How Black Owned Toronto grew into Black Owned Canada and opened its first store

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TORONTO —
It’s been a whirlwind year for Kerin John since she created the “Black Owned Toronto” Instagram page last year.

Initially, it was just an inviting online platform to promote Black-owned businesses in the city. “My initial goal was to have a social media directory. I definitely didn’t know it was going to get so popular so quickly,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

But as more and more entrepreneurs from across the country asked to be included, it grew into “Black Owned Canada” – a nation-wide online directory boasting hundreds of products from clothing and grooming, to snacks and skincare, to stationary and accessories.

And last week, John hit another milestone: opening up a physical store in the Toronto area with everything under one roof.

“I knew it was much needed for our community, so I just went for it. And it’s been amazing so far,” John said, adding that she’s “super grateful” at how far her idea has gone.

One of the goals of the store in Scarborough Town Centre is to continue her goal of giving exposure and much-needed shelf space to Black-owned products. According to a study by the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce, 34 per cent of participants started their businesses to fill a gap in the market; and what was most important to them was getting advertising and promotion.

INSTAGRAM, PHYSICAL STORE AND BEYOND

Everything started from John’s New Year’s resolution to support more Black-owned businesses in 2020, she told The Toronto Observer.

In May of last year, John, a photographer and graphic designer, decided to follow through on her pledge. She used her aesthetic skills to create the Black Owned Toronto Instagram page as a bright, punchy gathering spot for Black entrepreneurs.

Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police that same month, Black Lives Matter protests to end systemic racism drove up interest from people looking to support Black communities.

Last June, Google Trends showed a 300 per cent spike in searches for “How to find black owned businesses in your area,” with searches for “Black owned” also spiking and still remaining higher than during the 10 years prior.

John’s Instagram page ballooned to 70,000 followers.

Her eye for grabby, fresh graphics continued when her page – due to popular demand — expanded into a national online directory, Black Owned Canada.

It costs $50 for business owners to join, with the money going towards upkeep of the site, packaging and paying for in-person showcase events.

Around 130 vendors and more than 500 products from that website have made their way onto the shelves of the physical Black Owned Toronto store. John has billed it as the first physical space of its kind in the country to sell exclusively Black-owned products.

“The grand opening [last week] was amazing,” she said, adding that it quickly became an impromptu networking session.

“For a lot of us, it was the first time we went to the mall in months… it was a community bonding moment.”

John said she already has her sights set on having 1,000 business join her national online directory, as well as setting up more physical locations across the country.

“I definitely want to expand. 100 per cent,” she said. “So hopefully, I can open more of these and give business owners more shelf space and more opportunities.”

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