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.”

 

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. His latest book is Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future, which explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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