Black Owned Toronto started as an Instagram directory to showcase Black-owned businesses after Kerin John made a New Year’s resolution in 2020 to support her community through buying habits. It became part of a groundswell in the Black Lives Matter movement as increasingly more people looked to support Black-owned businesses since the George Floyd protests. Now a thriving storefront in bustling Scarborough Town Centre, plus a burgeoning online store, Black Owned Toronto is the number one destination in Canada for Black-owned products. The remarkably hard-working John shares her thoughts on building up the community and her journey through entrepreneurship.
As a Black female entrepreneur, have you faced any particular barriers or obstacles in the start-up space?
I’ve definitely experienced a lot of barriers in the start-up space, especially since the concept of [my] store — [featuring] only Black-owned businesses — was very new, and it hadn’t been done before. It was difficult finding funding, mentorship, and support. I don’t come from a business background. I never went to school for it. I also don’t come from a family of business owners. So, it was very difficult finding my way in the beginning.
You’ve got a beautiful pop-up store at Scarborough Town Centre, and recently, you had one at the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. Do you envision other pop-ups or permanent locations in the future?
I’ve been loving Scarborough Town Centre. That’s always going to be my flagship store, but I want to move to heavier foot-traffic malls. When we were at the Eaton Centre, we were there for four months during the holiday season, and we got a tremendous amount of support, not only from the Black community, but from all walks of life.
I was a little nervous going in about how the store was going to be received by the downtown community, but [people] came and bought. We were able to make about half a million in that very short amount of time. So, I definitely think Black Owned Toronto belongs in heavy foot-traffic malls. That’s my current goal right now, as well as [2 million dollars] funding.
Aside from helping Black-led businesses sell their products, have you, or do you plan to set other initiatives to support the Black community?
I definitely plan on starting new initiatives. It’s my dream to start my own charity one day where I can do things like support youth [through] business mentorship. They could have an easier journey than I did when they start their businesses. I’m actually having a back-to-school drive right now. When I had my first event two years ago — a holiday market — I was collecting socks and winter essentials for St. Michael’s Hospital and three additional charities. I love doing different work for the community, and hope I can continue doing that.
What was the most valuable thing or person that helped you as Black Owned Toronto expanded from an Instagram directory to an online store with popup locations?
My Scarborough Town Centre management team have been my ride-or-die girls. Their names are Crista and Caryn. We’re always working together to find new ideas for the store and find solutions. When I may be feeling down, they’re always encouraging me, and they’re amazing people and friends to me.
What would you want to say to those who are aspiring to become a young entrepreneur?
The first thing — and I know that everybody says this — but you just can’t give up. Even when things are hard, even when you feel like you’re failing and you have no support, there’s always somebody there to help pick you up. There are always resources that you can find. It might be difficult, but you have to keep your head up and stay encouraged because you never know. A small little Instagram page can turn to something big or that small idea that you have in your head can turn to something huge when you get the motivation and the right team behind you.
Also, network as much as possible. I think that’s one thing I didn’t do. Especially in the beginning, I was almost embarrassed of how little knowledge I had in the business but making those connections and finding people who have the knowledge that can help you is really, really important. Put yourself out there and tell your story, even if you might find it embarrassing or hard to tell because there’s people who are going to encourage you and help you.
Josephine Mwanvua | Staff Writer