Even before starting her business, Cherie Warner-Richard said she had a “business mistake.”
Growing up around her entrepreneurial grandmother and her “cunning” mother inspired her to become who she is today.
“I feel like they laid the foundation for me to be brave enough to take on this challenge,” said Warner-RIchard, owner of Cee Wee Designs, a handbag and accessories store.
Cee Wee Designs was among the companies to launch the new Southwestern Ontario Black Entrepreneurship Network (SWOBEN), which aims to serve as a “dynamic resource for black business owners, entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders” in the Hamilton and Windsor metropolitan areas. according to their website.
From the island of Tobago to Hamilton
Warner-Richard said her business started at her home on the island of Tobago about 10 years ago, when she made a handbag.
“People would look at it and ask me, ‘I like your bag. Where did you get it from?’ I said, ‘Oh, I did it.'”
She said that when people started asking her if they could buy her one, she was confused, but thought, “Do you want me to make one and pay me for it?”
As more people asked, Warner-Richard began to realize that it might not be such a crazy idea.
She started moving from Trinidad and Tobago to Canada eight years ago when she got married and eventually stayed in Hamilton.
Today she sells her bags and accessories in her website.
She said her home inspires her designs.
“I’m from the Caribbean. We have a [bright] sun, we like bright colors… I like to create striking pieces. I want you to love your bag, your earrings, whatever.”
“I was convinced I had something”
For Beko Mbeko-Edem, who was also at SWOBEN’s December 5 launch event in Hamilton, the inspiration for his Beko Foods Inc. hot sauce business also comes from family, growing up fascinated by cooking.
At the age of four, Mbeko-Edem was already helping in the kitchen making brownies.
But it wasn’t until he visited Nigeria as a child that he was truly impressed by the process of bringing food “from farm to table.”
Mbeko-Edem graduated from Humber College in 2010 and decided that she wanted to start a business.
“There was no representation of African food at a significant level or on a large scale. It was not sought after in a way that was [accessible] for the public.”
He said he tried a couple of different things, but in 2017, his third business attempt was successful.
“One day I decided to make a pepper sauce. I didn’t really sell anything, because it was too hot.
“But I was convinced that I had something and I decided to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to put this flavor out there.'”
His hot sauces are now sold at various locations in the Hamilton and Toronto areas, including the Taste of Lagos Nigerian restaurant, and through his own website.
A network for black entrepreneurs
SWOBEN’s launch event also served as a pop-up market.
“Our focus is to see how we can empower black entrepreneurs to succeed in their field of business and become the very best,” said Henry Elui, a manager at Empowerment Squared, which leads the network.
The network was funded through a $1.9 million investment from the federal government to Empowerment Squared.
“I really hope that as many employers as possible can access the programs that they’re going to offer,” Warner-Richard said.
He added that, in his case, making the bags is only half the business.
“You still need to learn the skills to do your accounting and bookkeeping, to do your taxes or contracts. So I’m looking forward to the courses that [SWOBEN] they will be offering, and the help they will be providing to entrepreneurs”.
Elui said programs like SWOBEN help black entrepreneurship, which is very “unique.”
“Entrepreneurship is a very lonely job, and the right advice doesn’t mean you can excel.
“So that’s what we want to achieve with this…our strategy is to work with different partners and advisors who are consciously working with these companies to accelerate their goals.”
Leo Nupolu Johnson, chief executive of Empowerment Squared, said he hopes events like the one on December 5 “are not unique.”
“I hope we can take this opportunity to sustain it so that even after the life of this program, the effort is not over.”
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 that black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.