Black Lives Matter 'awoke many folks,' says Black business organization as it marks 25 years

·2 min read
Rustum Southwell is the interim CEO of the Black Business Initiative (BBI) in Nova Scotia. (Haley Ryan/CBC - image credit)
Rustum Southwell is the interim CEO of the Black Business Initiative (BBI) in Nova Scotia. (Haley Ryan/CBC - image credit)

The COVID-19 pandemic has created major challenges for businesses across the globe, but the head of Nova Scotia's Black Business Initiative (BBI) said there has also been positive change.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and Canada was unlike anything Rustum Southwell had seen in his time with the Halifax-based business development organization, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

"There was a strange set of circumstances that caused people to be at home for COVID, looking at TV and so on, to see ... the brutality that was happening in the U.S. And that awoke many folks who wanted to help," said Southwell, who has been with BBI since it launched in 1996 and serves as interim CEO.

Suddenly, in the middle of a pandemic, BBI was swamped with calls from people looking to support Black businesses, or companies looking for advice on how to become more inclusive.

Celebrating 25 years is a significant achievement, said Southwell. BBI's original goal of making sure Black entrepreneurs are supported in life, as well as in business, remains just as vital today.

The organization receives funding from the federal and provincial governments to deliver a huge range of training, grants, mentorship and other programs.

BBI also works with businesses and services to set up an online presence, often for the first time. Helping people move into the digital age ensures they will also be around for decades to come.

Tiffani Young
Tiffani Young

"The systemic challenges of racism and marginalization on top of that makes it a little bit more difficult for Black-owned companies to be hugely successful — but we've sustained. There's a lot of companies that have done well," Southwell said.

Tiffani Young received help from BBI when she started her natural cosmetics company, Butter Bar, last year.

Young said BBI has had a huge impact on her business, covering the cost of a pop-up kiosk at the Halifax Shopping Centre, connecting her with fellow entrepreneurs and helping her navigate the loan process.

She said BBI is vital because the Black experience is unique, and the organization understands the challenges she might face.

"It's not just about the business ... but also, you know, helping you to build your image, helping you to navigate a world that you may not always see a reflection of yourself in," Young said.

"It's nice to have that support system."

BBI's website notes it is the longest-serving Black business development initiative in Canada.

Its 25th anniversary will be marked by a sold-out gala dinner and awards event Friday evening at a Halifax hotel. The event will also be live streamed.

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 Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.



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