Originally from the Island of Saint Kitts, Dr. Southwell moved to Nova Scotia in 1972. He owned various restaurants and was one of the first Black franchisees before becoming executive director of the African Canadian Business Development Centre.
Dr. Southwell’s support of communities has persisted in his 50 years in Nova Scotia by working with the Black Cultural Centre as the co-chair of the African Heritage Month Committee and the first chair of Hope Blooms Youth Ventures Inc. He has served on many Boards: the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, the Waterfront Development Corporation, and the United Way Halifax. In addition, he is a member of the Board of Governors of Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC), the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, and the Community Consultative Committee of the Halifax Stanfield International Airport Authority (HSIAA).
The Black Business Initiative (BBI) is Dr. Southwell’s life’s work. He retired in 2012 after being CEO for 17 years though he returned in 2016 and is finally re-retiring as of May 1st. While returning as interim-CEO, BBI received funding to expand to New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.
When asked about this expansion, Dr. Southwell explained that BBI had already put so much effort into doing their job well; they had helped other organizations become successful, so the expansion and funding were a no-brainer.
We've spent a lot of time over the years figuring out, for this to work and work well, we had to have a realization that we were ethical, relevant, and making a difference in delivering those things, and if it worked well, we would get the power of the entire Black community across the country. So we've spent many years helping folks in Toronto. We've written proposals for them with some levels of success, but nothing really manifested itself until recently."
Dr. Southwell adds that the 'perfect storm' came together to allow funding to happen. “The reason we think that all this work now came to a head is that first you had COVID, so people were sitting at home, and while the entire world was sitting at home from COVID, you had the heinous murder of George Floyd in the U.S. It was a disaster made for TV. The investment and the understanding of what Black communities across the country are talking about finally happened. We were fortunate that we were doing this work for 26 years, so when the government was saying, ‘What do we do? Where's the example? Where is the strategy?’ Folks referred us by suggesting they look at what BBI has managed to do in 25 years.
Dr. Southwell highlighted some of the organizations BBI helped receive funding, such as the FACE Coalition, which delivered approximately $200 million in the Black Loan Fund. After this came the “Black Ecosystem,” an ecosystem that sustains Black businesses. While some organizations went for a pan-Canadian option, BBI decided to crawl, walk, then run by expanding from Nova Scotia to the Atlantic provinces. “Now we've launched in all provinces. We are on the ground with our consulting awareness for business owners, coaching and providing connection, networking.”
Before founding BBI, Dr. Southwell worked as executive director of the African Canadian Business Development Centre, and though he never imagined how things would develop, he certainly hoped Black Businesses would thrive. Dr. Southwell describes the dream at the time as simply teaching other Black entrepreneurs as he was a successful entrepreneur after leaving his burger franchisee.
“At the time, there wasn't a BBI that had funding and those resources. And so the African Canadian Business Development Centre, which was a part of Human Resources Development Canada, was helping folks to build business plans and strategies to get their ideas funded.”
Dr. Southwell adds that until the founding of BBI, the “horizons were a lot shorter,” but once BBI was created, they “saw the endless ways to pursue economic independence. “If you had asked me back then, ‘Do you think that by 2021/2022’ you're going to have $400 million invested in Black communities across Canada? I would say I wish. But if you had asked me if I'd see a better quality of business owners, I'd say, ‘Yes, that's what we are here for.’ And more businesses."
Founding BBI was an obvious choice for Dr. Southwell because he wanted to help Black business owners engage in the economy as Black people have historically been excluded.
Admittedly, Dr. Southwell thought the call informing him about being awarded the Order of Nova Scotia was about the Platinum Jubilee, which he also recently received. There are a million people in Nova Scotia, and only five a year receive the Order of Nova Scotia, so it's quite an honour to be recognized. I think it’s a collective recognition of the work that BBI has done. And what Black Nova Scotia has done for the rest of Canada because BBI has been a gift to business development in Canada. Whenever you see entrepreneurs now with increased confidence due to the F.A.C.E. Coalition, the Black Opportunity Fund, and even the BlackNorth Initiative, Nova Scotia is the reason why.”
Dr. Southwell adds that while he never got into this work for any accolades, once you receive them, they validate the work. “I can't say the Order of Nova Scotia is only for me. I think there's a lot of folks on the board and staff from BBI over the years that gave us the recognition that pushed us to make the decisions and the directions.”
When asked about community involvement. Dr. Southwell notes that to be fully involved, you must be committed like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frederick Douglass.
“The tendency in our community is that you want to be the health leader and the social activist and the business leader, but we are better off if we have centres of expertise as well. My advice to folks like that is to find something that you have a passion for. Not something you just want to be involved in, but something you're committed to and find the right people.”