Supporting the next generation of Black entrepreneurs is the mission of LiftOff Waterloo Wellington, the newest addition to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Waterloo Region.
On Friday, January 14, 2022, LiftOff held a virtual launch event for its first LiftOff Black Entrepreneurship Program cohort. With over $2.9 million in funding from the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario under the Black Entrepreneurship Program (BEP), the 12-month program provides coaching, mentorship, networking, and other business support for Black entrepreneurs.
“The Government of Canada is proud to support the Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo’s (CCAWR) launch of LiftOff to help Black entrepreneurs in the Waterloo-Wellington region launch and grow their companies,” said the Honourable Helena Jaczek, Minister responsible for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. “Our government is committed to ensuring Canadians have access to the tools they need to drive diverse, inclusive, and resilient economic growth.”
The LiftOff program started with a call from the Government of Canada for ideas and concepts to support Black entrepreneurship. One of the organizations to put forward an idea was the Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo Region (CCAWR). LiftOff Director, Dr. Trevor Charles, said that they saw it as an opportunity to expand the region's entrepreneurship support.
Dr. Charles is a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo and no stranger to entrepreneurship. In addition to being director of the Waterloo Centre for Microbial Research, he is also the founder, CEO and CSO of bioscience startup Metagenom Bio.
“We felt that it was really important, given the unique entrepreneurial ecosystem in Waterloo, that there was a need for this because the representation is not all that it should be in the various accelerators, incubators, and the startup companies that are in town," Dr. Charles said.
LiftOff has partnered with other organizations in Waterloo Region's entrepreneurial ecosystem to help bring the program to life. These organizations include the Wilfrid Laurier University Women Entrepreneurship Centre, the Conestoga College Entrepreneurship Collective, the University of Waterloo Velocity Incubator, and the Waterloo Region Small Business Centre.
"We're going from an organization that has been around for 45 years that is completely volunteer driven to one that is more professional—that's a big change for us,” added Dr. Charles. "It's also an obligation that we feel that we've got to do an outstanding job."
In true Waterloo Region fashion, Dr. Charles said their partners are making room and providing support to help expand opportunities for everyone in the community. LiftOff has space in Velocity at the Tannery Building in Downtown Kitchener, and Conestoga College is helping to adapt its programming from LiftOff participants.
"It is very much a partnership because they also want to find out how to make their programs more accessible," Dr. Charles said.
In addition to the support of its partner organizations, LiftOff is also seeing support and mentorship offers coming from other successful Black entrepreneurs and business owners in the region.
"They really want to be part of our network, even though they are well on their way to success because they want to be able to be part of the network that will both support them and also that they can provide support to," Dr. Charles said.
Dr. Charles said that many in the community who are new Canadians or first-generation immigrants to Canada see careers in medicine, law, finance, and technology as the preferred path.
"You find that a lot of people that immigrate to Canada might have to go the entrepreneurship route because they don't have an option, and so that is not looked on very favorably by their family back home. There's this real idea of running your own business as being something that you shouldn't be proud of."
Dr. Charles said that LiftOff hopes to connect these business owners with the entrepreneurs in its program to help build thriving, scalable businesses.
"You have these examples of restaurants and ethnic stores that serve the community. They could be so much more than they actually are. You might have one restaurant, but it could be a chain."
At LiftOff’s cohort announcement in January, Dr. Charles said the team is already looking towards seeing a new generation of Black entrepreneurs starting successful businesses.
"We believe LiftOff will help to shape how Black entrepreneurs are supported in and contribute to the Region, now and in the future."