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Black Business Certification Program is working with Ottawa to diversify procurement

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Jackee Kasandy, founder and chief executive of the Black Entrepreneurs and Businesses of Canada Society, says the non-profit is also in talks with major corporations.Jimmy Jeong /The Globe and Mail

A non-profit Black business organization has partnered with Ottawa to certify companies as Black-owned and provide training to help them access more procurement opportunities.

The B.C.-based Black Entrepreneurs and Businesses of Canada Society (BEBC) has launched the Black Business Certification Program to help government and corporate buyers find suppliers that are both equipped to handle their needs and certified as being majority-owned by people who are Black.

The initiative was in response to demand from the federal government and many major corporations that made commitments in recent years to diversify their suppliers. That includes buying more often from Black-owned businesses, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s slaying by police officers in 2020 and conversations about how to break down systemic economic barriers.

However, finding appropriate bidders has sometimes been a challenge, hence why the BEBC started its certification program this spring.

A first cohort of 20 businesses has finished the program, while another 30 businesses are signed up for the next round of classes that start in June.

Jackee Kasandy, founder and chief executive officer of BEBC, said each class goes through 13 weeks of training that teaches them about how procurement works in the government and for large corporations.

Some of the instruction comes from officials at Procurement Assistance Canada, a unit in the federal Public Services and Procurement Canada department that has a mandate to help small- and medium-sized businesses navigate the federal procurement system.

“This was a really good partnership for both sides,” Ms. Kasandy said. “We could get all the education and training that PAC would provide and we would provide for them a live audience that’s going to actually allow them to spend and increase the numbers of Black suppliers.”

The federal government has set a goal of directing at least 5 per cent of its annual $37-billion in procurement spending to Indigenous-owned businesses. It does not have any other set targets for businesses owned by other under-represented groups. However, the procurement department said in a statement that it “will explore procurement initiatives where, for certain procurements, bids will be limited to under-represented suppliers.”

Ms, Kasandy said they are also in talks with major corporations to involve them with the program.

One member of BEBC’s first class was Al White, owner of WRi Canada, which sells cybersecurity software. He said the training demystified the process of winning government contracts for him.

He said he was initially reluctant to identify as a diverse supplier. “Because I did not want to be out there, first thing, feeling like I was playing the Black card,” he said.

But he said after talking it over with other entrepreneurs, he felt that additional training would put him on more equitable footing with other businesses. “None of us wanted to be handed business,” he said. “All we want to do is to get a chance to earn business.”

One of the biggest challenges for increasing supplier diversity has been ownership verification.

For example, Indigenous groups have pointed to Dalian, a company involved in the ArriveCan controversy, as an example of a business that has obtained benefits questionably from federal programs earmarked for Indigenous-owned businesses.

Different Indigenous associations are working through ideas with the government about how to do a better job at vetting Indigenous identity.

Ms. Kasandy said her group is trying to learn from Indigenous groups as they develop their own certification process.

She said one piece of that is making sure control of a company is truly in the hands of someone who identifies as Black, and that it goes beyond, for example, having a Black executive as the face of a company.

“Certification means that we’ve confirmed that a business is owned and run and managed by a Black person,” she said.

She said they will ask the business owner to identify themselves as Black and their origin, such as “if they’re Black Canadian, Black Caribbean, Black African.”

She said this process also helps them recognize other obstacles the entrepreneur may be facing, such as language barriers, or if they’re a recent immigrant.

And on identification, there’s another factor, she said: “It’s easier for us because the melanin helps.”

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