‘These hoops are still there’: Black women in business still pressing for change

Posted on March 08, 2023 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments


Fantanesh Attomsa (Photo: Courtesy of Blue Nile Massage and Wellness)


When Fantanesh Attomsa went looking for some basic financing to take her company Blue Nile Massage and Wellness to the next level, with plans to open a fixed commercial space on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, she couldn’t help but notice the hurdles. Entrepreneurs trying to succeed in business will always hit up against challenges but Black women entrepreneurs face hurdles to a different degree. In starting up, Attomsa’s experience mirrored that of many other Black women entrepreneurs in Nova Scotia and beyond, leaving a fresh challenge to Canada’s financial institutions.

In February, on the tail end of Black History Month and in the lead-up to International Women’s Day (today, March 8), Attomsa participated in a small-scale program. It was a team-up of the Nova Scotia-based organization Blk Women in Excellence and The Scotiabank Women Initiative, offering space in Scotiabank branches throughout the Halifax Regional Municipality to 15 Black women business owners. They were able to promote their businesses across 10 bank branches.

“I’m definitely glad to have these types of partnerships and opportunities, but the thing that I would challenge not only Scotiabank but all organizations and institutions in general is you know go beyond just having a display and brochures and cards in your space,” she said, in a recent interview with Atlantic Business Magazine.

Looking broadly across Canada’s financial institutions, at Canadian business, she urged attention to persistent disparities and actions to end the disparities for Black women in business. And it’s not hard to start, she suggested.

“If you see that there’s a service your team or yourself can benefit from, from a Black business, make that call, make that connection. If you see things they are selling there [in a proactive pop-up], offer to buy something. If you have a staff event and you see that someone is a caterer or a cook or a baker, contract them to come in and provide these services (…) If there is a Black business owner that reaches out to you and asks to speak with you and connect with you, make that time to go and sit with them and connect with them. That’s how you really embody these initiatives,” she said.


Financing, financing, financing

Attomsa indicated difficulty accessing capital, to help establish and grow a business, remained a central issue and is something she ran into when establishing her fixed space.

“To first establish this place, traditional banks and traditional loans that was not so much an option for me, mostly because of fear, because of it being an institution and being just so aware of systemic racism (…) I was never comfortable to go and ask for some kind of bank loan,” she explained.

She isn’t alone. In 2021, 53 Black Canadian entrepreneurs were interviewed as part of a Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce study on “Building Black Business in Canada.” The work was backed by the Business Development Bank of Canada and Pitch Better, an organization supporting entrepreneurs in underrepresented communities. A final report noted nearly a quarter (24%) of the business owners hadn’t accessed external sources of funding while meeting their business needs for at least the last year and a half.

“In terms of their relationship to funding and finances, 71% of the business owners surveyed used bootstrapping to start their business, while only 30% feel ‘quite’ to ‘very’ comfortable talking to their financial institution about their funding options,” it stated.

And it’s about more than a general comfort level.


Bias in the five Cs

Generally, lenders with standard small business programs tend to lean on the “five Cs” of credit: capacity, collateral, capital, character and conditions. Every one of these five taps into historical disadvantages, systemic gender prejudices and racism. It’s a lot to see and understand, but you don’t have to go far for a concrete example to help illustrate.

Consider just collateral. Nova Scotians may have come across news coverage of land title issues based in Anti-Black racism dating back more than 200 years. To start, the Government of Nova Scotia once provided white settlers with 100 acres or more of fertile land, at the same time offering Black families what has been described in more recent legal decisions as 10-acre lots of “rocky, infertile soil.” And while white settlers received deeds, Black settlers were not granted title.

“Lack of clear title and the segregated nature of their land triggered a cycle of poverty for African Nova Scotian families that persisted for generations,” as Justice John Bodurtha stated in a 2020 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia legal decision, one of many modern legal cases tied to the actions.

In his decision, Bodurtha quoted a 2006 research thesis from a student at Dalhousie University to specifically note the property would have been a financial asset. “Without this asset, blacks held little collateral and therefore had great difficulty making financial advancements; while many whites turned their land grants into successful agricultural holdings and pursued other interests, blacks struggled to survive,” it stated.

The bottom line was the collateral held for generations by some families was not afforded to others. And it snowballs over time. In the 1960s, the province’s Interdepartmental Committee on Human Rights was documenting the title issue faced by Black Nova Scotians. “Clear titles would have helped blacks who were in the midst of relocation and improvement projects; as well, proof of land ownership would have increased a black family’s livelihood. Without a clear title, a family would be unable to sell or lease the land, or even use the property as collateral to secure credit,” Bodurtha’s decision quoted.

In a separate 2020 Supreme Court of Nova Scotia case, also on a land title dispute, Justice Jamie Campbell simply highlighted: “African Nova Scotians have been subjected to racism for hundreds of years in this province. It is embedded within the systems that govern how our society operates. That is a fundamental historical fact and an observation of present reality.”

The Government of Nova Scotia has been taking steps to address the issue of title including through updates to the Land Titles Clarification Act. In 2021, after an update, the government noted its terms for streamlining access to historic title would cover an estimated 883 eligible parcels of land across 13 different communities.

These original decisions on property title are one example in a long list of racist and prejudicial acts that are more than purely history. There were specific decisions on investments in education, labour market development and more, with a financial affect compounding through generations. The result is Black Canadians are left trying to close a gap in everything from employment and poverty rates to median wages. It becomes, in turn, that much more difficult for individuals today to earn, to gather capital, launch and grow a business.

Differences are exacerbated time and again. Consider the peak of COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, when the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey showed Black Canadians had a jaw-dropping 70% higher unemployment rate compared to “non-racialized counterparts.” Regardless of financial supports announced, there were differences identified in how Canadians fared in their overall financial position.

“When examining the financial impacts of the pandemic on Black families, data shows that Black individuals were twice as likely as non-racialized individuals to report living in a household where it has been difficult to meet basic financial requirements (33.2% versus 16.6%),” StatsCan reported. Though still, Black Canadians were finding ways to start businesses and grow businesses.


Targeted financing

In her case, while bootstrapping her business through its infancy, Attomsa investigated some “targeted” institutional financing, including a loan program targeted to Black entrepreneurs.

“The process was supposed to be easier and it’s just as stripping, just as draining,” she said, describing what she considered unusually “invasive” attempts to establish her financial standing. Overall, she thought the program was using criteria similar to traditional bank loans, with no change in evaluations of credit profile among other things, “so a lot of these hoops are still there.”

“We use the term segregate the money,” she said. “Even if they put this money aside for Black entrepreneurs, the institutions are still requiring the same information. It’s still inaccessible at the end of the day. I mean, if we’re going to call it Black money, let’s make it accessible to Black folks and take some of those barriers down, take some of those requirements down and have a different process and different methods for them to access the money. Because a lot of Black entrepreneurs are applying for these Black loans and Black funds and it’s still inaccessible to us,” she said.

In her own experience, she reached the point of considering abandoning the process of what many Canadians would consider the basic, obvious route for small business financing. Yet she continued with the support of people including fellow Black Nova Scotian entrepreneur Tia Upshaw, leading Blk Women In Excellence (the partner on the Scotiabank pop-up project), who Attomsa says walked through paperwork with her and communications from lenders when she was most discouraged.


Tia Upshaw (Photo: Jay Fisher Capture It Photography)


Attomsa only landed about 10% of the amount she originally sought in support for launching her retail and service location. She was unwilling to let that sink her either, and kept going.

“It was like, yes, how do we make this little bit stretch? How do we continue with the goal? How do we make this vision come to life?” she said.

As the national Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub reported last year, citing a survey by the African Canadian Senate Group, “only half of empowered (defined as being experienced and supported) Black respondents report feeling comfortable applying for funding from federal and provincial governments. Other survey results show that even fewer Black business owners are comfortable applying for funding from non-profit community organizations (36%), banks (35%), credit unions (33%), and fintech lenders (16%).”

The previously mentioned “Building Black Business in Canada” report stated, of the 53 Black entrepreneurs interviewed for the study, 71% of the entrepreneurs had bootstrapped their business, without tapping into the offerings of a financial institution. A big reason was a lack of comfort in speaking with financial institutions, mainly given an expectation they’d be denied, even when loan programs were promoted as targeted for long underserviced communities.

The report pointed to simple evidence of so-called targeted funds still being out of reach. “Very few Black women founders and entrepreneurs specifically met the Women’s Entrepreneurship Fund criterion,” it noted as an example, pointing to federal program where requirements like having a business with a minimum of two years in operation kept people from tapping into the government-offered business support program.

At this point, Attomsa’s company is steadily building its client base. The registered massage therapist and business owner said, “thankfully,” the local community has responded well. She gave credit to her team of employees in helping build business at the fixed location. Now, she faces the next set of challenges, including breaking into the established networks of the Nova Scotia business community.


Discrimination alive and well

In the average day-to-day, there are always acts of prejudice and racism for Black women in business to contend with, from overt actions to microaggressions. Statistics Canada’s “General Social Survey on Canadians’ Safety” from 2019 included questions on experiences with discrimination. The survey found, “nearly half (46%) of Black people aged 15 years and older reported experiencing at least one form of discrimination in the past 5 years, compared to 16% of the non-Indigenous, non-visible minority population.” And the number of Black people reporting discrimination in the survey was up a notable amount from 2014, when just 28% of Black Canadians reported they’d an experience with discrimination in the past five years. The survey itself is conducted every five years.

Black women were even more likely to report experiences with discrimination or unfair treatment than Black men (at 49% and 42% respectively). In stark contrast, of non-Indigenous people who also reported not being of a visible minority, only about 20% of women and 13% of men reported recent experiences with discrimination. And of all of the experiences with discrimination, it’s worth noticing Black people in Canada more often reported them being in relation to a bank, compared with non-Indigenous people and all people not of a visible minority.

Entrepreneur Tia Upshaw, who encouraged Attomsa, has worked with 73 women to date as they’ve moved from being interested in entrepreneurship to actually starting a business. She leads Blk Women In Excellence, an organization started in the pandemic after Upshaw noticed a wave of new microbusinesses with small business potential and small business start-ups in Nova Scotia. She wanted to essentially help them through the worst of it.

She started a support group of a kind in late summer, 2020. In about a month it went from an informal collective to registered non-profit, offering 16-week bootcamps and follow-up mentorships for Black women entrepreneurs. By 2021, 10 women she’d worked with were off and running and filing taxes as a full-fledged small business owner.

Her personal forays into business started in 2006, with a short-lived hair salon. She admits now she didn’t really know then what she wanted to do. She spent a lot of time in minimum-wage jobs but, with the salon, had discovered a general interest in small business. She went through some lean years before scraping enough together to strike out on her own again.

In 2013, she started a cleaning company with what she had. She recalls trying and failing to access capital through traditional means, leaning on personal credit and dollar store supplies.

“A few [lenders] even told me there’s no market for a Black women-owned cleaning company in Nova Scotia. A few of them told me just no, we’re not going to give you money or a loan but wouldn’t tell me why. What do I need to do, so I can come back to you in six months or a year? It was just ‘no,’” she said.

Upshaw has grown the company since and added income from a craft lipstick line and property listed with AirBnB, on top of the launch of Blk Women In Excellence and several successful partnership programs with Canadian financial institutions. But, she still has those moments.

A couple of months back, she offers, she was running from errand to errand, just trying to get through a long ‘to do’ list. She zipped into a branch of her bank that was different from her usual to make a deposit, expecting it wouldn’t be an issue. “I had a jogging suit on with sneakers and a ball cap because I was just crazy busy that day, and they gave me a hard time,” she recalled.

She described staff looking her over, a sense of judgement as they put the cheque she had up to a light. It continued further. “They had four staff members come out from the back,” she said, explaining how she had a line up behind her and felt like a spotlight had been turned on.

“I went back two days later … I was going to a business meeting for Halifax Chamber of Commerce. I had a white blazer, white pants, shoes, heels, makeup, lashes, and they didn’t even know who I was. They didn’t remember me from two days earlier,” she said.

She added she has been very pleased with the service overall from her bank and was satisfied by the response after raising the experience. She believes in education for staff, improvement and continually pressing for the overall shift in thinking that will create more fundamental change for the future.

Through it all, she keeps her eyes peeled for the moments to celebrate.

“When I see another Black woman succeed, or I see them starting their business, they post somewhere, I’m like ‘oh my God, she did it!,’” she said.

The feeling came only a few days earlier, seeing entrepreneur Holly Adams showing her Hollydrops Afrocentric line of handmade jewelry and products in a segment on CTV news.

“I get goosebumps and that keeps me going. Because it is very, very difficult.”


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