When it comes to starting a food business in Canada, not everyone starts out on a level playing field. From securing business capital to education around lesser known food products from other cultures, BIPOC food entrepreneurs face a staggering wall of systemic barriers just to get their foot in the door. Janice Bartley is passionate about changing that: her initiative Foodpreneur Lab (which is the only Black-woman founded and led non-profit in Canada) is on a mission to create space for BIPOC food entrepreneurs and provide them with critical resources and support to make their mark in the Canadian food space.
“The makeup of Canada is so diverse, and yet that wasn’t really being represented in the food ecosystem,” says Janice. “My inspiration to start Foodpreneur Lab came from frustration – I was having conversations with underrepresented female entrepreneurs who were really struggling to get not only their products to market, but visibility as well.”
That struggle stems from a food landscape that’s steeped in generations of privilege – and as Janice points out, BIPOC entrepreneurs don’t have access to the same resources: “When you look at other communities and how they launch their business, the money being put up is often collateral from a familial asset. Generationally speaking, we don’t have that to rely on… We’re not side by side running. We’re extremely behind,” Janice explains. “I have to commend the Canadian government for listening to the Canadian Black Caucus and creating the Black Ecosystem Fund because it is needed. It is not something that can be ignored anymore. And in order for BIPOC communities to compete, there has to be a level playing field.”
The Black Ecosystem Fund has been imperative in providing funds for Foodpreneur Lab’s Support Paths for BIPOC food entrepreneurs. Foodpreneur Lab offers two main Support Paths: Startup for new businesses and Scale Up for existing businesses looking to expand. Entrepreneurs are connected directly with expert advisors in their specific industries to guide them through the process of growing their business over the course of nine months. From recipe development to shelf life testing to marketing products, Foodpreneur Lab supports food entrepreneurs through every aspect of growing their business.
For Janice, creating a supportive sense of community is imperative to the success of Foodpreneur Lab: “We create an environment where you feel comfortable and you are seen,” she explains. “We stress the importance of building confidence because that’s a barrier as well. When you constantly go into rooms where you don’t see people that look like you, it’s easy to shut down. That can be misinterpreted as not having knowledge when actually that’s not the case at all, it’s just the fear of being in an unfamiliar environment. I wanted to remove all those things, whether real or imagined, and really create a space where they would have access to expert advisors in real time, and they could use that one on one interaction and deal with the real time issue that’s bottlenecking their business.”
Foodpreneur Lab also strives to meet entrepreneurs at whatever stage of business they’re at: “Traditionally, when we look at existing incubators or accelerator programs you are forced to level up to them, not the other way around,” says Janice. From prerequisites to certifications, businesses are often required to have certain qualifications before accessing support. “We try to step back and say, ‘Tell me where you’re at. Tell me what you need. Let me guide you and walk with you as we level up together.’ That’s the difference. Because if you are starting from a deficit, how can I expect you to compete at that same level?”
It’s this approach that has helped countless BIPOC-owned businesses take their companies to the next level. Some Foodpreneur Lab alumni include Yawdi’s sauces and marinades (their Jerk Marinade is a must-try, especially ahead of barbecue season!), Mnandi Pies, a purveyor of Zimbabwe’s distinctly delicious flaky and savoury pies, Kilishi Spicy (a purveyor of African style beef jerky) and so many more.
“It’s really inspiring to see the innovation and generational recipes that are being brought to the forefront,” Janice says of the upcoming Foodpreneur Lab roster. While Foodpreneur Lab’s 2022 roster is already full, they’re already looking ahead to their 2023 and 2024 programming.