CBC Interview February 2021
Black female entrepreneurs say exposure, access to mentorship needed to open doors
They hustle every day to show aspiring Black businesswomen in Manitoba how to succeed
Lindsay MacKenzie · CBC News ·
Lawyer and cosmetics company founder, Felicita Ovadje pairs up with Delia Joseph, a self-described "improveologist" and mediator to offer advice to other Black women business owners in Manitoba. This is the fifth in a series of conversations between iconic female leaders and the emerging entrepreneurs in Manitoba. 3:36
Felicita Ovadje, a Nigerian-born lawyer and entrepreneur, immigrated to Winnipeg in 2008 as a student before taking the bar exam and opening up her own business.
"I kind of had to build my own structure for myself and kind of change the narrative, you know, for Black women and girls," Ovadje said.
Changing the narrative for Black women and girls includes moving toward business ownership that reflects the actual Black population of Manitoba — 2.4 per cent and growing.
Ovadje is among those who hope future generations of Black women who want to start a business will see dreams can become reality when they look to others who are succeeding.
Delia Joseph, a professional life coach for many Black and Indigenous women in Winnipeg, was among the early trailblazers.
"I'm originally from England and I came here in the 1960s but my background is Jamaican, so those are my roots," Joseph told Ovadje.
"Back then you can imagine there weren't a lot of people that look like us, especially in this community."
Ovadje lives this experience even today and it's one of the motivations that inspired her to create Felicheeta Artistry in 2018. The Winnipeg-based cosmetics store sells products specifically for Black, brown and caucasian skin tones.
For the fifth conversation in CBC Manitoba's "The Icons and the Emerging" series, which explores female entrepreneurship in Manitoba amid the pandemic, we paired Ovadje and Joseph to make a mentorship connection and talk through the opportunities and obstacles of being Black female entrepreneurs.
Note: this conversation is a transcript that has been edited for clarity and length.
Delia Joseph: So I'm originally from England and I came here in the 1960s, but my background is Jamaican, so those are my roots. Back then you can imagine there weren't a lot of people that look like us, especially in this community.
I guess it depends on the industry as well in terms of obstacles, and so when I didn't see a lot of people who looked like me in terms of representation, I — then the fears came up. Am I going to be successful? Can I do this? Is anybody [going to] want to engage with me?
Back then you can imagine there weren't a lot of people that look like us, especially in this community- Delia Joseph, personal life coach
Felicita Ovadje: So I just want to highlight something — I felt like this affects a lot of black women — is the access to the resources, the representation, people around them and sometimes family also, because I'm sure as a black woman, that you might have heard this thing that people say, "Don't be too successful, you know, just tone it down a little bit so that the men don't get scared away."
And that happens to most of us [who] are very ambitious and very driven about life, that happens to us sometimes.
Trying to develop my business was difficult if I looked to the Black community, because the steps or the process that you see a lot of mainstream businesses take, well a lot of them are not incorporated. They are sort of at-home businesses, so I didn't have many examples.
I was fortunate though to have the memory of my mother in Nigeria who passed away 15 years ago. I had that example of someone who was a doctor, she had a farm — she had so many businesses under her belt while also having five kids. She was a firehouse.
I kind of had to build my own structure for myself and kind of change the narrative, you know, for Black women and girls to be able to see and say, "OK, this girl is, you know, she's a lawyer, she is able to open this company and I can do it too."
Delia Joseph: What I'm hearing is legacy is important to you.
Getting your voice heard
Delia Joseph: I like what you said, Felicity, because back in 1983, I became a cosmetologist as well. So I have my certificate in cosmetology, and back then, it was just me and another young lady, and we were the only brown people or Black people in the class, and the makeup that we had to work with didn't look anything like us — nothing at all.
Fast forward maybe I think about a year later, my cousin and her partner had a beauty supply store, and they had to import makeup that looked like us. And so a lot of times I would do people's makeup and also young kids that were graduating and they wanted their makeup done for graduation day. I would do their makeup as well, because there was really nothing out there.
Felicita Ovadje: When I first came to Canada I was part of the immigration settlement organization, it's closed down now, but it was a drop-in centre for women. One turning point in my life was when they sent me to Toronto for a conference to discuss inclusion and diversity in society.
I remember at the end of the conference, we had spent three days talking about inclusivity and I just felt like, as an immigrant and someone who came here when I was 18 and went through the school system, it was a lot of — well, for lack of a better word, talk.
The immigrant in me wanted to hear what the implementation was. I'd been there for three days. It was amazing and attended by a number of very respected people.
Toward the end, there was a Q & A session and I got up to ask the mayor of Calgary at the time a question, and he couldn't give me an answer. The question I asked him was: "What are we moving toward here? What is the action plan?" He tried to answer, but didn't, you know?
After that, there were a number of people that came up to me.
You know, I used to work at the drop in centre with immigrant women who had their kids taken away from them and things like that, and I'm also a lawyer and an immigrant myself, so I see both sides.
I kind of had to build my own structure for myself and kind of change the narrative, you know, for Black women and girls- Felicita Ovadje, owner of Felicheeta Artistry
When I first started my business, I was looking for a makeup artist who could work with women of colour, and so I called one of the schools and I remember their response was "Oh, we have someone." But at the first wedding she was really shaken and I had to calm her down. She wasn't familiar with how to do makeup for women of colour.
It showed me that if these schools don't think it's serious to invest in learning how to do or learn how to offer makeup services to people of colour … then I will create that space.
There's a social impact to it and that's going to empower the black community. You know that when you're buying that lipstick, it's not for yourself but also empowering a Black-owned company, encouraging them to produce more.
Delia Joseph: Exposure. Exposure is really important because when people know that you have a good product, they'll support it. I think we need more exposure in terms of maybe TV programs or radio programs, giving us a segment or spotlight, maybe 15, 30 seconds, on different businesses within the Black community.
I think that's what we need, to show other people who look like us what's possible, because usually when you don't see it, you don't strive for what you really want. You're giving another generation an idea of what is possible.
Felicita Ovadje: So I look at both internal and external factors. External factors are to spotlight the businesses with segments, more tools, more grants and, yes, more exposure — more people being sensitive to people of colour, their stories, experiences and businesses.
But also, I think internally and as a Black community, we also have to take on more mentorship.
It's one thing for, you know, places like CBC to have things like this, but nothing's more important than connecting with the younger generation.
I have a young girl who sells her products through our shop, and I try to answer her questions and encourage her.
Give 1 piece of advice
Delia Joseph: You have to be careful who you talk to. Get your own group of friends that are doing the same thing as you and who will support you.
I've got a group of Black women — all in Manitoba — in my circle and we're called the women of Wakanda. We talk about things that normally we couldn't talk about outside of our circle. The best part about our group is that we don't have to overexplain ourselves. We can say one thing and we get it because of our culture.
So I think it's about surrounding yourself with the right people, because you don't want your dreams being killed or diminished.
Felicita Ovadje: You know what, I do this exactly when things are not working, when life is just not going right.
And I'm going to add to that when failure happens to me, I pause and say to myself that I'm being called higher — because that's what your business might be trying to tell you.
Take a break and examine things.
One thing I have learned is that I want my business to reflect my personality, and so people are going to form an impression from that.
But the business tak[es] on its own identity [too].… Most of the time it's from opinions based on what [people] want to see.
So sometimes failure is about the business, and sometimes it's about the choices that I make as an individual and the owner.
Felicita Ovadje is a practising lawyer in Manitoba and owner of Felicheeta Artistry, a cosmetics line and beauty space that reflects Black excellence in the makeup industry for Winnipeggers. Ovadje is passionate about the success of immigrants and mentors many young women who have entrepreneurial dreams.
Delia Joseph has been a certified mediator for over 20 years and is a certified life coach. Joseph has facilitated victim sensitivity workshops for justice committees, and regularly facilitated Colour of Fear, a full-day workshop addressing racism and microaggression. She has been invited as a guest speaker on several occasions at the Congress of Black Women.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.