Home » Diversity » Two and a Half Decades On, Nova Scotia’s Black Business Initiative Is Going Strong
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Rustum Southwell

Rustum Southwell

CEO & Founding Member, Black Business Initiative

The success of Nova Scotia’s Black business community is integral to the prosperity of Nova Scotia as a whole. And for 25 years, the Black Business Initiative has been the steward of that success.

The 1990s in Canada were an era of change and opportunity. For the Black business community in Nova Scotia, it was a moment to ensure that Black voices and Black potential could help fulfill the promises of Canada’s future. It was time for the labours and innovation of the province’s Black population to be explicitly recognized and grown within that community fostered. It was time for the Black Business Initiative (BBI).

The Black business community has always been an intrinsic part of the broader business landscape of Nova Scotia, but the challenges faced by Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs are not always the same as those faced by other businesses and entrepreneurs. In 1995, a cadre of enterprising Black leaders formed a task force to organize that community in an official capacity for the first time and address those challenges head on. One year later, the BBI was born.

“There have always been attempts to be more inclusive of the large historic African Nova Scotian communities and get them engaged in the economy,” says Rustum Southwell, CEO and founding member of the BBI. “In the environment and political climate of the ’90s, the community and many groups started conversations about what business development and, by extension, economic development, could look like. The mission and vision was to foster a vibrant and dynamic Black presence within the business community, meaning the mainstream community. In the first five years, we set out to start 60 new companies, which we did.”

The road to Black business development in Canada must and should go through Nova Scotia.

Tiffani_Young_hs

As a small business, it can be challenging making connections and knowing whom to turn to when you need guidance. The BBI’s support has made that challenge easier to manage.

The BBI has helped to discuss strategy and make introductions to key stakeholders, and has offered opportunities that increased my exposure, network, and revenue.

As a Black entrepreneur, it’s important to have support where the people understand the barriers you face and I can happily say that the BBI has positively impacted Natural Butter Bar’s journey.

Tiffani Young
Owner, Natural Butter Bar

Funding is just one ingredient in the recipe of success

In an environment where funding and lending were the two primary tools being used to promote growth, the BBI recognized that the true nature of the need was much broader. “Business is difficult,” says Southwell. “It needs more than money. I always say that the problem is money, but money isn’t the real problem.”

Without funding, the deeper issues couldn’t be resolved, but money alone also wouldn’t solve them. And so, while the BBI did work diligently on the financial side of business advancement, it focused also on underserved domains like skills development, networking, and technology. The results within the Black business community of Nova Scotia were truly astounding. It wasn’t just mom-and-pop businesses being empowered either — roughly 60 percent of these new businesses were creating new employment for the community as well. Word quickly spread that something amazing was happening in the Atlantic province. “Once the StatCan report came out showing the scale of the impact, folks really stood up and took notice,” says Southwell. “We started seeing folks coming out from Ontario to look at our model. People realized that there was merit in the work we were doing.”

Dr. Abdullah Kirumira

We’ve been associated with the BBI since its inception in 1996. We’ve been impressed watching the organization grow, evolve, and succeed over the years in fostering a dynamic Black business presence in Nova Scotia.

We’ve benefited significantly from the opportunities that the BBI has presented to us over the years. The organization’s efforts on our behalf, with promoting us to parastatal, financing, and business stakeholders locally and internationally, are commendable.

The investment our governments channel through the BBI has benefited the growth of Black entrepreneurship significantly more than any other support programs we’ve dealt with in the last 30 years.

Dr. Abdullah Kirumira
President & CEO,
TheraPBios PHARMA LTD

A new era of Black business

In the decades since, many things have changed in Canada, in Nova Scotia, and in the Black community. But, through it all, the BBI has continued to foster and support growth and innovation. “Our journey has not been a straight line upward,” acknowledges Southwell. “It’s been cyclical.” But it’s a cycle with a steady trajectory toward opportunity and prosperity.

Today, the work of the BBI remains as important as ever, though it exists in a dramatically different landscape. Southwell points to the proliferation of high-quality agencies and support structures that today’s Black business community can lean on, and how encouraging this is compared to a few decades ago. He points to the incredible growth in the amount of capital controlled by Black organizations, and the positive implications that has for opportunity. He recalls that, in 1996, the budget of the BBI was just one million dollars per year for the entire province and he recognizes how much larger the funding envelopes have grown. But none of that means the work is done.

Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs still face an array of systemic barriers, and the initiatives of the BBI today are laser focused on the real needs of the community on the ground. After 25 years, it has gotten unbelievably good at identifying the optimal ways to create outsized change, such as with its Business is Jammin’ (BIJ) youth entrepreneurial initiative. “I realized, when I was in my 40s, that if I wanted to change the culture, I probably needed to start with people younger than myself,” says Southwell. “We need to get them as low as eight or nine years old because, in ten years, that kid could be the next Bill Gates. We see BIJ as one of the keys to changing the environment, and it’s already doing so.”

Other BBI initiatives include the Diversity Employment Network, the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative, and the Black Entrepreneurship Program, each a carefully crafted key designed to unlock a specific gate to greater Black prosperity in Nova Scotia.

Because, from Southwell’s perspective, Black prosperity in Nova Scotia is an on-ramp to Black prosperity nationwide. “The road to Black business development in Canada,” he holds, “must and should go through Nova Scotia.”

cathy akinkunmi eunoia hs

The BBI was my “go to” 11 years ago with my first business in event décor. And up until now with Eunoia, I count the BBI as that organization set aside to foster growth for Black entrepreneurs. It’s again my first call for anything related to business resources to avail of. I’m grateful for the BBI’s advocacy, leadership as an organization, and availability.

Cathy Akinkunmi
Owner, Eunoia Lifestyle Shop

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