Kerin John had a realization.
Last May, she noticed that while she was looking for ways to support Black-owned businesses in her community, she wasn’t the only one trying to fill this need. So, she decided to do something about it.
At just 24, the Toronto-based graphic designer found inspiration via her own search and launched an Instagram account, Black Owned Toronto. It soon went viral. In the months that followed, thanks to some web-hosting donations from GoDaddy, she turned it into a searchable online directory. More than just a website, John’s given Black small business owners an invaluable platform, helping them share their products and services with their community. And while at it, she’s made it easier for Canadians to be more conscious of where they spend their money.
Now, John’s in the midst of expanding her efforts. Last month, she debuted Black Owned Canada, calling on entrepreneurs across the nation to sign up and get their shine on. She’s also created a business hub in downtown Toronto to give local business owners the tools they need to be successful. In May, she’ll also be opening a physical retail space at the Scarborough Town Centre, featuring products created by local business owners in the GTA and across Canada.
We sat down with John for a chat about her journey as the CEO of her own company, the launch of Black Owned Canada, and how we can support the community. We also caught up with three female business owners highlighted on her platform.
What inspired you to start this platform?
When 2020 started, my New Year’s resolution was to start supporting more Black-owned businesses. I was trying to find these businesses and I was having a very hard time because there’s not a lot of things that are local to Toronto. There’s a lot of U.S.-based platforms, but there’s nothing that’s really Canadian or that was local to me.
So I created an Instagram page around May, and then the Black Lives Matter movement exploded after the death of George Floyd. With that, people were trying to find ways to support Black-owned businesses, the Black community, and allies to the Black community. My page grew very, very quickly in a short amount of time. I got like 20,000 followers in a day. Since then, it’s just been growing steadily.
I just saw a need. It was kind of just for myself to discover more Black-owned businesses. And as I discovered them, sharing them with other people was the goal. I met so many amazing people along the way and I definitely think the connections I made with these business owners continue to push me to keep it going because it’s not always easy running a social media platform. I know a lot of people think it’s fun, but it’s a lot;it’s very time-consuming. You never get a break, you never sleep, but it’s been very rewarding. So, I definitely enjoy everything that I do.
Were you surprised by the amount of attention it got so quickly?
Definitely. I wasn’t expecting it. I never had a big social media platform before, so it was pretty shocking to watch the numbers go up so quickly.
What is it like being the CEO of your own company as a young Black woman?
It’s hard. It’s pretty hard. I do a lot of different things. When I first started, it was just social media but GoDaddy actually reached out to me close to the time that I created the Instagram page and they partnered with me to help give 25 business owners a free website. It was really cool. Since then, I’ve been using GoDaddy to build my business. I have an online store with them, which has been really successful and then my directory that I built was also purchased through GoDaddy.
I also have a photography studio because like I said, I’m a very visual person. I’m a graphic designer, so I know that images are another very important thing to creating your business. I do quite a few different things with the business now that it’s grown to where it is and it has been difficult. I feel like the biggest challenge being a Black woman who’s also very young, because I’m only 24, is that people don’t really take you seriously. A lot of times, especially when I was looking for a physical space for my photography studio, because I’m so young and I’m a brand new business and also my business plan was very Black-centered and a lot of leasing agents are not Black, they probably just didn’t understand the concept. So I feel like that’s definitely been my biggest challenge being a young Black woman starting a business.
“We have to make those conscious decisions to support small businesses because when you’re doing it, you’re supporting a small family—you’re helping children go to college.”
What are some of the challenges that Black business owners can face?
It’s just been historically a lot. Being denied loans is a big one because we don’t have that same generational wealth and there has been a lot of red lining. We’ve been denied homes for a long time up until today. We have a hard time finding housing because of racism and it’s no different in the commercial industry too. So, finding commercial leases is very, very difficult when you’re a Black business owner because you do face this sort of discrimination. We don’t get loans as quickly. We often don’t have as high credit scores because don’t have that general generational wealth and we don’t have those business backgrounds, and we don’t have that mentorship. It’s a lot harder for us to start these businesses because we just never had the resources to begin with.
In a time where so many people are obsessed with shopping, why do you think it’s important to be conscious of where you spend your money?
It’s important because throughout COVID, the biggest hurdle has been small business owners getting the short end of the stick while big box stores remain open. It’s been very unfair to small business owners. On top of that, if you’re Black, it was challenging from the beginning. COVID is now another layer of challenge that we have to face. I feel like there’s just so much wealth in this world and it can definitely be spread more easily. We have to make those conscious decisions to support small businesses because when you’re doing it, you’re supporting a small family—you’re helping children go to college.
It’s just different type of businesses that you’re supporting. Whereas big box stores already have all the resources and the money that they need. [They] can offer free shipping and they can offer just so much more and we often gravitate towards that because it’s fast, convenient and easy. When you support a small business, we don’t want to wait for the shipping; we don’t want to pay for the shipping. It’s harder and it’s often more expensive because these small business owners are paying for their supplies on their own, sourcing the ingredients on their own, making things by hand, but at the end of the day, it’s definitely worth it.
Small business owners put a lot into their businesses, whether they have a storefront or not. When you receive a package from a small business owner, they often write thank you notes and they just pack it so neatly. You can tell people put their heart and their soul into these businesses. I know with COVID, a lot of people took the time to actually focus on starting their own businesses. So, there’s been a lot of new businesses popping up. I just think it’s important that we each just support them.
Can you tell me more about the business hub and the tools it offers for Black-owned businesses?
So the business hub, I originally created it as a multi-purpose space. It wasn’t only supposed to be a photography studio, it was supposed to be a meeting space that [people] can rent out for meetings or study groups or even if they want to have a small pop-up. But because of COVID, I had to just focus it on one thing, so I focused on it being a photography studio. My boyfriend’s a photographer and like I said, images are just so important to me. It makes such a huge difference to people’s businesses. People local to Toronto can book the studio for whatever they want. Any photographers, any filmmakers, can rent out the space, use it for whatever purposes they have. We’ve made our [studio] very affordable and we have our in-house photographer. He offers more business-related services, like product pictures, commercial ads, 30 seconds to one minute ads for social media, and things along those lines. So yeah, that’s what we do at the hub.
When is the retail store for Black Owned Toronto opening?
So the retail store is going to be in Scarborough Town Centre and it’s going to open up late May. Right now it’s just a concept store, so it’s going to be open for about seven months but we do have the option of staying longer if everything goes well. It’s going to be all local businesses, most of them based in Ontario. It’s going to be kind of like a small department store. There’s going to be skincare, haircare, home décor, snacks—just so many different things in this one little store. It’s a very unique concept because nothing like it exists anywhere in Canada, as far as I know, that’s just focused on Black-owned businesses. I thought it was really important too, because we don’t have spaces in major malls. It’s just the fact that it’s very, very rare to see a Black-owned business in a major mall. I just got fortunate because I am a very small business supporting even smaller businesses. It’s just a very historic moment watching the store happen. So, I’m very excited about it.
What plans do you have for Black Owned Canada?
I’m hoping to have businesses from all across the country. I had a holiday market in early November. I got really lucky because it was like 20 degrees in November. It was such a successful event. So I’m hoping as I grow, I can have more events similar to that in other major cities in Canada. Especially Montreal and anywhere that has a strong Black population. I want to give them those opportunities that I’m creating here in Toronto. Events are probably just the number one thing I’m focusing on for of Canada.
What are the different ways in which people can help support Black-owned businesses?
They can come visit my store, check out my Instagram page, and then pages that are similar to them. I feel like a lot have popped up in different cities, not just mine. If you don’t have the money to spend on Black-owned businesses at the moment—because we are still in a pandemic—you can still share these businesses, post them on social media, recommend them. When people are saying things that they need, I always try to recommend businesses that I know in the back of my head, so just keeping small businesses in mind. There’s a lot of ways to support beyond just spending money.