It’s the root of a lot of things, both good and bad, but without it, you ultimately can’t do much. In the case of BIPOC business owners who have traditionally found it more difficult to access capital than their white counterparts, this has presented a colossal disadvantage. But money isn’t the only thing BIPOC entrepreneurs are having trouble getting ahold of. Mentors to support their decision-making and networking opportunities are also proving to be just as difficult to come by, and the collective lack of resources is having a devastating impact on moving their businesses to the next level.
According to a recent survey by American Express Canada looking at the current experiences of BIPOC and white business owners across Canada, two-thirds (66%) of BIPOC business owners agree they have difficulty accessing capital and financing, compared to 45% of white business owners. Similarly, three-quarters (75%) of BIPOC business owners agree that access to capital is an important resource for their business, compared to just 54% of white business owners.
Data notwithstanding, the disparity in the experiences of BIPOC entrepreneurs and white entrepreneurs has been well documented. In the Black Canadian community specifically, the systemic inequities of anti-Black racism have made business ownership a lofty, unattainable goal for most. A dearth of business leaders in mentorship roles, less community investment, and stunted generational wealth are some of the key factors contributing to this reality. For BIPOC individuals who have only ever dreamed of running their own business, they’re left to contend with barriers their white counterparts simply can’t relate to.
To help bridge the access gap for BIPOC business owners, American Express has launched Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Businesses, powered by the DMZ. The 15-week mentorship and training program will provide 100 BIPOC business owners in Canada with the tools, resources and community to help them thrive. Not only that, the program provides them with a $10K grant to help kick start the next stage of growth for their business. BIPOC business owners can learn more about the program and submit an application today by visiting dmz.to/amexblueprint.
We recently sat down with Dwain Neckles, VP, Head of Large Enterprises and Global Client Group for American Express, to talk more about the barriers faced by BIPOC entrepreneurs in their quest to start and grow their businesses, and how programs like Blueprint can give them the boost they need to get moving in the right direction.
Can you first tell me a little bit about your role at American Express?
I run the sales and client management engine for Canada and oversee a team that looks after our largest business clients and provides them with payment and working capital solutions to help them meet their business goals.
Besides the client aspect of it all, I’m the co-sponsor of our Black Employee Network (BEN), a special colleague interest group that champions inclusion, equality and diversity across the business. I’m also actively involved in our recently launched Inclusion and Diversity Council and part of the team in Canada that works with council representatives to ensure accountability for our results, enhanced governance and sharing of best practices within our organization. Most recently, I’ve played a big role in the development of Blueprint, from its inception to execution, and it’s been so exciting to see it come to life.
During the Black Lives Matter year of reckoning, we’ve seen several examples of companies being called out over a lack of equitable inclusion within their ranks. Why do you think it’s taken the corporate world so long to address the issue and what is Amex doing to confront the issue of diversity and inclusion within its ranks?
This issue is personal for me. I grew up in the Caribbean and was educated in the U.S. and the U.K., so inequality is something that I have dealt with first-hand. Globally, there’s been a tacit acceptance of it, until last year, where things reached a boiling point we haven’t seen before. People started to demand that greater accountability be taken, and looked to the big corporations, who are in positions of power, to formally enact change.
I’m proud of the fact that American Express didn’t stay silent on the matter. Our global CEO was one of the first to send out an open letter decrying the issue and promising to take action. Shortly after, we put actionable goals in place to help us achieve our equity goals amongst our executives. We also know how important education is on the topic, so we’ve been holding ‘Let’s Talk About Race’ sessions to foster an open dialogue amongst our colleagues on how racism manifests itself in our daily lives and what it means to be an ally.
Externally, our Blueprint program is all about mentoring BIPOC business owners and providing them with a network of support to help them excel at what they do. In addition to providing them with $10,000 grants to help fuel business growth, we’re connecting them to seasoned mentors to counsel them on topics ranging from sales and marketing to operations and leadership, and a community of like-minded peers who understand their day-to-day challenges.
We don’t want our work in this area to be viewed as a one-and-done. We recognize that we’re on a journey with I&D, and every step we take on the journey is going to be strategic, intentional, and evaluated for its long-term impact.
What do you see as some of the barriers Black entrepreneurs face specifically with regards to access to startup capital and/or mentorship and how does something like systemic racism play into that?
The research study we conducted earlier in the year confirmed what we already know to be true, which is that BIPOC businesses face more hurdles than any other businesses in Canada. The widespread lack of access to capital, mentorship and networking opportunities, has its roots in systemic racism. For example, a lot of these businesses are being led by first-generation business owners, who are doing things that no one in their close circles has ever done before because of the historical lack of opportunity. This alone presents as a massive barrier that their white counterparts are not as familiar with, who have the benefit of drawing from the experiences of their family members or partners.
BIPOC business owners have been challenged for a long time, but programs like Blueprint are a great starting point for them to get on equal footing with their white counterparts. We knew the program had to go a step further, beyond the provision of grants, so we developed it to focus on other areas, like mentorship, that we understand will have a substantial impact for the BIPOC small business community.
What is it about this point in history that has people not just thinking about equity in the corporate world, but also providing actionable solutions to the issue?
I think it’s a combination of things. We’re spending a lot of time at home right now because of the pandemic, and it’s naturally giving us the opportunity to reflect on what’s going on in the world around us. I also think that technology and the ability to view live events from anywhere in the world has changed things tremendously. It’s brought longstanding social issues, like racism, into people’s homes in a very real way for the first time. Everyone, from corporations to individuals, have concluded that these things can’t continue. We have facts, and facts prompt action. It’s inevitable that any corporation who ignores the facts is going to be held accountable down the line.
According to a survey conducted on behalf of American Express, 46% of BIPOC business owners say mentors and coaches are an important resource for their business, with over 68% believing mentorship would have a positive impact on their business. Do you feel any responsibility to open doors or mentor other up-and-coming Black professionals, and if so, how would you say that you do that?
Experience has taught me that without proper mentorship or sponsorship, it's very difficult to succeed as a minority. Throughout my career, I’ve had to work harder to prove my case, often working close to 100 hours a week just to get noticed by my superiors. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve worked with people who judged me by my ability to deliver results and not by the colour of my skin, but there are others who haven’t been as lucky. So, mentorship is very important to me. I spend a lot of time mentoring through the Black Employee Network (BEN) and also through the Catalyst Program at American Express, which is a program I founded that helps prepare colleagues to take the next step in their career. I want others to know that my door is always open and a safe space where, if you do the work, you’ll have support to help you be successful.
My personal experiences with mentors were also one of the reasons why I knew it would be so important to have a strong mentorship included in the curriculum of Blueprint. Funding is great, but it’s simply not enough on its own. I believe the real value of Blueprint lies in its mentorship component. We have a vast network of subject matter experts and seasoned mentors, who are BIPOC business owners themselves, who are going to spend time with each of the participants in 1:1 coaching sessions, workshops and group learning sessions, to help transfer that important knowledge to them.
Ironically, despite the additional hurdles BIPOC business owners face, over two-thirds of BIPOC business owners still believe, overall, owning a business has been a positive experience for them. What words of advice do you have for burgeoning Black entrepreneurs thinking about launching a business in Canada?
Before you launch any business, you need to do your research to ensure that it makes sense and can be profitable. Beyond that, I would say, to reach out to your network. There is a lot of goodwill within the BIPOC community and people that are genuinely willing to help. Take them up on their offers, even a short conversation can provide you with insights you wouldn’t have otherwise had.
I would also suggest being aware of the programming and resources available to you can go a long way. There are multi-faceted programs out there that can help you get to the finish line. Get involved in programs like Blueprint that not only offer funding, but the tools and resources to help you chart a path forward for your business. Take advantage of every single opportunity that you qualify for, and you would be surprised at the number of doors that open up for you.
To learn more about Blueprint and apply for the program, visit dmz.to/AmexBlueprint. Applications close on July 27, 2021. Eligibility criteria and terms apply.
All stats courtesy of The Nielsen Company on behalf of Amex Canada.