Hamilton charity teams up with FedDev Ontario to start Black business network

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Published August 16, 2022 at 12:30 pm

Leo Nupolu Johnson of Empowerment Squared Inc. in Hamilton. (YouTube)

Empowerment Squared Inc., a downtown Hamilton-headquartered not-for-profit, is forming a $1.9-million partnership with the federal government to start a Black business network that will span southwestern Ontario.

Empowerment Squared executive director Leo Nupolu Johnson, FedDev Ontario Minister Helena Jaczek, Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi (who is the Liberal member of Parliament for Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas) made the announcement at a media conference in Hamilton today (Aug. 16). The partnership with FedDev Ontario (short for Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario) stretches to the Michigan border, with WE-Tech Alliance serving as the point group in the Windsor area.


On the Hamilton end, Empowerment Squared will be a leader of what is being dubbed the Southwestern Ontario Black Business Network. Through what is known as “ecosystems funding,” it will be aiming to support more than 200 Black entrepreneurs and 75 Black-led businesses in the city, which will lead to 80 new jobs.

The charitable organization, which Nupolu Johnson started in the late aughts after coming to Canada as an unaccompanied 16-year-old refugee from a civil war in Liberia, aims to support newcomer, racialized, and marginalized communities in Canada through mentorship and programs that increase access to to post-secondary education.

“With the work that we do, there are two sides to every challenge we face — the fighting side, and the building side,” Nupolu Johnson said at a media conference streamed live by CHCH-TV. “We stand up on the fighting side, against injustice. We are proud to partner with the Canadian government to draw some energy to the building side, which has been neglected for far too along. As I always tell our team, there is nothing wrong with making profit in our sector. It goes back to our community, it stays in our community, and deals with 400 years of deficit

“The work has just begun, with FedDev Canada, with education, with gaining experience,” he added. “We plant this seed today with the aim of making maximum profit to be re-invested in our community.”

Recruiting entrepreneurs and hearing proposals will start next month, Nupolu Johnson added. As far as the federal funding, FedDev Ontario will cover expenses that Empowerment Squared takes on while starting the program.

“FedDev watches really closely the results we get,” said Jaczek, who is the Liberal MP for Markham—Stouffville. “Leo has a great deal of experience and we have a feeling he is going to exceed his targets. It’s an ongoing type of analysis of results where FedDev covers expenses. We are not just handing out money left, right and centre.”

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all sectors of businesses were affected by shutdowns of personal services and indoor capacity restrictions (before vaccines were available), Ashleigh Montague and her sisters started BLK-OWNED HAMONT to highlight businesses in the city. Montague said Tuesday that there are challenges and long-term goals that are unique to Black entrepreneurship in Southern Ontario.

“When my sisters (Alexandria and Abygail Montague) and I started, we felt there were no services that showcased Black entrepreneurship west of the GTA (Greater Toronto Area),” Ashleigh Montague said at the media conference. “We’ve surveyed Black businesses, hearing directly from 105, in order understand the gaps that Black entrepreneurs are facing. On average, it’s a younger group: 43.8 per cent are 30 to 45 years old, while the second-largest group are 17 to 29.

“Only 30 per cent of those who are starting had annual revenue above $10,000,” Montague added. “But 80 per cent said a motivation was that they wanted to leave a legacy for their family …This ecoystems grant (fromn FedDev Ontario) is a big start toward building a Black business hub in this region.”

FedDev Ontario was created in 2009, under then-prime minister Stephen Harper, to support competitiveness, innovation and diversification of the economy in Southern Ontario, the most populous region in Canada. Jaczek is the agency’s first dedicated cabinet minister.

Area MPs Lisa Hepfner (Hamilton Mountain, Liberal) and Dan Muys (Flamborough—Glanbrook, Conservative)  attended the event on Tuesday. Hamilton Centre MP Matthew Green, a New Democrat, was a charter member of the board of Empowerment Squared.

Chad Collins (Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, Liberal) was unable to attend after his children tested positive for COVID-19.

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