HSBC's In Conversation With… series is aimed at spotlighting diverse business leaders who serve as a source of inspiration to entrepreneurs everywhere. We recently sat down with Nadine Spencer, President and CEO of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA). In the first of her two-part interview, Nadine shares her thoughts on entrepreneurism, equity, resilience and why economic opportunities for Black businesses and entrepreneurs begin with being seen.
The BBPA recently launched its Business Advisory Implementation and Development Service (BAIDS), a bespoke program designed to provide Black businesses with resources and solutions needed to tackle the challenges in a post-COVID recovery stage. Effectively, the participants will receive pro bono services and support through the BBPA. HSBC Bank Canada is proud to provide financial support for the BAIDS program that will provide Black business owners with access to experts in various professional fields. HSBC employees will also be invited to be professional resources and mentors.
HSBC understands there is more work to do in supporting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) businesses and hiring BIPOC talent, because we understand the value of diverse perspectives. Our efforts to do better have included signing the BlackNorth pledge, a commitment to seven goals we believe will move Canada toward ending anti-Black systemic racism and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups. By 2025, HSBC Group is also aiming to double the number of Black employees in leadership positions. As part of our commitment to BlackNorth, we have also committed to having at least 3.5 per cent of executive and board roles in Canada held by Black leaders by 2025. Read our interview with Nadine:
Tell us about the Black Business and Professional Association and its history.
The organization has been around for 38 years. Our founder, Denham Jolly, started it because he recognized that Black entrepreneurs did not have the access or the resources they needed to thrive in the business community.
What's the organization's mission, and how does it help young, Black, aspiring entrepreneurs in particular?
Our mission is all about equity. We are here to address injustices and disparities in resource availability, and to create economic opportunities for Black businesses and professionals. We do this through our programs and educational initiatives, including scholarships for Black students. Last year we had 1,547 Black students apply for scholarships, and we were able to support 108 of them.
But the 1,400 Black students who did not receive scholarships also need support. Part of the solution is our programs focusing on mentorship and entrepreneurial training, which provide young entrepreneurs with leadership and guidance.
What's your own personal story of entrepreneurship?
I became an entrepreneur at the age of 12. I was in a very difficult situation. My mom moved to Canada, and she left me with her friend in Jamaica until she was able to get settled in her new home. She didn't realize that her friend would not do the best job of taking care of me. I was often pulled out of school to run errands. On one of those errands, when I was around 100 miles away with no resources or way to get back, I came up with a business plan. That's when I became a businesswoman—at the age of 12!
This is why I am so passionate about championing entrepreneurship. In 2016, I won the BBPA Harry Jerome Award, the highest achievement you can get in the Black community for business. That award belongs to the 12-year-old girl I once was, who made the decision to become an entrepreneur without even knowing what the word meant.
What was your business as a 12-year-old girl?
In Spanish Town, Jamaica, they make these delicious flat cakes, and my mother's friend asked me to go buy some. But the first time she sent me, she didn't give me any money to get home.
I got there and met a woman in the market, and told her I'd be coming back regularly for the flat cakes, so I'd like for her to sell me 10 cakes for the price of eight. I made the deal with her, then took the extra money and bought parchment paper. After wrapping the flat cakes in the parchment paper, I went to another part of the marketplace and sold them. I made a profit, so not only was I able to pay the bus fare to go home, I was also able to have a meal (after buying a second set of cakes to take home).
I eventually became a mogul of the cake business. Each week it got bigger and better as I found new ways of selling more cakes.
Every woman should have the ability to run a business. Even if you're not formally educated, as long as you have a great product, you can be an entrepreneur. You can create a future for yourself and make a difference for your family and community.
How has the Black business community been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the systemic racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement?
When COVID-19 happened, we did a survey comparing mainstream businesses and Black-owned businesses. We found that many mainstream businesses had a minimum of six months' cash reserves in the bank, while the average Black business only had one month. Why? Because they don't have access to credit, or to networks and important resources.
So I launched a 24-hour hotline, knowing these people needed advice. I managed the line myself. I took phone calls morning, noon and night, listening as Black entrepreneurs told me their challenges. The most common problem I heard was that they didn't have people telling them where to go, what to do, and how to get funds. Barriers created by systemic racism prevented those entrepreneurs from accessing the resources they needed to sustain themselves.
Systemic racism continues to be a problem. I have clients who are not Black, and they have told me that the bank calls them repeatedly offering CEBA (Canada Emergency Business Account) loans, which are interest-free loans of up to $40,000 for Canadian small businesses and nonprofits. One client said, "I don't even need the money, I just took it so they'd stop calling me." But when I called Black businesses, they told me that their bank managers had not called them at all to talk about the CEBA loans.
The Black Lives Matter movement did help raise awareness about the challenges Black businesses are facing in the community at large. We have new allies because of the movement, including corporate partners like HSBC. I speak regularly with all of our partners, and they tell me that they hear first-hand the challenges that Black entrepreneurs face just because of our skin colour.
Fortunately, with funding from HSBC, we have been able to access resources to help these businesses.