Starting a new business is a challenge for anyone, but it can be even harder for those who face multiple barriers.
Securing critical funding to start or scale a company up can be particularly tough for racialized people or new immigrants, especially if they don’t own assets like a home as collateral.
For the second year in a row, the non-profit organization Black Entrepreneurs and Businesses of Canada Society (BEBC), based in B.C., is using Black History Month to run a competition aimed at addressing some of these challenges.
Canada’s only Black Pitch Contest offers a prize of $25,000 to help Black entrepreneurs launch or accelerate their businesses. Competitors also get access to tools, resources and opportunities to reach customers, along with education and support applying for the Black Business Awards.
Jackee Kasandy founded the BEBC during the COVID-19 pandemic, after experiencing similar challenges launching her own business, which sells hand-made Kenyan crafts on Granville Island in Vancouver.
Kasandy said because she doesn’t own a home, she wasn’t able to secure a major loan. It ended up taking her four years and maxing out all of her credit cards to launch the company.
“The lack of funding and financing really cascades to everything else, so we are just trying, on a really small scale, to change that,” she said.
“I thought if I am going to start changing the system, what can I do to help?”
She said when she started the project, she thought there might be fewer than 20 Black-owned businesses in the province, but quickly learned the number was closer to 400, and now up to 600.
Kasandy and her partners were able to raise $25,000 and give it away last year, an award she said can have a game-changing impact on a small business — allowing it, for example, to buy equipment needed to scale up and land a new account.
Deress Asghedom, founder and CEO of B.C.-based tech startup Vaster, was a runner-up in the 2023 campaign. His company is developing an AI-powered app that will allow people to better understand cannabis labeling and products — and is hoping to launch the tool within months.
While he didn’t walk away with the cash, he said the experience paid dividends anyway.
“The challenge is always getting networks, so what that did for me was … it exposed us to a network of people that now know about the technology we are building and the implications of that technology,” he said. “To help us navigate through all the different resources that are available, that want to support businesses like ours was tremendously helpful.”
Among this year’s competitors is Nadine Umutoni, founder and CEO of Neza Coffee.
Umotoni survived the Rwandan genocide and now runs a social enterprise that sources beans from her home country — while raising money for other survivors.
Like Kasandy, Umotoni has struggled to secure major funding for her company.
“Starting a business in general is really hard, especially when you don’t have prior experience — it is extra hard as an immigrant and as a Black person,” she said.
“We know the systemic barriers that Black entrepreneurs face in getting funding, so that makes it extra hard for us. But, slowly but surely, our company is growing.”
Despite the challenges, Neza has been able to stock its products in select Safeway stores around Vancouver.
Winning the competition, she said, would allow her to ramp up distribution — making the coffee more accessible, while creating more jobs within the company.
“My message is one of hope and perseverance,” she said. “Believe in your vision, seek out resources like this, and just don’t give up. I believe that things get better.”
The competition is open until Feb. 16, with the top five entries getting the chance to pitch their business ideas publicly at the 2024 Black Business Summit, where a winner will be crowned.
While the contest can give a much-needed boost to those participating, Kasandy said her organization remains focused on the bigger issue of how to make access to capital more accessible for small business entrepreneurs and immigrants.
While she understands banks need to manage risk in their loans, she also believes it’s time to rethink some of their approach — like starting to accept proof of long-time rent payment on someone’s credit score.