Toronto

New Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce hopes to give business owners a 'unified voice'

The newly-launched Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce held its launch event Thursday evening in Toronto, with the aim of creating better economic opportunities and growth for Canada's many black communities.

'We're 1.2 million black Canadians and we need to find a way to connect ourselves economically'

Wandering up the grocery aisles in Canada, Lola Adeyemi always felt the taste of home was missing. With the help of a mentor, she's now launched a soup business to change that. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

When Lola Adeyemi decided to leave behind a career in information technology to start her own line of African-inspired soups and stews, it seemed there was no one she could really relate to who could guide her through the process of starting her own business.

Adeyemi first moved to Canada from Nigeria about 15 years ago as an international student.

But she could never quite find the taste of home in the grocery aisle. Other flavours and tastes seemed to be available in abundance, but the chicken peanut and fish pepper soups she knew so well, for example, just weren't there.

"That's a gap that I thought I could fill," she said. But getting her company, "It's Souper," off the ground wasn't easy. 

"I think one of the struggles when I started the business was having somebody who looked like me, has been through the same struggles as an immigrant like me that I could reach out and say, 'Hey, I want to start this business. What are the struggles I might face? What are the challenges I might face?,'" she said. 

'Jumping into the water with sharks'

"The fact that was nonexistent was almost like I was jumping into the water with sharks and I didn't have any protection. I didn't have anyone guiding me on the path to take or not to take."

The newly-launched Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce hopes to change that.

The non-profit organization held its launch event Thursday evening in Toronto, with the aim of creating better economic opportunities and growth for Canada's many black communities. 

Michael Forrest, the founder of the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce, wants to accelerate the success of the black business community. (CBC)

"It allows us to coach the black community, the business community and make sure they can elevate their brand and their business across Canada," founder and chair of the chamber, Michael Forrest, said.

"We're 1.2 million black Canadians and we need to find a way to connect ourselves economically."

The organization hopes to make it easier for entrepreneurs like Adeyemi to access mentors, network with other businesses and access consulting, among other things. Its head office will be in Toronto, but the plan is to expand and establish more chapters across the country.

It's not the first time an organization has sought to uplift Canada's black communities. The Black Business and Professional Association has existed since 1983 with the goal of "delivering programs that support business and professional excellence, higher education and economic development."

Many in community 'under-served'

Forrest says the chamber's goal is to concentrate more squarely on growing businesses, especially middle and small-size ones.

"There are many people in the black community that are under-served and I believe there's much more room for other groups to enter this marketplace."

"This is not a new idea," said Dewitt Lee, who was among those at the launch.

"This is a concept that exists in many other ethnicities, so we're a little bit behind in terms of pooling our resources … but now we'll have a unified voice that can speak directly to the needs to small business owners."

He's not wrong.

A 2015 survey of 133 respondents among black businesses in Toronto found networking, marketing, accessing financing and connecting with mentors were some of the major areas where entrepreneurs believed they could be better supported.

The newly-launched Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce held its launch event Thursday evening in Toronto. (CBC)

The survey also found the specific needs among black business community members also varied somewhat across backgrounds. Caribbean-led firms, for example, saw accessing financing as a more crucial need than marketing, for example. Meanwhile, those who self-identified as being of African heritage listed securing affordable space as one of their key concerns. 

'If you're not recognized, you're not promoted'

For Adeyemi, not seeing herself reflected in the business community was among her biggest hurdles. But there was also the feeling of intimidation of approaching people who had found success. 

She says that as part of her upbringing, there was the sense "not to speak where adults are speaking."

That's a sentiment that trickled into her view of the business world.

"It kind of seeps down to anyone who is in a position of power. We look at them as very powerful people, kind of like gods. So it makes us feel not noticed.

"That is why I think we're not seeing enough black people in top positions. And when they are there, I'm afraid to approach them," she said. 

"If you're not noticed, you're not recognized. And if you're not recognized, you're not promoted."

With files from Talia Ricci