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The founding CEO of the Black Business Initiative in Nova Scotia is a big supporter of the Black Entrepreneurship Fund established by the federal government to  help “address long-standing barriers” and support the long-term success of Black entrepreneurs and business owners. 

“It’s what we had been doing since we were founded in 1996, making us the oldest Black business development initiative in the country,” Rustum Southwell says. “We feel we have a great deal of expertise to share. We are the granddaddy of all similar programs.” 

Southwell, who held the CEO post for 17 years and is now back for an interim stint, says the Black Business Initiative has a long history of working with federal and provincial agencies toward the goal of growing a stronger Black presence in the Nova Scotia business community. 

“This program certainly has a lot of potential to grow the Black business community right across the country and certainly here in Nova Scotia,” he says. 

The $221 million program includes up to $53 million to develop and implement a new National Ecosystem Fund to support Black-led business organizations across the country. It will help Black business owners and entrepreneurs access funding and capital, mentorship, financial planning services, and business training. 

It also contains up to $33.3 million in support through the new Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund that will provide loans of between $25,000 and $250,000 for Black business owners and entrepreneurs. Ottawa is also partnering with financial institutions to make up to $128 million available in additional lending support. 

There’s also up to $6.5 million to create and sustain a new Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub that will collect data on the state of Black entrepreneurship in Canada and help identify barriers to success faced by Black entrepreneurs, as well as opportunities for growth. The Hub will be run by Black-led community and business organizations, in partnership with educational institutions. 

Southwell says his organziation is geared to helping Black entrepreneurs through training, financial assistance, and networking. While COVID-19 has forced the organziation to change and adapt how it offers some programs, Southwell says they were able to offer a new training program called Boost for the first time this year in partnership with the innovation hub Volta and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, which provided training in such areas as leadership and branding. 

Rustum Southwell

They also provide term loans and microloans to business owners who self-identify as Black, or corporations that have at least 33 per cent Black owners or managers. It’s also one of three intermediary organizations across the country that deliver the Supporting Black Canadian Communities Initiative (SBCCI) for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to help increase the capacity of Black-led grassroots and not-for-profit organizations that serve Black communities in Canada. 

Southwell is hoping that expertise will ensure the Black Business Initiative plays a role in partnering in delivery of the Black Entrepreneurship Fund going forward. Since the program is still relatively new, Southwell says it remains to be seen how much of the program funding will be allocated to the Atlantic region and Nova Scotia specifically. 

“I do know there were over 4,000 applications from across the country in the first few weeks alone, so the demand for the program is obviously there,” he says. 

One of the first projects announced under the program was $832,000 for the Africa Development Network to develop and establish a new accelerator centre for Black Francophone entrepreneurs and businesses in Ottawa, Gatineau, and Montreal. 

Southwell says the barriers that have always faced Black entrepreneurs have been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. He pointed to a report the Black Business Initiative commissioned on the impact of the pandemic on African Nova Scotia-owned businesses. 

The survey identified the top five factors that are seen as significant barriers to business success. Leading the list was social attitudes towards Black entrepreneurs, mentioned by 78.2 per cent of the respondents. 

“There is a prevailing belief, even within the community, that Black entrepreneurs are not as capable as their white counterparts, and may not be reliable or knowledgeable, and may not deliver good customer service,” the report notes. 

While  the report points to the need for capital assistance in the short term, it also says, “To prepare them for long-term success coming out of the pandemic, there will be a need for deeper structural and infrastructural changes, which will have implications for Black businesses themselves, the Black entrepreneurship ecosystem, government agencies, financial institutions, and other relevant stakeholder organizations.” 

In other words,  Southwell says, the work the Black Business Initiative has been doing for over a quarter of a century is more important now than ever. He says governments both federal and provincial must be a willing partner in the drive for change. 

Southwell says he was hoping the outcome of the Sept. 20 federal election would have little impact on the new program, noting. “I feel it has wide support across the political spectrum.” 

Andy Walker

Andy Walker has been a journalist in PEI for over 30 years. After a career working for both PEI's daily newspapers, covering everything from the provincial legislature to hockey games, he has been a full-time freelance writer since 1997. Andy has been editor of the Island Farmer, a biweekly publication which covers the agriculture scene, since 2000. He and his wife, Angela, have four adult children and they reside in Cornwall.

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