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How the Black Business Association of B.C. is creating more market opportunities online for entrepreneurs in Canada and Africa

Co-founder Nerissa Allen opens up about her story of starting over that led to undertaking the gaps of support for Black-owned businesses

When Nerissa Allen and her partner, Clavia Alleyne, had to shut down their businesses amid the pandemic, Allen was quick to dust off an old business plan and prepare to launch. Then, Allen's plans came to a stall when looking for resources.

“We had not one Black business organization or one that was Black-led or focused in B.C.,” explained Allen. “I just couldn't believe in 2020, we did not have one supporting the Black community.”

Leaning into her entrepreneurial instincts, Allen knew she had to fill the need.

She would launch not only a skincare line, Organic Skin Therapies, but also the first Black business association in B.C (BBABC) with Alleyne — even quitting her government job after 20 years to support the community full-time. The BBABC then opened a retail social enterprise, UEL, on Granville Island — generating over $250K in revenue within 16 months for Black entrepreneurs.

The UEL store on Granville Island
Credit: Black Business Association of B.C.

Next, the BBABC launched an online directory and e-commerce marketplace called Black Biz Global. With over 1,000 businesses on the platform to date, Allen is now working on new features and initiatives to support more Black-owned businesses — in Canada and Africa.

Becoming the ‘Black Amazon’

“It's literally like Black Amazon,” shared Allen on the concept behind Black Biz Global. “People can sell products whether they have their own online store or not. This is another way for them to sell online and reach a global market because we have that market share they may not have.”

Black Biz Global allows users to find various businesses and list theirs for free or pay for a membership to sell products. Users can also connect with local and international suppliers and vendors — lessening the need to travel back and forth for trade missions. 

The platform also uses AI to help users find provincial and federal tenders and better understand what the government is looking for. 

“We have AI working in the background to support the procurement portal,” explained Allen. “We use a scraper tool to pull all provincial and federal tenders onto Black Biz Global so that our businesses can find them easily. Then our data intelligence gives us reports on what product or service the government is buying, when they buy it, how often they're doing it, and how much they're spending.”

Innovating the next solution

Aside from Black Biz Global, the BBABC is also focused on connecting businesses in Canada in need of talent with tech experts in Africa.

The idea came to mind when Allen travelled to Ghana to attend Tech Connect Africa. There, Allen mentioned Canada’s severe talent shortage during a panel. By the time she got back to her hotel, her email inbox was flooded with messages from tech experts across various fields — from cybersecurity to data science — who wanted to come to Canada and help alleviate the shortage.

Nerissa Allen and Clavia Alleyne at Tech Connect Africa
Credit: Black Business Association of B.C.

The BBABC then launched an incubation hub to help those who reached out find work alongside tech experts in Canada and receive guidance on navigating the work culture and advancing in their career. Now, Allen is looking into leveraging tech to streamline the entire process — from finding and showcasing talent to securing work.

Another opportunity Allen identified in Ghana was making it easier for businesses in Canada to transact with those in Africa. 

“We're creating the business connection, but you can only go so far before you run into the stumbling block of how they get paid [...] There's space for people to come here and help support the work we're trying to do to build those connections to Africa, but helping to find ways to drive the actual payment systems.”

What’s next

While actively building opportunities for Black-owned businesses, the BBABC also invest their time in raising awareness of the lack of funding provided through events like INNOVATEwest

Clavia Alleyne speaking on a panel at INNOVATEwest
Photo credit: Black Business Association of B.C.

“I know that if we were to put our dollars behind these businesses that are innovating across various sectors, we're not only supporting the community [but] a better, bigger B.C. and Canadian economy,” highlighted Allen. “I think that's the main reason I wanted to take the stage [...] I represent those that don't have that voice to say so.”

As for what to expect next from the BBABC, Allen shared that the non-profit will host the Afro World Expo this June. 

The expo will be the biggest of its kind in Western Canada and showcase African and Caribbean products and culture — as well as a reverse pitch to support entrepreneurs with the Vancouver Entrepreneurs Forum.

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