Access to grants, ability to transition online makes all the difference for Black-owned businesses

For Black-owned businesses in Toronto during the second lockdown, the ability to succeed in 2020 is around a successful transition to online platforms, reaching clients and accessing grants that aren't always available.

Some saw support wane following Black Lives Matter rallies, others saw huge boost

Hazel Antwi, left, co-owns a beauty supply store in Scarborough. Shanelle McKenzie, centre, and Kim Knight, right, are co-founders of The Villij, a wellness hub for women of colour. While both businesses are having different experiences during the pandemic, the women say access to grants is an issue for Black entrepreneurs. (Photos by Hazel Antwi and Kenya Meon.)

Sixteen years after her mother opened a beauty supply store in Scarborough, Hazel Antwi worries this may be the shop's final holiday season.

Antwi, 26, is taking over as the owner of All Star Beauty Complex, which sits along Eglinton Avenue East and Kennedy Road. Her mother was looking to retire soon. 

Their store, which sells hair care and beauty products, had already taken a financial hit in the last several years due to construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. 

"I really hope that 2021 is not our last year being open, but right now it may be. Looking at our finances I don't see us being able to continue," she said.

Antwi says their records show a $30,000 to $50,000 loss in revenue since construction began in 2011, compared to their sales prior to the project breaking ground. That construction is not set to be completed until 2022. 

And then, there's the pandemic. 

"Going into the second lockdown, I really fear that we're not going to make it," she said. 

Black-owned small businesses face additional barriers to success, which include bias and systemic racism within financial institutions or simply a lack of loans or grants available for initiatives that support their communities. 

CBC News spoke with owners of Black-owned businesses in Toronto — who say their success or struggle in the middle of this second lockdown is largely based on whether they were able to use online platforms and access grants or loans that are difficult to acquire. 

'We've depleted our finances'

Big-box stores like Walmart and Costco sell similar products to Antwi's store. It's frustrating that they are allowed to remain open, while her store can only offer curbside pickup on a street ravaged by construction, she said.

"It's the small businesses that have been closing down... that are hoping to be eligible for government financial assistance. But we haven't been able to qualify."

In order to qualify for the rent subsidy relief program, their store needs to prove a 70 per cent decrease in sales since last year. Antwi says due to continued declined sales due to the crosstown construction, they can't prove that level of loss year-to-year as the business was already suffering.

"Now we've depleted our finances to the point where we can't even market like we were doing in the summer," she said. 

Hazel Antwi, co-owner of All Star Beauty Complex, says she fears 2021 will be the store's last year in business. (Supplied by Hazel Antwi)

Following the Black Lives Matter movement and the new rallies that emerged at the end of May and June, Antwi said they saw a surge in support for their business over the summer.

"But that has diminished quite a bit," she said.

Other beauty supply stores that are not Black-owned in the area have been able to acquire more products and are prioritized by brands — so it's no surprise that customers would turn to those businesses, said Antwi.

'Access to funding' a major concern

Black-owned businesses also face another layer of barriers, said Antwi. Those businesses often face significant hurdles to financing. 

A 2015 study by the City of Toronto found that half of the Black-owned businesses they surveyed listed "access to funding" as the top concern they were dealing with. Black entrepreneurs told CBC News in October that poor service and cultural bias at financial institutions is common.

Antwi says their store has never been approved for a business credit card, as they were told the business is not profitable enough to qualify. She and her mother have been using their own credit for business purchase, which is impacting their scores.

She says she hopes movements to shop local, and specifically support Black-owned businesses, continue through this second lockdown. That support could determine if their store survives.

"My mom has been able to carry our family because of this business, and now this business is going to the ground," she said. "I'm coming in with fresh eyes, but who knows how to navigate during a pandemic with no support from the government?"

Smooth transition online bolstered business

For Kim Knight and Shanelle McKenzie, co-founders of The Villij, a wellness hub for women of colour — accessing loans that were launched this year, along without having rent to pay and the time and skills to transition online made all the difference.

Their business has seen real growth and even more success this year. 

Prior to the pandemic, The Villij offered group yoga classes and other activities like hikes to allow women of colour to share a space together, connect and focus on their wellbeing and mental health. 

Now they've moved entirely to an online platform where they offer classes on everything from managing finances to taking care of mental health in the workplace. They've moved their yoga classes online.

"It's been quite fruitful and quite exciting to see how our community has grown," said McKenzie.

The need for women of colour to seek out resources and an environment that can support mental health has only increased during the pandemic and amid Black Lives Matter protests this year. 

Kim Knight, left, and Shanelle McKenzie, founded The Villij, a wellness hub for women of colour (Kenya Meon)

The boost during those summer months made a huge impact to their business, said McKenzie.

"We definitely saw an uptick when it came to support through donations and through Instagram. We had about seven times the followers within a weekend," said Knight.

"It taught us the power of digitizing your business. I think what's so important is that people of colour don't really have that opportunity quite often," she said. 

Few loans available, say owners

Another benefit McKenzie and Knight saw this year was being awarded a grant from the Bank of Montreal. They were one of 10 other women-owned businesses that received $10,000 to continue their initiatives.

The Villij launched in 2017 and getting to the point where they were able to receive a grant was not easy.

"When it comes to even looking for grants for our business, it's very difficult actually," Knight said, adding they were grateful to receive the grant from BMO.

"That was one of the few [grants] we were eligible for. And that's something that concerns me," she said. "We really need to be able to, as millennials, as small business owners, be able to access grants. But our business structure doesn't' really allow for them."

While there are loans Black business owners can apply to, putting those in the Black community in debt is not a benefit, she said. It's a large barrier many Black small business owners are grappling with, especially during the pandemic.

"That really concerns me for the future," said McKenzie.

"Barriers is an issue, it's institutionalized as well. It's a problem that's much bigger than all of us and it's very deeply rooted," adds Knight.

With the boost from their grant, it's going to allow them to expand their digital platform, and ensure that it's accessible and affordable, said Knight.

"We are quite mindful of that. We're really trying to bridge that gap between wellness providers and the average woman of colour," 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.