FACE looks to support Black entrepreneurs beyond post-pandemic hardships

Why It Matters

The COVID-19 pandemic placed Black entrepreneurs under significant financial strain. To address this issue, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in September 2020 that up to $221 million would be invested in the Black Entrepreneurship Program through partnerships with financial institutions.

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Tiffany Callender

This journalism is made possible by a partnership with Catalyst: Community Finance Initiative. See our editorial ethics and standards here.

As the child of Barbadian immigrants to Quebec, Tiffany Callender grew up not only a visible minority but also a linguistic minority.

Callender’s parents came to Canada by way of a wave of immigration from the 1950s to 1980s, who navigated a different reality than, for example, the growing community of Eritrean and Somali newcomers settling in Alberta today.

“My parents’ double minority status and watching my community navigate what it is to have those two barriers to access in front of them made it that I chose that as my battlefield,” says Callender, who has since forged an impressive career advocating for her community.

Callender first joined the Cote des Neiges Black Community Association as the coordinator of a provincially funded Black entrepreneurship program. In 2013, in recognition of her work to help the organization evolve and expand, Calendar was appointed its Executive Director.

When the federal government established the Canadian Emergency Business Account (CEBA) to provide short-term cash flow to businesses across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Callender, along with fellow Montrealers Thierry Lindor and Louis-Edgar Jean-François, mobilized more than 60 Black business owners to participate in a virtual roundtable with Parliamentarians to address barriers Black entrepreneurs faced in accessing this urgent financial relief.

Those barriers included eligibility requirements, such as payroll documents and full-time staff, that negatively impacted Black-owned businesses, who often subcontract smaller companies to help deliver services and meet customer needs, Callender said.

“We explained that although it was described as a boat that would raise all tides, a lot of our business owners did not have a boat,” she recalls. “So, they were going to miss an important segment of the community that needed to be supported at this time.”

“That led to our proposal of a long-term program, not a COVID response,” Callender said, noting that many Black entrepreneurs have limited access to business development resources and little to no access to capital via financial institutions.

“COVID was a pandemic; racism is an epidemic that is long-running,” she said.

In September 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced up to $221 million in partnered investments with financial institutions to establish the Black Entrepreneurship Program, including an initial $33 million federal investment to found the Black Entrepreneurship Loan Fund, to be administered by the Federation of African Canadian Economics (FACE), of which Callender is now the inaugural CEO and co-founder.

In partnership with the Government of Canada, BDC and private financial institutions, FACE administers loans of up to $250,000 to existing Black-owned businesses and $50,000 to start-up businesses with Black entrepreneurs at the helm.

The organization also provides knowledge resources to Black entrepreneurs, collects data on impact, and offers a micro-loan pilot program in partnership with credit unions Alterna Savings and Vancity and a macro-loan program in partnership with the Government of Canada and BDC.

“The risk metrics, the actual underwriting and approval, and the guidance and operations of this organization are done by us,” Callender said. “We firmly believe in ‘nothing for us without us.’ And that we have the capacity, the expertise, and also the relationship of trust with our community to tailor a strategy for them.”

Montreal-headquartered bank BDC contributed 130 million under the risk framework that Callender discussed. With the funds, FACE launched a microloan program that creates a point of entry for entrepreneurs who often are more marginalized and have fewer financial documents that would meet the criteria of larger financers. The pilot was launched in partnership with credit unions Alterna Savings and Vancity to scale the program nationally.

Three years on, with COVID finally in the rear-view mirror, FACE has dispersed loans totalling more than $25 million to 298 companies across the country, all of which are at least 51 per cent Black-owned. In 2022, 81 per cent of loan recipients were immigrants to Canada holding permanent resident status, 32 per cent of loan recipients were Black women, and nine per cent identified as members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Callender noted that data collection has been an important pillar of FACE’s work. Over time, data from the Loan Fund will feed into the Knowledge Hub of the Black Entrepreneurship Program to inform research on Canada’s Black entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“We were often solicited to have data at our disposal in early conversations with stakeholders. They would say, ‘Well, how many black businesses are there in Canada?’”

This racialized gap in socio-economic data highlighted to Callendar the importance of tracking data within the loan program.

“I saw that as an opportunity to be at the forefront of understanding the economic contribution and footprint that Black entrepreneurs make to this country but is under the radar.”

FACE addresses another central challenge facing Black entrepreneurs: they often do not have the assets or collateral necessary to obtain a loan from a traditional financial institution. “We’ve been exposed to predatory credit circumstances associated with our history and our trajectory. We’ve often had to take risky decisions in order to move forward in our personal journeys,” Callender said.

Those risky survival choices impact someone’s credit, which FACE confronts by considering several factors in addition to credit score in its adjudication process.

“It’s not because it’s an indicator of your responsibility or your trustworthiness, but it is critical decisions you’ve had to make to be able to proceed through your life. So, I might get a higher-interest loan that is harder for me to pay on a regular basis. But I need that loan to go to school. I need that loan to help my parents, and these are decisions that are made to survive but then impact your ability to thrive and create a different trajectory for yourself.”

Racial covenants exemplify how policy decisions prevented Black Canadians and other racialized people from accumulating wealth. These clauses limited the scope of their existence by cutting off access to property ownership.

As time passed, these injustices became compounded by blanket criteria by financial institutions that did not consider them. Systemic barriers have limited Black people’s access to money from family and friends and the ability to take a three-year unpaid journey to entrepreneurship, typical of a startup founder’s path, Callender explained.

In creating FACE, Callender said, “We set the risk aperture. We’re not negating risk, we are measuring risk,” she said. By measuring social ROI in addition to traditional ROI when evaluating how FACE’s loans are performing, the organization challenges long-standing views on risk in the financial sector. In addition to a network of partners and resources available to investees, non-repayment is not penalized without taking an equitable approach, FACE’s website outlines.

Calendar objects to the widely accepted idea that personal wealth validly predicts startup or business success. “If you line up that simple and common principle against the experience of being a Black person in the western hemisphere – who suffered colonization, slavery, being systematically excluded from accumulating wealth – that means the wealth that should have been available to us, whether it’s in homeownership, whether it’s in the ability to make investments and have returns to create savings, is not there,” Callender said.

She recalls one loan recipient, a pharmacist, who had wanted to start a pharmacy but had been turned down by banks. Banks were open to lending the pharmacist money – after all, pharmacies are typically lucrative – yet they would only do so once his pharmacy was in operation. But it was precisely the start-up capital he was lacking!

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that could stop you through frustration and the agony of being presented with mission impossible, when you know that somebody else could walk through the door who has a different Canadian experience who is not of African descent and have a different result,” Callender said. “He’s one of my favourite stories because that was a no-brainer for us but a brain teaser for others.”

Over the past two years, many Black entrepreneurs whose ventures have been funded by FACE are emerged. Myriam Jean-Baptiste, co-owner of LS Cream Liqueur, was quoted in FACE’s annual report as saying her company is dedicated to breaking into the liquor brand space and building a business “with a purpose of generational wealth and legacy, not only for our family but for our community.”

“The baseline is really looking at the Black Canadian experience,” says Callender, “and asking how do we create equity through strategy?”

Led by Callender and colleagues and backed by the federal government, FACE is heading towards its third year finding effective answers to this vital question, which the organization posits is for all Canadians’ benefit.

  • Anqi Shen

    Anqi Shen is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in University Affairs, The Globe and Mail, Inuit Art Quarterly, Future of Good, Briarpatch, Bogotá Post, among others. Her short films have been presented by the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa (IFCO) and Scarborough Arts. She lives on treaty land in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.