Op-ed: What it's like to be a black entrepreneur in Ottawa

Kevin Bourne
The recent headlines around racial justice and inequality provide a prime opportunity for Ottawa companies to reflect on whether they have been either championing black talent or inadvertently contributing to racial inequality, writes Kevin Bourne. (Photo by Quest/David Leclerc Photographie)

It was almost 11 years ago that my wife and I shut down our organizational development consulting company in Toronto and made the move to Ottawa with the dream of working on Parliament Hill. A few months later we were both on the Hill – my wife as an administrative assistant and myself as a communications and operations assistant. 

We soon became known as “the black couple.” Aside from the colour of our skin there was no other way to differentiate us from other people working on the Hill, and the fact is we always stood out.

After leaving the federal environment, I made the leap into full-time entrepreneurship with my online arts and culture magazine and PR/marketing agency, SHIFTER.

One of my first experiences with race in Ottawa was during Doors Open when a local media outlet opened its doors to the public for the weekend. As I waited in line, I looked to my right and saw cardboard cutouts of all the on-air talent. I immediately felt like somebody had hit me in my chest. They were all white. None of them looked like me. Coming from Toronto where I was used to seeing diversity among the local media, this stood out like a sore thumb.

Over the past few years, I’ve had to grapple with what it’s like to be a black entrepreneur in a city that, although it just hit one million people, still feels very “white.” I’ve grown used to being the only black man in the room at certain events (and in recent years have stopped going to some events altogether).

I’ve had to deal with the, “What are you doing here?” side glances when I’ve gone to certain political events and the puzzled, “I didn’t know you were black” looks on people’s faces when I meet them in person for the first time after talking on the phone or corresponding online.

There are associations I have yet to join and events I’ve yet to attend because they let me know with their marketing and websites that I’m not their demographic. 

Earlier this week, I met with a friend and longtime member of Ottawa’s business community to talk about racial inequality and how I’ve been handling the incidents of racism in the United States, especially the murder of George Floyd. 

Since we were meeting in Carp, I ended our conversation by asking her an honest yet odd question. 

“I’ve always wanted to go to the Carp Fair since I moved here from Toronto. Would I be welcome there or will people look at me weird?”

As a black man, whenever I attend a professional or recreational event that people like me rarely go to, I always ask myself – consciously or subconsciously – whether I’d be welcome or if I’ll be on the receiving end of those side glances I’ve seen so many times before.

During our very emotional yet enlightening conversation, my friend shared a profound quote from author Verna Myers on race and inclusion.

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

When I look at Ottawa’s business community, I get the sense that all people are invited to the party, but I also don’t get the sense that black men like me have been asked to dance. We’re standing on the peripheries, wanting to dance but waiting to be asked. Why are we waiting? Because looking from the outside in, we’re not sure if we’re your type.

For those of you who are willing to share the dance floor with us, here are a few tips for how to be more inclusive in your company or organization.

Do a diversity audit of your communications

Start by going through your organization and communications with a fine-tooth comb and assessing whether there are prejudices and messaging that unintentionally communicate the wrong message to people of colour.

If you already have people of colour in your communications, next time try using people with darker skin. Some organizations will use black people in their communications or have them play a role in their event, but they’ll only use those with light skin who are more “acceptable” to the general public just to check a box and say they have diversity. If your messaging is reinforcing messaging that light skin is acceptable and dark skin isn’t, that’s progress in the wrong direction.

It’s also important to note that not all black people are the same. Black Nova Scotians, Caribbean people and Africans are very distinct from each other. Within Africa and the  Caribbean, individual countries are culturally different from each other as well. So while you may have a black person or person of colour involved in your campaign or event and believe you are promoting representation, members of that community may not feel represented at all.

Use focus groups or consultants to gain perspective from people of colour

Over the past few years, we’ve seen many headlines about companies releasing products that were offensive to people of colour, especially black people, leading to PR nightmares and losses stemming from putting out those fires and the inventory that needs to be discarded. Whether it’s through focus groups, consultants or hiring people of colour, especially at the management level, these kinds of nightmares can be avoided.

I recently recommended to a client the need to do a focus group for a new service they were launching. They were white and their main customers were going to be black and First Nations people. Originally, they weren’t planning to do a focus group, but I let them know about some of the historical experiences and complexities of the black community (which are shared by First Nations people) that would make a focus group beneficial. This is the kind of context and information that’s important to know when you’re launching a new product or service.

Market the city to people of colour

Like many other cities, Ottawa has a need for more talent. I personally know of black men in tech, medicine and film in other Canadians cities who are considering a move to Ottawa. Those are just the ones I know. I imagine there are others. 

One of the reasons they haven’t moved here is because the city has never been marketed to them. Would they have access to African, Caribbean or black culture in Ottawa? Are there existing communities here they can integrate into? 

For most people of colour, access to certain cultural amenities is a game-changer.

According to the City of Ottawa, Ottawa has the third-largest and second-fastest-growing Caribbean community in Canada. When has that ever been included in a marketing campaign? Are companies and organizations in the capital marketing to this influx of Caribbean residents?

As the capital of Canada, Ottawa can play a leadership role in the empowerment of black talent. The recent headlines and national conversation around racial justice and inequality, and the slowdown due to COVID-19, provide a prime opportunity for Ottawa companies and organizations to pause and self-reflect on whether they have been either championing black talent or inadvertently contributing to racial inequality.

Either way, we’re ready to dance.

Kevin Bourne is a public relations and marketing strategist at SHIFTER Agency as well as a board member of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition.