Little did Shakira Weatherdon know that what started as a discussion among friends about the lack of supportive spaces for Black women entrepreneurs, would lead to the launch of a ground-breaking program called Black Girls Gather.
Founded in 2018 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the program provides Black women from across Atlantic Canada and beyond with many of the tools they need to successfully pursue their entrepreneurial goals and maximize their personal potential.
“We knew that Black women experienced various barriers as entrepreneurs at the intersections of race, gender and age," explains Weatherdon.
“Black Girls Gather came out of conversations about the barriers that existed for us in other organizations and programs. We wanted to be able to respond to the challenges in a way that could be meaningful and culturally relevant to Black women entrepreneurs."
Prior to founding Black Girls Gather, Weatherdon decided to try and see what resources were available to Black women who were interested in becoming entrepreneurs. What she quickly discovered was that there wasn't much information out there, and the information that was available often failed to address the specific needs of Black women. Systemic issues – including lack of access to funding, not knowing where to look for opportunities, and not being taken seriously as legitimate businesses – were the kinds of unique challenges that other organizations weren't addressing.
“We saw the need for an afro-centric response that supported Black women business owners in a holistic way," explains Weatherdon.
“We wanted to create a program that not only showed women the mechanics needed to make their business a success and profitable, but one that also made the challenges Black women entrepreneurs experience part of the conversation and part of the overall program experience. We wanted to validate their experiences, help empower them to continue to implement their visions, and help remove barriers to their participation."
Entrepreneurship, employment and community for Black women
To respond to the specialized needs of Black women, the organization's programming focuses on three key areas: entrepreneurship, employment and community care. The employment pathway helps participants successfully enter the workforce, while the community care programming offers a safe space to explore issues like systemic racism and Black identity.
The entrepreneurship pathway, which is Black Girls Gather's main focus, features practical workshops, as well as mentorships and hands-on experience with businesses and community organizations.
Weatherdon's goal is to provide participants with the strategies, skills and confidence they need to launch their own successful startups, or propel an existing enterprise into a profitable business with long-term sustainability.
“The entrepreneur pathway is our bread and butter and it's where we get the most participants," explains Weatherdon.
“For about three or five months we have weekly gatherings and facilitate workshop sessions where we bring in Black women entrepreneurs who discuss where they have tried and failed or succeeded. They are experts in their own right and help provide meaningful strategies and tools for the participants to use for their businesses. We also have personal check-ins with each participant to see where they are in their journey and if they need additional support.”
"We treat these women as a whole and support who they are as caregivers, community members and as Black women who feel that they're carrying the world on their shoulders. We dive deep to ensure we touch on all the complexities of what it means to be a young Black woman in Nova Scotia, in Canada, and in the world."
Pivoting in the face of COVID
Black Girls Gather is also an impressive COVID success story. Weatherdon was nearly nine months pregnant when the pandemic struck, yet two weeks after giving birth, she was already working hard to ensure Black Girls Gather could continue helping its community.
“I knew that our women would need our support more than ever," says Weatherdon.
“I saw that we had to pivot and respond to new and changing issues. If we wanted to continue to deliver much-needed resources in a meaningful way, we needed the tools and technology to go digital."
It was then that Weatherdon reached out to TD and received funding from TD through the TD Ready Commitment – the Bank's corporate citizenship platform. Weatherdon and Black Girls Gather used that funding to successfully transition Black Girls Gather's programming from in-person to virtual during the pandemic.
“With the funding we got from TD, we were able to get the technology and hire the people right for us to provide our programming and workshops virtually," she said.
"Not only that, but we were actually able to offer our programs to our largest cohort ever. Today we can take on even more participants and we continue to pivot and increase the accessibility of our programming."
Weatherdon notes that TD was Black Girls Gather's first corporate supporter.
"When I reached out in 2018 to a number of people and organizations for help with Black Girls Gather, TD was the first to say 'We get it and we're going to help'," she said.
"Black Girls Gather is now hoping to explore a deeper relationship with TD because they truly support our vision and understand that if we're going to change systems and make them more inclusive, sometimes we have to be willing to try new things."
Weatherdon is humbled by the impact Black Girls Gather has on its participants and she's honoured to help Black women pursue their dreams of starting a business. Participants in the organization's programs report greater confidence and a profound sense of belonging.
In the last Graduate to Employment cohort, nine out of 11 attendees found jobs.
“I am where I am today because of countless of Black women," insists Weatherdon.
“Honestly, Black Girls Gather is the least I can do for other Black women. We deserve support. Everybody should have the right to a fulfilling, dignified life and that's what we're trying to do with Black Girls Gather."