The Torontonian creator of a website and social media account spotlighting local Black-owned businesses is taking her initiative across the country with the launch of an expanded online store and a national database she hopes will soon have hundreds of listings.
Black Owned Canada debuted this week and its founder, Kerin John, is calling on business owners across the country to sign up to be featured.
“It’s going to be a great way for people to actually search for businesses instead of just scrolling through my Instagram page all day,” said John.
She hopes the 65,000 followers she has on her original Black Owned Toronto Instagram page also check out her new platform.
“Wherever you are in Canada, you’ll be able to go on the website and find what’s around you that’s Black-owned,” said John.
As part of Black Owned Toronto, John also operated an online store hosting about 20 companies at a time. For Black Owned Canada, she hopes to double her capacity.
John expects to have as many as 1,000 companies listed by the end of the year, sorted by city with descriptions, contact information and the option for shoppers to post reviews.
“People want to see feedback for every business,” said John.
It costs business owners $50 to join Black Owned Canada. John said the money will go towards website fees, packing materials for the online store, and future in-person events to showcase Black-owned businesses.
The owner of Royaltea Coffee in Scarborough, Ont., Edil Hassan Mohamed, is listing her business on the new site, after being featured on John’s original Instagram account twice over the past year, as well as on her local online store.
Mohamed identifies as a Black business owner. She sources her coffee beans from Africa, but hadn’t marketed Royaltea Coffee as a Black-owned business.
However, she said being featured on John’s Instagram and website was “very positive,” as it led more people to her social media and drove up sales.
“Joining forces and working together, it helps,” said Mohamed.
John founded Black Owned Toronto in May 2020 as part of a personal commitment to buy from more Black-owned businesses, but she said finding them was a challenge.
Even more people went searching for Black-owned businesses to support after the death of an American Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in late May. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement followed, and people from all backgrounds looked for ways to show support for the Black community.
John’s Instagram account of curated companies became a resource for many.
“The page exploded and grew tremendously,” said John.
Google trends show global searches for ‘Black-owned’ jumped in late May to June of last year. It has fallen since then, but has remained at a higher level than during the 10 years prior.
ByBlacks.com, an online magazine and Black business directory with more than 3,000 listing, said companies reached out to buy ad space to advertise jobs.
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“People are now more intentional to try everything they can to get these opportunities in front of Black Canadian audiences,” said Camille Dundas, co-founder and editor-in-chief of ByBlacks.com.
ByBlacks.com gets, on average, roughly 17,000 unique visitors per month.
The founder of AfroBiz.ca said their site got more exposure through the media, and many of the 4,000 businesses it lists reached out to say thank you — particularly those hard-hit by COVID-19 shutdowns.
“We started to be invaded by messages of appreciation for the work that we do. Many business owners were thankful saying that they were able to keep their businesses open and get clients just because the clients found them on AfroBiz.ca,” said Willy Mahailet, the founder of AfroBiz.ca and AfroBizWorld.com.
AfroBiz.ca was founded in 2017 as a Toronto-based website, but has since grown to include 68 Canadian cities. It has also expanded beyond a directory to include digital and business services, such as custom websites.
The challenge now is how to ensure the recent jump in interest in supporting Black-owned businesses is sustainable.
The idea of buying Black, and Black-owned business directories, have been around for decades.
“I remember when I was in high school there were Black directories, so this is actually bringing back something that seemed to just like fizzle out in the 2000s,” said Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University whose work focuses on race and stereotypes in the media, as well as cultural politics.
While business directories can be good resources, the challenge historically has been getting people to know they exist, she said.
“A Black directory still leaves it on the individual to have the desire to go and find those things,” said Thompson.
But Black Owned Canada’s online store may help some small businesses overcome the financial barriers to offering e-commerce themselves.
“You really need capital to create an online store. It doesn’t just happen. It’s very costly,” said Thompson.
Ultimately, she said, growing Black-owned businesses to help achieve greater wealth in the Black community will take even more of a group effort.
“You’re stronger together than you are as an individual,” she said. “We have to realize in the 21st century, if there’s going to be any progress for [the] Black community, we have to do that together. We have to be a collective.”
John hopes her new website will play a part.
“We do not have as many dollars circulating in our community, in our businesses. So this is going to be an easy way to help uplift the Black community, especially during Black History Month,” said John.
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.