In 1837, Thornton Blackburn, an escaped slave, launched Toronto’s first taxi company, and turned The City into a thriving enterprise that generated a small fortune for Blackburn and his wife Lucie — and yet somehow has been forgotten to history.

More than 180 years later, most Canadians would be pressed to cite the Blackburns or name a single black entrepreneur. Even though 1.2 million Canadians identify as black, representing 3.5% of the population, a Black in Canada survey found only 2,000 black-owned businesses of significant scale. (It’s not just a Canadian problem. In 2018, a U.S. study found just 1% of venture-backed founders were black.)

For Black History Month, RBC Disruptors talked to two entrepreneurs who are trying to do something about it. In 2018, Isaac Olowalafe Jr., a Toronto real estate investor, and Abdullah Snobar, executive director of Ryerson University’s DMZ start-up zone, launched the $1-million Black Innovation Fellowship to provide entrepreneurs with access to networks, seed capital and business partners like Shopify. Snobar stressed one word: “access.” According to the Black in Canada survey, black entrepreneurs say their biggest challenges are marketing (51%), networking and learning opportunities (51%) and finance (48%). Olowalafe says the tech sector is perhaps the best opportunity, given its rapid growth and concentration in cities like Toronto. “Ryerson is known for tech and diversity,” he told us. “How do we bring the two together?”

The opportunity for the country is enormous. While close to a quarter of Canadians identify as visible minorities, only one in eight small and medium-sized businesses is owned by one. Across every sector, role models are key. As Lola Adeyemi, a Nigerian-born, Toronto-based food entrepreneur, found, “One of the struggles when I started the business was having somebody who looked like me, has been through the same struggles as an immigrant like me.”

 

As Senior Vice-President, Office of the CEO, John advises the executive leadership on emerging trends in Canada’s economy, providing insights grounded in his travels across the country and around the world. His work focuses on technological change and innovation, examining how to successfully navigate the new economy so more people can thrive in the age of disruption. Prior to joining RBC, John spent nearly 25 years at the Globe and Mail, where he served as editor-in-chief, editor of Report on Business, and a foreign correspondent in New Delhi, India. He is the author of three books and has a fourth underway.

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