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Funding woes inspire $25,000 pitching competition for Black entrepreneurs

2 finalists are from B.C.
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Deress Asghedom, who has been shortlisted for a $25,000 prize in a national contest for Black entrepreneurs, poses for a photograph at his home in Vancouver on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

After immigrating to Canada from Kenya with dreams of starting her own business, entrepreneur Jackee Kasandy soon concluded that Canadian banks weren’t keen on opening their vaults to folks like her.

Kasandy, founder of the non-profit Black Entrepreneurs and Businesses of Canada Society, said she faced many roadblocks from Canadian lending institutions as she sought funding.

Now, Kasandy wants other Black entrepreneurs to have a leg up when starting out, holding a contest with a $25,000 prize for Black entrepreneurs with big ideas and small bank balances.

Rather than requiring entrants to have full business plans with their pitches, the society’s Black Pitch Contest calls on people who self-identify as Black to submit a short video outlining their ideas.

After receiving nearly 150 entries, the society whittled the field down to five finalists, two of them based in British Columbia.

Before founding the society, Kasandy said she had many strikes against her in the eyes of banks, as an immigrant who didn’t own a home.

Without collateral to get a loan, she scraped and saved to eventually open her store on Vancouver’s Granville Island, selling fair-trade, handmade products by artists from her native Kenya.

“I used my savings, my credit card, my RRSP, all of that stuff to start the business,” she said. “I don’t have any family here. It’s not like I can go to my uncle and my auntie, my mom, and borrow some money. I’m an immigrant.”

The banking system, she said, doesn’t value people and their ideas if they’re not wealthy or don’t own homes.

Kasandy hopes to change that system through the Black Pitch Contest and the society.

“You might have a really good idea, but if it can’t get funded it goes nowhere,” she said.

Peter Mwariga, a director of the society and contest judge, said finalists would have to demonstrate they understand their target markets and especially their competition.

He said that after coming to Canada in 1989 from Kenya, he too had trouble getting funding for his business as an immigrant without a home to offer as collateral.

Like Kasandy, he lacked independent wealth or a lengthy credit history as he tried to navigate the unfamiliar landscape of the Canadian financial system.

Judging the contest’s pitches and picking the best entries was difficult, Mwariga said, “because they all have amazing ideas and we want them all to succeed, but unfortunately we can’t award 25K to everybody.”

Finalists were coached to refine their pitches before going in front of the judging panel, and Mwariga said the winning pitch would have to outline a “market strategy that is well defined.”

“It’s slightly longer than an elevator pitch, so they need to be a bit more articulated in how they present their business, which is important because they’ll be going up in front of investors,” he said.

Mwenda Dyck, 22, is among the finalists, pitching his vertical farming company South Central Greens.

Dyck said the money could help him scale up his operation, which involves plants grown in stacked racks, and buy new equipment to outfit a barn facility.

Tired of Manitoba winters, Dyck relocated to Abbotsford in early 2022 to study agriculture and horticulture at the University of the Fraser Valley.

He said he aspired to sell nutrient-dense microgreens and other crops to local restaurants and farmers markets.

As a young Black person starting out in business, Dyck said he had come up against people who might not validate or value his ideas based on how he looks, but he didn’t let that dissuade him from his goals.

“Some people may not credit you as much as they should, just kind of based on your appearance, which is disheartening,” he said. “But at the same time, you can’t let that take your motivation away, otherwise you’re not going to move forward.”

Dyck said he had been motivated and inspired by Kasandy’s story and that of the society.

“She went through all of these challenges in terms of finding funding, building her network and just running her business and she didn’t want it to be so hard for other Black entrepreneurs,” he said.

Vancouver-based Deress Asghedom is another of the Black Pitch finalists.

Asghedom’s Vaster App is an artificial intelligence-driven software application that allows cannabis users to scan products with a smartphone to find out potency and production information.

Asghedom likens it to the music-identification app Shazam, but instead of using a phone’s microphone to identify songs, it uses a camera to scan and display product information.

He said a “series of unexpected events” culminated in creating the app. He said he first wanted to apply it in the restaurant sector for things like nutrition information after his father had a health scare.

But the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the hospitality industry forced him to pivot.

He came up with his new idea after seeking a cannabis-based therapy for his dog when it developed arthritis.

Asghedom said the product he was recommended had an adverse effect on his pet, and he later found out from a vet that he had been given the wrong treatment. He also struggled to figure out correct dosages.

“That got me thinking maybe there’s a way that we can use the technology that we’ve already developed to try and make it easier for people to interact and learn about the product without having to have deep knowledge or an encyclopedic memory,” he said.

The pitch contest had been a “godsend,” he said, and winning the money would bring a full version of the app closer to market after initial success with a beta version among cannabis brands and dispensaries.

The social implications of being a Black-owned business in the cannabis world were not lost on Asghedom, he said, with the history of regulation and criminalization that disproportionately affected Black people.

“If I can provide a different narrative for what it looks like to be a Black entrepreneur in cannabis, then that’s a welcome responsibility that I want to represent in the best way that I can,” he said. “I see myself as an entrepreneur first.”

The winner of the pitch contest will be selected at the society’s Black Business Summit, a free event being held online Feb. 24 and 25. The keynote speaker will be former governor general Michaelle Jean.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press

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