The COVID-19 pandemic has created major challenges for businesses around the world, but the head of Nova Scotia’s Black Business Initiative (BBI) said there have also been positive changes.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and Canada was unlike anything Rustum Southwell had seen in his time with the Halifax-based business development organization, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.
“There was a strange set of circumstances that caused people to be at home for COVID, watching TV and so on, to see … the brutality that was happening in the United States and it woke up many people who wanted to help,” said Southwell, who has been with BBI since its launch in 1996 and serves as interim CEO.
Suddenly, in the midst of a pandemic, BBI has been inundated with calls from people looking to support black businesses or companies seeking advice on how to become more inclusive.
Celebrating 25 years is a significant achievement, Southwell said. BBI’s original goal of ensuring that black entrepreneurs are supported in life, as well as in business, remains just as vital today.
The organization receives funding from the federal and provincial governments to provide a wide range of training programs, grants, mentoring and other programs.
BBI also works with businesses and services to establish an online presence, often for the first time. Helping people enter the digital age ensures they’ll be around for decades to come, too.
“The systemic challenges of racism and marginalization on top of that make it a little harder for black-owned businesses to be hugely successful – but we argued. There are a lot of businesses that have done well,” Southwell said.
Tiffani Young received help from BBI when she launched her natural cosmetics business, Butter Bar, last year.
Young said BBI had a huge impact on her business, covering the cost of a pop-up booth at the Halifax Mall, connecting her with other entrepreneurs and helping her navigate the loan process. .
She said BBI is vital because the black experience is unique and the organization understands the challenges it might face.
“It’s not just about the business… but also, you know, helping you build your image, helping you navigate a world in which you may not always see a reflection of yourself- same,” Young said.
“It’s nice to have that support system.”
The BBI website says it is the longest running black business development initiative in Canada.
Its 25th anniversary will be marked by a sold-out gala dinner and awards show Friday night at a Halifax hotel. The event will also be broadcast live.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.