Transcript – Episode 53: Excellence and successes of Black-owned Canadian businesses
Welcome to the GAC Files, a podcast about the people, issues and ideas driving Global Affairs Canada.
And now, introducing your host, Global Affairs Canada's David Morrison.
David Morrison: Hi, everyone. It's David Morrison. I'm happy to be back to host this episode of the GAC Files podcast. Thanks for tuning in to this first episode of 2022, that will shed light on the excellence and successes of Canadian Black-owned businesses.
We're at the beginning of Black History Month, and today, we are chatting with 2 CEOs and business founders, as well as Sara Wilshaw, our Chief Trade Commissioner. Our guests will share with us their stories of what makes businesses able to expand into new markets and the support that was provided to their businesses by the Trade Commissioner Service.
International trade offers Canadian businesses an important opportunity to prosper and expand. And many Canadian entrepreneurs may need guidance in accessing new foreign markets.
Canada's Chief Trade Commissioner and her team of more than 1,400 business experts in over 160 offices abroad and in Canada have been providing this much-needed support for many years.
In honour of Black History Month, we are using this episode to highlight the excellence and success of Black-owned Canadian businesses and to hear about their experiences and how the services of the trade commissioners have helped them grow their businesses.
I have with me 2 guests in addition to Sara: Karima-Catherine Goundiam, CEO of Red Dot Digital and B2BeeMatch, and Diemo Honore, President of Kamit Group Ltd., where he is also the Vice-President of Engineering. Thank you for participating in this conversation with me today.
I look forward to hearing about your unique experiences.
So, I'll first go to Diemo, who is, this morning, in Nairobi, Kenya. I think he's normally based in Calgary.
Diemo, I'd like to know more about the major challenges in your journey as a Black Canadian entrepreneur and exporter right now. How has the Government of Canada helped your business overcome the challenges?
Diemo Honore: Thank you, David. I think the Government of Canada has been a key element, if not more important. This government had to through the trade commissioners ... allowed us to have the market intelligence, also allowed us to connect with the local trade commissioners.
For example, in Kenya, we are in contact with the trade commissioners in Kenya, in contact with the trade commissioners in Ethiopia. This was really the bridge that the company needed to be able to export its services.
But the challenge that we had personally as a company—there you have it, you always have this little problem when you are perhaps in the minority—is that there is not really the networking that normally other people should have. We don't have it very often.
So sometimes you have to pay for certain services that you could offer yourself. So sometimes it's extremely expensive for companies that are owned by minorities or by Blacks, if you will. That's one of the realities that we have.
That makes it extremely expensive to operate a company because you have to build everything from zero whereas maybe parents or uncles or other people could have built it in the past. So it gets a little difficult, but there you have it. To talk specifically about export, I think the Canadian government has done a tremendous job in that sense.
David Morrison: Great. And what is.... Can you tell us a little bit about your trajectory as an entrepreneur? Normally, I think you're in Calgary, today in Nairobi. Was your business international from the first day or what?
Diemo Honore: Yes. I started my first company.... I was 19 when I started my first company. After 3 years, I just closed the company to go back to university and finish my engineering studies.
And I took over the company a little bit 10 years ago because I always had the impression from my personal experience that Canada is way ahead of developing countries, that it has a lot to transfer to the other side.
So we really built another business model by saying "4, 3, 5 years after the creation of the company, we should be able to export our services." So that was really part of our business plan from the very beginning.
David Morrison: Okay, great. I would now like to listen to the trajectory, the story of Karima-Catherine, who goes by KC. KC, maybe you can similarly tell us a little bit about your business, how you got started and how you've now ended up in the international space.
Karima-Catherine Goundiam: Right, thank you, David. "Visible minority" is a very interesting term because in business, I do believe that Black business owners are largely invisible or felt to be, or made to feel, invisible. And this is a little bit of a story of extreme in the spectrums. I'm a tech entrepreneur and I've been in tech for over 20 years.
The other part is I have been in Canada for about 22 years. And I absolutely have to say that not only do I adore being a Canadian entrepreneur, but also, I am absolutely a fan of what Global Affairs is doing, absolutely a fan. It's been instrumental in my own business. So, very quickly, I am the CEO of Red Dot Digital, which is a consulting firm, a digital transformation consulting firm.
From day 1, we've been international. We've had business clients in France, in the U.K., in South Africa, in the U.S., and sometimes, our portfolio was way larger outside of Canada than it was within Canada. So I spent a lot of time travelling in different countries. You know, that is part of running a service business, an international one.
I spent a lot of time also getting involved in different business associations, networking, you know, chamber of commerce, meeting people. The sales cycle for selling services is long by itself, but when you add that it's a small business, it's even longer. So one specific trip was significant for me.
In 2019, which I think was cumulative of all my experience, and I was really told quite frankly that because my business was small and because it was a service business selling intangibles, I could not be supported. So when I came back, I literally transmuted that whole frustration and built what would be my second business, which is matchmaking, an algorithm-based matchmaking platform designed specifically, but not only, for small and medium businesses around the world to connect with each other to find partners, to find leads, even funding.
We're adding more to this ecosystem. It's a bit like a dating service, but for companies. And we launched 3 weeks before COVID. We're now present in over 45 countries with huge representation in the U.S., U.K., U.A.E. and other countries.
So how has the TC [Trade Commissioner] Service been instrumental? In many different ways.
Diversity and inclusion is a concept that's baked in the TC Service. They understand that. Support is undeniable. I mean … but what has made a difference for me is one trade mission I was part of in January 2020. This is when I actually saw the full power of what the TC [Service] could do. It was originally a mission for French-speaking women businesses.
I was alerted to that mission by one of my … I'm going to say angels, because I did not know this was something I could be part of. And that trade mission opened the doors for me to what is now one of my largest partners internationally, which is the International Chamber of Commerce.
And Sara, who is here, I invited her to speak at the partnership launch back in April because it made no sense to me that we launched this partnership and there was nobody from the government present to represent … to be there, almost like, you know, to sponsor and champion that partnership. I hope that answered the question.
David Morrison: It sure does. I'll have Sara respond in a minute, but also, Sara, can you tell me more about the involvement of trade commissioners in helping visible-minority-owned businesses? Also, are we seeing an increase in the number of visible-minority-owned businesses globally?
Sara Wilshaw: Well, Deputy, thanks very much for the question. You and I talk a lot about the need for trade diversification. We also talk about more-inclusive trade. For the Trade Commissioner Service, these things go hand in hand.
Diversification for us is about so much more than where businesses export. It's really about diversifying what we're exporting, how we're exporting—and KC is a big part of that too when you think about how she helps exporters to connect—and really, importantly, who is exporting.
We have been listening and we have learned there are absolutely additional barriers for certain groups to overcome. And think about their access to financing, networks, mentors like Diemo mentioned, just to name a few. So as part of our inclusive approach, we're trying to take steps to deliver services that are really tailored to the needs of Black-, visible minority- and Indigenous-owned businesses with the goal of helping to increase the propensity of these businesses to export.
And one of the ways we've done that is to establish champions all across the country who provide concierge-level services in our regional offices.
In addition, participation in events, targeted trade missions and business delegations has also been a key component of TC [trade commissioner] initiatives to support inclusive trade groups.
Although COVID-19 has disrupted the ability of entrepreneurs to travel, and even though Diemo is in Nigeria today, we continue to provide business-to-business opportunities through virtual means.
That's kind of a little bit of the outward-facing posture. But it's also important to mention that inside the TCS [Trade Commissioner Service] we are very committed to the principles of anti-racism.
And we know that representation matters.
And I think also about our local sales representatives who are very, very, very important in our function, in our service. They are key elements.
We're really conscious that that representation is there. We know we can, we know we must do better. We're doing the work that we need to to get there, I think.
David Morrison: Thank you, Sara. I want to ask the same question, I think, to both of our guests. I'm very struck by what KC said about the notion of visible minorities actually feeling invisible. I wonder, in the business world at least, and I wonder how.… I'd like Diemo's comment on that, but in terms of the services that Sara just described, what can the CTS [Chief Trade Commissioner] and other government agencies do to better support the journey of Black Canadian entrepreneurs? Diemo?
Diemo Honore: You know, it's very hard, honestly, to export our services overseas. It's very expensive, very expensive. So when you are in Canada, you have a challenge, you know. Being a Black entrepreneur, you have a challenge. When you go overseas, you have another challenge being Black overseas even if you are.… Let's say, myself, I'm in Kenya at the moment, in Nairobi, but they still see me as a foreigner.
And then people are also confused, asking, okay, you are an entrepreneur. You know, they still have that sense of, okay, what's all this about? You're from Canada, but…. Anyway, we have some sort of challenge both ways. The only way an entrepreneur can overcome this, from my point of view, is really to have access to that financial support.
We can talk about all the theory, but at the end of the day, if you cannot finance any plan you have…. You know, it took our company 2 years, or even 3, to penetrate the market. So we have to be here all the time. As my colleague entrepreneur said recently, when you are small, they tend to, you know, a trade commissioner, which is absolutely maybe normal, I'm not sure if you put it that way, but they have to look into the overall performance when it comes to the return on investment for the government.
So they may tend to chase the bigger guys, but when you are small, I understand they would want to help you, but there is also that sense of, okay, what's the overall goal for the government? You want to make sure that you have a bigger return. But you are a small entrepreneur. You are a Black entrepreneur. You don't have enough money. You don't have enough network. There are so many barriers.
And then you go to the bank. Sometimes they ask for collateral. They ask for history of [inaudible] the family, so many things going around. You just wonder, okay, how can I go about this, you know? And then, really, my opinion, the real way of helping an entrepreneur is to give him access to the funds. Give him access to the financing.
I applied, we applied to the Export Canada program to support ... and we've been rejected twice. Then you go to EDC [Export Development Canada], EDC brings you back to the bank, and the bank brings you back to "You don't have enough collateral." You go back to the same point. If you cannot finance exporting your services, there's no way you can make it, as much as people want to help you.
The trade commissioners will give you all the tenders. They will invite you to all the seminars. They will invite you to all these events, but someone has to pay for it. Then, when you don't have the money, you can't go anywhere. So it's not a matter of willing. You really have to understand that cash, in any business, is key. And as a Black entrepreneur, if you don't have access to that cash, you can't go anywhere.
So, you know, we had a plan to move to expand our services.That was about 4 years ago. We couldn't afford it. So we have been fortunate due to COVID, I don't know, for some reason our company grew. We were able to raise enough capital to expand our business. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here today.
Really, the major challenge I'm seeing is not about supporting. I would say, Black entrepreneurs, when we decide to get into business, we are very resilient just by going through all the challenges we went through in university and so on. We already built that resilience. The problem is not there. It's not about developing that resilience. We already have it. We need the tools.
The only tool we can see at the moment is really to have a specific program. They even set up a program recently saying they want to give some funds, you know, to Black entrepreneurs, but those funds are mostly for start-ups. When you look at a company our size, you know, $250,000 won't make a big difference at this point in our business. So we really need to have access to capital in any way. We just have to have a program, a real program, put forward either through EDC or through Export Canada, to have some sort of specific items. If you're a Black entrepreneur, you have some preference, I would say. So that would be my opinion, to be honest.
The trade commissioners, they have done.… Honestly, I would say I am grateful. The trade commissioners, they have been great with our company all the time you go, you need them. But at the same time, they can give you all the tools, but if you don't have the money, well, you can't go anywhere.
David Morrison: Thank you. So no lack of will, no lack of resilience, but some structural barriers, including access to capital and some very interesting commentary on size. And I'm not certain our Minister of International Trade, who is also Minister of Small Business.… She would certainly take note of what you just said.
KC, do you agree with that analysis?
Karima-Catherine Goundiam: The runaround that Diemo is talking about is heartbreaking, because I live it every single day. What kind of put me in a slightly different category is I went from selling services to building a tech business, which seems to make a difference in this world. But I've had very interesting conversations with EDC and the other ones where I ended up saying I'm done with your mentorship and, you know, the coaching. I don't need that. I need funds. I need money. And I'm not doing it for free.
So the other thing is intersectionality is very real. I'll speak for women. I'll speak for Black women. I'll speak for French Black women. I'll speak for different slices of what I represent. We need representation. And I would agree with Diemo that as much as the TC Service has been amazing from a support and listening side, we need capital to export. It costs money. Sometimes it costs money and the return is not going to happen in 1 year: it's going to take 2, 3, 4, 5 years to be able to establish your presence.
The other thing is there seems to be a perception that you land in a country and that's it. People are going to open the door for you and you're going to sign a contract. Absolutely not. Even in countries like the U.K., which have a very, very similar culture to Canada's, they're not as welcoming as, you know, we would like them to be. It took me 3 years to establish meaningful relationships that have provided a return.
And also, yes, there's an overall…. TCs [trade commissioners] have to go with, you know, the big fishes because that's probably where the return on investment is going to happen. Therefore, smaller businesses are not really regarded as priorities. And it does take resilience. It takes us [having] to be louder, you know, just to get attention, and it's a lot of effort when you also have to run businesses, right?
I think one thing that I would say, just to complement what Diemo covered in his part, is we need to have 2 things that are very specific. One is sponsorship and opening doors for us. Opening a door for me was transformational in my business because I came with the flag of Canada and the embassy and the high commission there.
So all the objections or "Is she for real?" or "Is she going to scam us?" or whatever, that was done because I came with credibility. And the other thing that is important is we need to also—and that's bigger than the TC Service—we need to think about providing transformational contracts for Black-owned businesses. Not everybody is going to be handed out loans and grants. We also want to be part of the supply chain. And that's a bigger conversation.
David Morrison: Thank you very much.
Sara, some good words of support and praise for the Trade Commissioner Service, but also some very candid words about the structural barriers that remain. So I'll throw it to you for the final word and wrap-up.
Sara Wilshaw: Thanks, David, and thanks, of course, to KC and Diemo as well.
I think Diemo and KC described very clearly the challenges they faced along their career paths.
We've heard this, and we're hearing this regularly: unique barriers, certainly the access to capital, large contracts, buyers, talent, networks, mentorship and so on, as well as this sort of different cost-benefit equation between entrepreneurship and unpaid care for Black women, social-psychological issues. There's a lot there to unpack for sure.
One of the things that we're trying to do now is work across the portfolio partners, so all of those folks that were mentioned: EDC, Export Development Canada; CCC [Canadian Commercial Corporation]; Business Development Canada, BDC; ISED [Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada]. It's a bit of alphabet soup, but it's all the players in this space who are part of what we call the Business, Economic and Trade Recovery team, or BETR. And we're trying to follow the journey and make sure those gaps are reduced and that the journey is as smooth as possible for our entrepreneurs.
So that's definitely one way in which we're trying to get to these things that we're hearing about and try to solve those problems. Let me also just say for our listeners, if you have not worked with the Trade Commissioner Service, please, please go to tradecommissioner.gc.ca and click "Contact a trade commissioner." Come and find us and we will do all we can to help. But there's certainly a lot to think about here and much more that we can be doing. So we're going to continue to work on that.
David Morrison: Thanks, Sara. Thanks, KC. Thanks, Diemo. Until next time, listeners, thanks very much. Bye.
Thank you for listening. And we look forward to you joining us for future episodes of the GAC Files.
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