Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, with more than 50% of its residents foreign-born. Take the parents of Kerin John, founder of Black Owned Toronto, who hail from Grenada – the Spice Isle – in the Caribbean. Threaded through Toronto’s cultural verve are small businesses seeking a place to shine.
It was the end of 2019 and the beginning of a new decade when Kerin, a then 23-year-old Toronto-based graphic designer, set a goal of supporting more Black-owned businesses in the 6ix.
I felt like I wasn’t putting enough money back into my community.
“I wanted to make a change because historically, Black-owned businesses haven’t received the same amount of support, recognition, or funding as other businesses. There’s also less generational wealth, due to the limited amount of dollars that are circulating in our community.”
Discovering a need
As Kerin started her search for Black-owned businesses, she quickly noticed that they were difficult to find. There wasn’t a one-stop resource at her fingertips. Google searches were often fruitless and if she had difficulty finding Black-owned businesses, it was very likely that others were finding it challenging too.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. A few days later, the province of Ontario issued a state of emergency, along with measures that would soon devastate small businesses across the province and the country. Harder hit were companies owned and operated by people of colour.
Through creative, proactive problem solving, design thinking can change and shape the world in which we live.
It’s a way of thinking that’s embedded in the DNA of creatives like Kerin. That’s why she decided that if there wasn’t a single place to easily find Black-owned businesses, it needed to be created. Problem solved.
A movement is born
In May 2020, Black Owned Toronto made its debut on Instagram. This carefully curated feed made space for the community in which Kerin was determined to support. Through sharp, smart and attractive design, Kerin’s visual directory became the very resource she was trying to find.
“When you support a Black-owned business, you’re usually helping a small family,” she said. “You’re helping their children go to college. It’s a different feeling and it’s extremely important because there’s so much wealth out there that can be spread.”
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, the Black Lives Matter movement swelled. Protests rippled across the United States, and over the border into Canada. People marched and called for an end to racial injustice. Chants which echoed around the world. As the movement gained strength and momentum, more people were looking to support Black-owned businesses.
Kerin’s Instagram account went from 300 followers to nearly 50,000 followers in a month.
An idea too good to ignore
At the time, Kerin wanted to focus on her design career. Launching a start-up wasn’t part of the plan.
I didn’t aspire to be an entrepreneur. It just happened.
The support and engagement Kerin received moved her to launch a website, using GoDaddy’s Websites + Marketing platform. BlackOwnedToronto.com has an online store featuring products sold by Black-owned businesses. With just a few clicks, the site’s directory pulls up accountants, coffee shops, restaurants and much, much more.
In June, Kerin collaborated with GoDaddy to give 20 Black business owners a free website and domain for an entire year. This initiative helped business owners, like Kidisha Joseph at Soi Official, launch their companies during a year when many businesses were struggling to stay afloat.
“Every business needs a website,” said Kerin. “It’s critical. Online shopping is the new norm and we’ve watched it surge during the pandemic.
“When Toronto went into its second lockdown, we noticed that big box stores were able to stay open, but all the small stores were forced to close. There was an even stronger need to support small Black-owned businesses.”
… that dovetailed with her professional skills
Kerin quickly noticed that many of the businesses contacting her were needing:
- Photography and video services
- Professional headshots
- Marketing and communications support
- Branding services
Essential assets that would help them to stay and remain competitive in such a rapidly-changing climate. Services that were already in Kerin’s wheelhouse.
“I’m very big on visuals, and everything being esthetically pleasing,” she said. “When people start their businesses, branding is so important. They need proper marketing strategies, logos and pictures. You’d be surprised at how many business owners don’t have headshots.”
In October 2020, Kerin expanded her services and opened Black Owned Toronto’s multi-functional business hub and studio. A communal space that supports the growth of small businesses and their creative needs.
“Taking these leaps have brought me out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Before this, I didn’t know how to do payroll or navigate taxes. It’s been a year of continuous learning.”
So much can happen in one year
In January 2021, a year after Kerin made a goal to support more Black-owned businesses, she launched Black Owned Canada’s Instagram account and expanded it to an online shop and directory.
What I really want to do when it’s safe, is to host small pop-up events in cities all across Canada.
If you’re looking to step into a Black Owned Toronto store, you won’t have to wait much longer.
In late May 2021, Kerin will reach a huge milestone in Black Owned Toronto’s history when she brings it to the Scarborough Town Centre.
The new spacious spread is versatile, has room to accommodate up to 300 vendors and will be open into the winter holiday season. In addition to being a retail space, Kerin is able to provide businesses with the flexibility to curate their own pop-up shop experience. They can book the venue for a day and host themed events.
Moving boldly forward
If the sky is the limit, Kerin certainly isn’t stopping there.
Expanding on Black Owned Toronto’s mission, Kerin hopes to open brick n’ mortar retail stores coast-to-coast. In the future, we may see Black Owned Montreal and Black Owned Vancouver. Stores that create space and amplify community.
“Black Owned Toronto’s success means that hundreds of thousands of businesses can be successful too,” she said. “Everything I’m doing has aligned at the right time.
“I quickly became a community-centred advertising space and an online store for Black-owned businesses. Everything that has happened over the past year has taught me to keep pushing myself, to take everything one day at a time, and to keep moving forward. I can’t stop now.”