New network for Black business owners aims to make entrepreneurship a little less ‘lonely’

Before even starting her business, Cherie Warner-Richard says she had the “entrepreneurial bug.”

Growing up around his entrepreneur grandmother and his “tricky” mother inspired him to become who he is today.

“I feel like they laid the foundation for me to be brave enough to take on this challenge,” said Warner-RIchard, who owns Cee Wee Designs, a bag and accessories store.

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Cee Wee Designs is among the businesses launching the new Southwestern Ontario Black Entrepreneurship Network (SWOBEN), which aims to serve as a “dynamic resource for Black business owners, entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders” in the greater Hamilton and Windsor area, according to them website.

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From the island of Tobago to Hamilton

Warner-Richard says his business started back on the island of Tobago about 10 years ago, when he made a bag for himself.

“People see it and they ask me, ‘I like your bag. Where did you get it?’ I said, ‘Oh, I did.'”

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He said when people started asking if they could buy one from him, he was confused, but then he thought, “You want me to make one and you’re going to pay me for it?”

As more people asked, Warner-Richard began to realize it might not be such a crazy idea.

Two women standing and smiling at the camera.
Warner-Richard, pictured with a friend at the SWOBEN launch, takes her design inspiration for her bags and accessories from the ‘sun and bright colors’ of her Caribbean home. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

He started moving back and forth from Trinidad and Tobago to Canada eight years ago when he got married, and eventually stayed in Hamilton.

Now, she sells her bags and accessories to him website.

He says his home inspires his designs.

“I’m from the Caribbean. We have a [bright] day, we like bright colors … I like to make statement pieces. I want you to love your bag, your earrings, whatever it is.”

‘I’m convinced I have something’

For Beko Mbeko-Edem, who was also at the SWOBEN launch event last December 5 in Hamilton, the inspiration for her hot-sauce business Beko Foods Inc. also comes from family, as he grew up fascinated with cooking.

At the age of four, Mbeko-Edem was already helping out in the kitchen making brownies.

But it wasn’t until he visited Nigeria as a child that he was truly blown away by the process of bringing food “from farm to table.”

A child sitting at a table, licking a spoon with chocolate cake in front of him.
From the age of four, and even then, Beko Mbeko-Edem, who now runs a hot-sauce business, showed an interest in food, and would help her mother make brownies. (Transmitted by Beko Mbeko-Edem)

Mbeko-Edem graduated from Humber College in 2010 and decided she wanted to start a business.

“There was no representation of African food on a basic level, or basic scale. It was not sought after in a way [accessible] in public.”

He said he tried a few different things, but in 2017, his third business attempt was successful.

A man posing behind a table full of his hot sauce and chips.
Mbeko-Edem says she knew she was ‘on to something’ when she tried to create the perfect hot sauce, after her first one didn’t sell well because it was ‘too hot.’ (Transmitted by Beko Mbeko-Edem)

“One day I decided to make pepper sauce. I didn’t really sell anything, because it was so hot.

“But I was convinced I had something and just decided to say, ‘You know what – I’m gonna get this flavor out there.'”

His hot sauces are now sold at several locations throughout the Hamilton and Toronto area, including the Nigerian restaurant Taste of Lagos, 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 to be the best,” said Henry Elui, manager at Empowerment Squared, which leads the network.

The network is funded through a $1.9-million investment from the federal government to Empowerment Squared.

“I really hope that as many entrepreneurs as possible can access the programs that they have to offer,” Warner-Richard said.

He added that, in his case, making 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 really looking forward to the courses that [SWOBEN] will offer, and the help they will give to entrepreneurs.”

A man, speaking into a microphone.
Leo Nupolu Johnson, who was presented at SWOBEN’s launch, said he hopes efforts like the network will continue to help entrepreneurs. (Cara Nickerson/CBC)

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 be great.

“So that’s what we want to achieve here … our approach is to work with a variety of partners and advisors who are consciously working with these businesses to accelerate their goals.”

Leo Nupolu Johnson, executive director of Empowerment Squared, said he hopes events like Dec. 5 are “not a one-off.”

“I’m hoping that we can leverage this opportunity to sustain it so that even after the lifespan of this program, the effort does not end.”

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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