With a staff of just 3, this Ontario network is ’empowering’ 150 Black businesses

For budding Black business owners, education and administrative support are valuable, and so is having a group of peers to talk to.That’s been the experience of three Ontario entrepreneurs who participate in the Southwestern Ontario Black Entrepreneurship Network (SWOBEN). “It’s been a whirlwind,” SWOBEN manager Francoise Yesaya-Keddy tells CBC Hamilton.The program launched in December 2022, with the goal of connecting and providing resources to Black business owners, entrepreneurs and non-profits. It’s run out of Hamilton charity Empowerment Squared and funded by federal agency FedDev Ontario.SWOBEN offers four months of education, workshops, events, as well as advisory services like finance, law and accounting that continue beyond the initial term.Although the program has just three staff, Yesaya-Keddy said it’s got about 150 businesses in its network, based in cities such as Hamilton and Windsor, offering services that range from landscaping to podcasting to pre-owned luxury goods.As the program marks its first anniversary, CBC Hamilton spoke to three participants about their experiences.Surrounded by people on ‘the same path’Gloria Kabedi and her partner Filo co-founded Kabaz, an app that allows users to buy gift cards for small businesses, which Kabedi said are often underrepresented in that market. She’s currently working to grow Kabaz and partner with more companies.The pair, who recently moved to Brantford, Ont., from Hamilton, came up with the idea in 2020 and got connected with SWOBEN in 2022 at a community event, Kabedi said. She said she appreciated that it was local, and that it focused on empowering Black entrepreneurs specifically. “There are lots of challenges we face in this space.”WATCH: Gloria Kabedi talks about the importance of being part of a network:Kabaz is an app that allows users to buy gift cards for small businessesGloria Kabedi says being in a network where she can ask questions and learn from her peers has helped her build confidence as an entrepreneur.Getting funding can be challenging for Black entrepreneurs, she said, and may involve overcoming biases. “It is helpful to be somewhere or part of an organization where we have discussions about those biases and challenges and look at ways of addressing them.”Being in a network where she can ask questions and learn from her peers has helped her build confidence, Kabedi said. “It’s quite empowering to be surrounded by professionals and others like myself who are also going the same path.”Challenges leading a construction company as a Black womanDenika Joseph, a long-time Hamiltonian now living in Kitchener, owns construction and renovation company Ornate Space, which started in early 2023. She said SWOBEN reached out to her and she jumped at the opportunity to join the network.Joseph had studied business but said SWOBEN helped her refine a business plan that considers legalities in the construction industry she was less familiar with. WATCH: Denika Joseph says it’s work to be taken seriously:Denika Joseph on being taken seriously as a Black woman in constructionBeing a Black woman in construction is exciting, Denika Joseph said, but challenging too, since she’s not always taken seriously.Being a Black woman in construction is exciting, Joseph said, but challenging, too. She said as a woman, she already isn’t taken as seriously as a man would be, and being Black only adds to that. Often, Joseph said, she’ll have her male project manager serve as the face of the company, which is “a little bit sad,” because she would like to fill that role.Joseph said she’s come up against those biases throughout her life and sees it as an opportunity to prove herself. ‘We need this program to keep going’Windsorite Zule Ankamah started Ghanaian food business Zule Eats early in the pandemic when she got laid off from her job as a restaurant manager who worked nights. Not wanting to defer her mortgage payments, and knowing how popular her cooking was in her community, she decided to start a food business. “It gave me the opportunity … to become my own boss.”Now Ankamah’s company caters, offers takeout and minimal in-person dining, she said. She joined SWOBEN when it launched, Ankamah said, noting she hadn’t seen any other programs geared toward Black entrepreneurs.Windsor’s Zule Ankamah owns catering business Zule Eats. (Submitted by Zule Ankamah)She’s received marketing help from SWOBEN, and assistance creating a professional website. She also got connected with other Black business owners. “I didn’t even realize how many Black businesses we had in this area until SWOBEN started and brought us all together.” Ankamah now tries to collaborate with and promote other people in the network. For example, a smoothie business does pop-ups with her, and a painter displays and sells their work from her store. At Windsor’s Carrousel of the Nations festival in June, Ankamah hosted the festival’s first Ghanaian Village with several other Black businesses.”We’re building these relationships and helping each other out,” she said.Yesaya-Keddy said SWOBEN follows Ubuntu principles — the African philosophy which emphasize collectivism. “As much as possible, we’re trying not to turn anyone away.” Her team advertises to prospective participants and attends events to attract people whether they’re already established or not. The ideal participant, she said, “is someone ready and willing to learn.” SWOBEN is halfway through its initial two-year grant, Yesaya-Keddy said, and hopes to continue beyond the end of this first funding period. Anytime she hears about someone’s business idea, Ankamah said she tells them to look into SWOBEN.She said she saved a lot of money by learning before jumping in, and that it’s never too soon or too late to accept some help.”We need this program to keep going,” she said. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here. (CBC)

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