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Black women entrepreneurs make a COVID comeback with summer markets

Tia Upshaw says "blkpreneur market" this Sunday and big August market are needed after brutal third wave.

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In 2020, Tia Upshaw started Black Women in Excellence, a program that provides business skills to women of colour, pairs them with a mentor and gives entrepreneurship support. “We go through an in-depth business plan, a financial forecast, projections for three to five years. We basically build a foundation so that anybody who’s coming in and wants to do a business has all the information,” she told The Coast in an interview in January.

But the third wave of the pandemic hit many small business owners the hardest, including women of colour, who face exacerbating factors from racism to sexism.

“It wasn’t even just the Black businesses, every other business was really taking the third wave hard,” says Upshaw in a recent phone interview with The Coast. “‘Cause there was no supports, the supports were for first and second, they didn’t really foresee a third wave.”

But with the province’s reopening, Black Women in Excellence is hosting a summer “blkpreneur market” this Sunday, July 25 from 12 to 5pm, to help the vendors make connections in the community and get back on their feet after the third wave.

“I decided to do something called the post-COVID plan,” Upshaw says. “Similar to a business plan, but now we're going to talk about what we got to do when COVID lifts, restrictions lift and COVID is in our past, what are we going to do for your business?”

The market will be held at the Needham Recreation Centre (3372 Devonshire Avenue), and will feature 25 vendors from crafts to candles, food to fashion, makeup and hair supplies.

“I pour them myself from the basement from my home in Middle Sackville,” says Shannon Downey, who launched Scotian Candle Co. in April of this year, and will be at the market on Sunday.

Downey participated in Upshaw’s Black Women in Excellence program this year, from May to early July, and says the skills she learned were crucial in getting her company up and running.

“Starting a business, you’re completely unaware. You have this idea, and it looks great. But there's a lot of paper that goes behind it,” Downey says. “Making sure that I was registered through joint stocks, you have your proper banking accounts, making sure they have business insurance, and just all of the different things”

In only a few months, she’s grown her business and now has 30 different candle scents that connect back to her life, heritage and community, like her unity candle for Black Lives Matter, and others representing family. “I offer a Sherry Blossom candle…half of the proceeds of that go to the MS society,” Downey explains. “In memory of my mom, her name was Sherry.”

Upshaw is also organizing a second market on August 22 in the Hydrostone, partnering with the businesses that line the streets.

“We're going to block off a portion of it,” she says. “We can fit 21 people there with their tables six feet apart, and the city gave us pylons, they gave us signs.”

Brittony Claremont, who opened textured hair product company Natural Expressions in 2018, will make her first trip into Halifax for that event. “I live in Yarmouth,” she says, explaining that “in south western Nova Scotia there’s really no places to buy hair products for like, textured hair or women of colour.”

Claremont says she was ready to quit entrepreneurship entirely before she discovered the Black Women in Excellence program.

“When lockdown happened, the children were home, nobody was prepared. So my business took a backseat for quite a while,” she explains. “I was ready to quit. I told everybody I was ready to quit.”

The exact things that Upshaw was trying to prevent were happening to Claremont.

“There's no support for Black women. There's no way to find the funding. There's no way to find bursaries, grants, things like that. And it's really lonely,” Claremont says. “So I found this article that said all of this wonderful stuff about Tia. And right away I added her Facebook, added on Instagram, I sent her an email and told her like, I'm ready to give up my business.”

Over the next few months, through Upshaw’s workshops, connections to other Black women and local business owners, Claremont gained the confidence to persist.

“I was really done with my business, and she turned the whole thing around, helped me with things that I didn't know how to do for the last three years,” she says. “She explained things to me that I didn't even know were missing from my business. She's available almost all the time for any questions at all, like, just amazing.”

While the participants say Upshaw is doing critical work, for her it’s all about making sure women of colour aren’t kept out of the business world any longer.

Upshaw oftens hears people say “If Tia thinks we can do it, we can do it” as a way to motivate themselves. “So I try to utilize that,” she says. “We have a group on Facebook now to talk to the ladies on the regular, so I can keep in contact with them as a group.”

And as much as she’s pushing them to succeed, she’s also pushing them to hustle. “I'm gonna be on their behinds,” she says. “Because when the restrictions are lifted and the bars are open, it's time to get back to the grind, ladies.”

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