Cutting it in business takes grit, intellect, and a thick skin, but it also requires access, something that for too long women (in particular Black women) have been kept from. It’s not that there is a lack of talent or capable skills, it’s about getting that talent to the decision table where the hiring takes place.
There are driven leaders in the Black community that have paved the way, many of which have done so by bootstrapping their own business or by tackling issues of diversity, organizing networks to spark change. Many are just starting out and need to see more Black women like them. Many just need to know it is possible to make it.
Here, we look at five Canadian Black female leaders who have done just that—made it. These leaders are defining our world through strategies, smarts, and strength. What all these women have in common is a fearlessness to succeed and a desire to solve problems.
Global Executive Officer, Protect Fusion & Cyber Experience; TD
Throughout her career, Claudette McGowan has intentionally and diligently strived to support innovation and diversity, looking at what data tells us and the human stories behind that data. This approach has allowed her to lead in both the business and creative worlds, guiding with a critical eye and listening ear to foster change. When she speaks, the world listens—including Michelle Obama, whom she interviewed in 2019 during Elevate’s annual tech festival.
McGowan developed programs to support women and female technologists; helped create physical spaces where robotics and software development can be cherished; partnered for initiatives that fund hungry tech startups; and just recently became the chair of the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR).
At the root of her leadership is her ongoing message on the value of education. It’s through education that change happens, and if the above isn’t enough, McGowan and the team at TD became the founding partner for Black Hxouse, which is an extension of the Hxouse incubator developed by The Weeknd’s collective of business and creative partners. Black Hxouse will provide corporate partnerships, grants and mentorship for the Black, Indigenous and persons of colour (BIPOC) community. McGowan is the epitome of a leader.
Co-founder, COO; Air Matrix
When Alexandra McCalla started working for herself and was able to build the environment and team around her, she finally felt in control instead of being blocked by hierarchy. A former consultant and having helped with distribution strategies for Apple and Netflix, McCalla sees technology (more specifically, drone technology) as the “new frontier” that’s rich with opportunity.
Initially raising around $400k from angel investors, McCalla helped Air Matrix (which has built a drone road system for the sky with millimeter precision) to achieve additional funding from outlets including Canada’s National Research Council.
And they are the only ones in the world who have autonomous flight taking place, working with municipalities and cities to ensure responsible deployment. She is one of two Black females on the Coalition of Innovation Leaders Against Racism (CILAR), sitting alongside executives from Cisco and Siemens, and hires from the Black Professionals in Tech Network (BPTN), plus has participated with the Black Innovation Fellowship Bootcamp (BIF), which are all responsibilities she embraces, especially as someone who has climbed her way up from working part-time on AirMatrix in 2017.
Air Matrix has already worked with NASA and Transport Canada, and will be announcing a few new large-scale partnerships soon. But for more people like her to succeed, McCalla says Black leaders need to define the tech industry as opposed to reshape it. In her perspective, there is so much promise and opportunity, but when there are more Black suppliers, VC’s, and Black-led technology companies succeeding, Black leaders will be represented differently and new opportunities will be created for a more inclusive society.
President, Canadian Association of Urban Financial Professionals
Not every person can move to a new country alone and succeed, but when Meryl Afrika emigrated from South Africa over a decade ago, she came ready to prove herself. Since landing in Winnipeg, where she worked three jobs, Afrika has assumed roles in different provinces across Canada, which she says helped her see “the real Canada; what people value and the lens outside of major cities.” From her first job in fintech to working in a call centre to her corporate job in commercial banking for CIBC, Afrika has moved from sales and product development to now working on the policy review side, helping shape the way a customer is able to facilitate payments in the industry.
She’s a problem solver, and two years into her role as the president of the Canadian Association of Urban Financial Professionals (CAUFP), Afrika has increased membership from 178 professionals to 800. It’s here that she creates opportunities, such as helping 100 Black students get actively recruited for internship programs, organizing executive dining events with TD, or making mentorship available for those in need, forging a playing field that’s more equitable.
For Afrika, the power lies in the programming initiatives that are made available to the Black community, which allows for networking and stories to be told. It also shows that a young Black woman can help create these sorts of opportunities without being a diversity expert or working on Bay Street for 20 years. “You have to be what you want to see,” she says, adding that Black women need to have a strategy to create places where they want to work. By having a measurable quota and “investing in the things that may not get a headline,” Afrika‘s focus is on translating awareness into impact. This is how she’ll keep leading.
Entrepreneur; founder, KinkyCurlyYaki
Confidence can be the byproduct of competency, but it can also be harnessed through feeling good about yourself—Vivian Kaye gets this. And that’s why since December 2012, she’s been on a mission to provide high quality textured hair extensions for people that look like her: Black women. The beauty entrepreneur bootstrapped her business KinkyCurlyYaki from zero to a million-dollar business that sells kinky textured human hair extensions—a market that, prior to her, did not have a provider solely selling in the category.
“I spoke to a very specific group of Black women who saw value in my offerings,” she says about KinkyCurlyYaki, which “hit its first million in annual revenue in 2016,” she adds. It’s now a 7-figure business.
Now, with the creation of Founders Fund, a 500-person strong membership that sees 34 percent of members identifying as women of colour, Kaye is able to mentor women entrepreneurs to make business moves while celebrating “all your wins, big or small.” Kaye leads with encouragement, pushing women to ask for what they want and need while “choosing to see failures as lessons and not a character flaw.” It’s for these reasons that her role continues to expand, and companies like Shopify seek her out to help coach people and their businesses.
Kaye’s success story is a special one, being that she is not VC-backed, is a college dropout, and a single mother—all conditions that generally work against women, especially Black women. But she’s defied the odds and is paving the way for the next generation of Black entrepreneurs.
Designer, Brother Vellies
Fashion may be what many associate this Toronto-born designer with, who formerly worked at Fashion Television, but Aurora James is a mission-driven leader, too. As founder and creative director of footwear and accessory brand Brother Vellies, James has expanded her talent to the boardroom, asking retailers and companies to sign onto the 15 Percent Pledge, which will see 15 percent of their shelf-space dedicated to Black-owned businesses. Yelp, Vogue, West Elm, and Sephora are among the heavyweights that have already committed.
James founded Brother Vellies in 2013 with the objective of highlighting traditional African footwear, while creating artisanal jobs in Africa, a salute to empowerment, and the ability to survive through fashion. James, who was raised in a multiracial household, is proving that with persistence, you can open doors and minds, forcing people to rethink how they view business and the Black professionals fueling it. Is it any surprise that she was named one of Time’s ‘34 Optimists of 2019’, or that she’s on the cover of the coveted September 2020 issue of Vogue, which looks at “hope” and the future of fashion? The September issue is the biggest of the year, and James is one of two portraits featured. Also, let’s not forget about her winning the prestigious CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund award in 2015, an award that helped solidify her among Canada’s fashion business elite.
James is one of the leading young Black female voices fighting for financial equity, while battling racial injustice, supporting entrepreneurs, and simply put: working at creating a better, more representative world.