of friends realized they were lacking similar safe spaces in their own adult lives – places where women like them could gather, share, motivate and inspire each other, while being their most authentic selves.

“It was really [about], how we could share amongst Black women who understand our situations, our environments, our nuances, so that [we] wouldn’t feel like, ‘Wait a minute, is it just me?’”

That desire sparked the creation of Four Brown Girls, an event management company that helps brands, government agencies and communities create safe digital and physical spaces for Black people. In the seven years since it launched, Four Brown Girls (FBG) has created those spaces through exhibitions, workshops, panel discussions and brand activations.

Now, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and signals from corporations that they wanted to reach more Black people, FBG has become more like a connector between brands and the Black communities they wanted to reach.

This new direction prompted Antoine and her team to launch their October 2022 job fair, BLAXPO. Held at the Toronto Reference Library for over 900 people online and in-person, it was a day full of activities including speed networking, live podcasts, virtual master classes, therapy sessions and even a booth where you could get professional headshots taken.

“It was literally a love letter to my community, and my community showed up for me,” Antoine says.

Facilitating connections

Attendees arriving at BLAXPO 2022, hosted at the Toronto Reference Library.La Rue Inspire

Antoine and the BLAXPO team spent months pitching the event to over 80 companies and ended up getting about 35 on board as exhibitors and sponsors.

”It was one of my proudest moments, being able to see the room and the energy and see all the smiles and all of the connections and deals that were being [made],” she says.

If the aim was to facilitate a space where the Black community could walk in and automatically feel like they belonged, Antoine and her team knocked it out the park. One attendee wrote in an online testimonial: “One of the greatest moments in my career history.”

Another quote: “As a queer Black woman and international student here in Canada, I was very worried about the prospective job search postgrad. Attending BLAXPO’s in-person Toronto experience gave me an opportunity to network with recruiters and ease my nerves as an early career Black professional entering tech.”

The past couple of years have been challenging for Antoine from a career perspective. While running her “labour of love” FBG for the first few years, she also had a 9-5 job as a brand manager. She was stunned when she was let go due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Antoine says it was a brutal time – she went on unemployment for the first time in her life – but she sees it as the wake-up call that propelled her to launch her second business, N/A and Company. It’s a service-based marketing strategy company also looking to help brands connect organically to their target audiences.

While Antoine’s diligence and determination have been integral to her success, she says her accomplishments have also taken a toll on her personal life.

“It’s just countless sacrifices – the hours that I gave up being there for my daughters or being there as a wife, daughter or friend,” she says. “But instead of being met with resentment, I was given the space to really do what I need to do, and given the support to really forge through.

Community support

A panel discussion at BLAXPO 2022.La Rue Inspire

After spending much of her career working to bring Black women and other racialized people together in safe spaces, Antoine says her biggest lesson so far has come from hearing the word no.

“[I learned] that you’re not for everyone, and that is okay,” she says. “It doesn’t mean you have a bad idea, it just means you’re talking to the wrong person. I think that was a huge, huge learning curve.

”Meanwhile, the community support she has received for her endeavours has been a major part of why Antoine’s work is able to reach the people it needs to.

“We’re nothing without a tribe and historically, from Africa, we did everything together,” she says. “I wouldn’t be Nicole without the people that are propping me up, and every time I reach a new level, I’m pulling as many people [as I can] to come up right behind me.”