Cassels is a law firm that provides transaction, advocacy, and advisory services to Canada's most dynamic business sectors. As one of the country's leading law practices, Cassels serves a large base of clients - from local start-ups to multinational organizations around the world.
Cassels' annual Black-Owned Small Business Grant aims to create long-term economic opportunities for Black-owned small businesses by injecting funds into Black businesses with the mission of fostering a diverse and equitable entrepreneurial environment for all.
“At Cassels, we want to foster an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion in the broader business world that we operate in,” explained Natasha Jimeno, co-chair of the Cassels Inclusion & Diversity Committee. “Since 2020, we've supported businesses that align with our core values and stand to benefit from our legal expertise, and we hope this initiative will provide recipients with the financial support and advice needed to sustain their business to create long-term economic opportunity.”
The first round of grants in 2020 was provided to a Toronto-based business called It’s Souper, an Afro-Fusion gourmet soup and sauce line inspired by Nigerian cuisine.
“I cannot emphasize how remarkable this grant and the accompanying legal services have been for my business,” said Lola Adeyemi, owner of It’s Souper.
With the help of the Cassels Black-Owned Small Business Grant ($72,000), Adeyemi was able to grow her business nationally. The pro bono legal services also provided Adeyemi with guidance on a variety of legal aspects such as the It’s Souper trademark, improving corporate documents, and reviewing contracts with partners and vendors. In addition, Adeyemi joined the Cassels Grant Committee to determine this year’s recipients.
This year, the grant was increased from $72,000 to approximately $125,000 thanks to a generous donation of $50,000 from Wheaton Precious Metals, as well as funds raised by Cassels, allowing them to support up to four businesses.
Cassels allocates grants based on how the funds will impact each applicant. To qualify for a grant, applicants must meet the following criteria:
- Business is Black-owned
- Have a maximum of 50 employees
- Located in the City of Calgary (for 2021), or have significant involvement or impact on the Calgary business community (region will change to Vancouver for 2022)
- Registered as a Canadian for-profit entity (i.e., sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation)
- The selection process consists of several phases. Each application is reviewed by at least two different individuals from the firm. 10-15 applications are shortlisted. These applications are then reviewed by the full Grant Committee (composed of 8-10 members from the firm). A finalist list is then identified for short interviews via videoconference.
At the time of writing, Cassels is closely working with each recipient to ensure that grants are distributed promptly.
“We have a team in place to manage the grant process. This includes administration, reporting criteria, and fund disbursement. We are in regular contact with the grant recipients and aid them with legal services as needed,” says Jimeno.
This year’s recipients include:
- Evelyne Nyairo of Ellie Bianca
- Leah Higgins of Blush Décor Painting
- Greg Carter of Phoenix Metals Ltd
- Fay Bruney of Simply Irie Caribbean Cuisine
Fay Bruney opened her restaurant in Calgary in 2014. Today, she has 13 employees but had to drop four of them due to the pandemic and lockdown. Bruney is building it back up and is hoping for a better outcome. The restaurant currently has one location with a second location planned in Vancouver.
Besides finding the right spices and keeping things authentic, finance is the biggest problem she faces.
“I found it extremely challenging to procure the spices and flavours from the Islands to Toronto. Once everything goes through Toronto, it is up to me to bring it out,” explains Bruney.
According to Bruney, her expenses are probably double or triple what she would have paid if she were in Toronto. She applied for loans from different financial institutions but always found herself getting declined.
“We tried to get financial support but everywhere we went, there was no progress. Banks make it very difficult to get loans and it's much harder because you have to manoeuvre through difficult terms and conditions,” said Bruney.
Having Cassels help out her business was a huge help.
“I'm honoured and shocked because I'm seeing progress. I was blessed, thrilled and overwhelmed with emotions when I learned of my interview,” explained Bruney.
Bruney even enjoyed the application and selection process.
“The application was easy to fill out and I got a call a few weeks later informing me of the second round of virtual interviews. This was a good experience and of course, last year's recipient was there to make me feel comfortable,” Bruney said.
Bruney also appreciates the legal services provided by Cassels.
“They've got a whole group of lawyers who specialize in this area, which helps a lot because we expanded into British Columbia and there are many legal things we have to stay on top of.”
Bruney believes that grants should be more commonplace these days, especially during difficult times such as the pandemic.
Greg Carter owns Phoenix Metals Ltd. The company has been in operation for six years with 15 employees. They manufacture sheet metal for the roofing and construction industry and recently started offering installation services.
Finding start-up capital has always been a challenge for Carter because of his background as an immigrant, in addition to finding relevance in the industry and people to work with.
"Finance is one of the major challenges because I had so little money starting out. Besides, we are still impacted by the pandemic because fewer customers want to deal with the metal,” said Carter. “Many plants have been shut down. There just wasn't enough material. Another challenge is logistics because shipping to Canada is very expensive.”
Currently, Carter is paying 90% more than what he did six months ago for the same material. “We cannot transfer the cost to our customers, so finding a way around the price hike is a challenge that we must overcome,” explained Carter.
Carter thinks Black-owned small businesses would do a lot better if they had access to more funds. Carter heard of the Cassels grant from his social circle and felt encouraged to apply.
“We desperately needed the financial support and could use the grant, so applying was a no-brainer for me,” he recalled.
Carter sees the grant as giving a financial boost to his company during these challenging times.
“This is a critical stage for our business because we are moving forward and this money will help us with branding and getting our name out there. Once our name gets bigger, we will attract more customers to our company,” hopes Carter.
He also appreciated the entire grant application and selection process.
“I feel honoured that Cassels chose us for this year's grant and I liked how they approached certain things and set everything up. They're not just giving out money randomly. “It seems like they have qualified personnel on board who care about the community.”
Cassels is launching its third round of grants for Black-owned Vancouver businesses in mid-2022 and Jimeno advises Black entrepreneurs need to be ready for the next round of funds.
“Hats off to Cassels for reaching out to the Black community and helping them in these difficult times. As a Black entrepreneur, I appreciate the company and also admire the fact that, unlike most governmental and bureaucratic agencies, they're not just randomly distributing money,” said Carter. “They have an entire process in place to measure the impact of a business on its community and I think the government should learn from Cassels.”
“If you’re a Black business owner from Vancouver, make sure to keep an eye out for details on the third installment of the Cassels Black-Owned Small Business Grant,” advised Jimeno. “It’s scheduled to launch exclusively for Vancouver-based Black-owned businesses in mid-2022.
It looks like Black Canadian businesses may have a new ally in Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP.