Reuben Uwi doesn’t hesitate when asked to describe the feeling his fashion brand is meant to capture.
“Perseverance,” says the co-owner of Uwi Twins Fashion Label Inc., known for infusing African artistic inspirations with North American fashion sense.
Born in Rwanda, Uwi and twin brother Levi survived the nation’s 1994 genocide before eventually landing in Vancouver.
“We just wanted to put out a message that no matter the circumstances you’ve been through, you can make it,” said Uwi when recounting the brand’s initial launch at Vancouver Fashion Week that propelled him and his brother to New York Fashion Week.
At the time, the pair had been tapping Futurpreneur Canada’s support program aimed at business owners between the ages of 18 and 39.
After submitting a business plan for review, Uwi Twins Fashion Label lined up a $15,000 loan from the non-profit organization and matching funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). The two owners were also matched with mentors to help guide their efforts breaking into the fashion industry.
This week Futurpreneur Canada unveiled a tailored version of the same program in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) — one focused specifically on Black entrepreneurs.
The new initiative is offering loan financing of up to $60,000, of which $40,000 is funded by RBC and the remaining $20,000 by BDC.
Black entrepreneurs selected for the program will be also offered up to two years’ mentorship and access to a national network of Black entrepreneurs and community organizations.
“We recognize that young Black entrepreneurs disproportionally face barriers to success that have nothing to do with the potential of their business idea, notably access to financing and mentorship,” Futurpreneur CEO Karen Greve Young said in a statement.
“This new program will address barriers and amplify the success of hundreds of young Black entrepreneurs.”
Uwi said the Black Entrepreneur Startup program would have been all the more valuable to him and his brother seven years ago.
“This is going to be a great program to serve some of the people that may not have gotten a shot,” he said.
“Anytime there is a program that offers access to funding and mentorship, this is always welcomed.”
Njeri Watkins, who has mentored for Futurpreneur since 2017, said the new program will be extremely valuable for Black business owners still learning to navigate cultural bias or dealing with what she described as “racial battle fatigue.”
“Whether it be negotiating, whether it be positioning yourself in a room where, in some cases, people have never done business before with a Black person. There’s a cultural piece to that,” said the seventh-generation Black Canadian and owner of a Vancouver-based business intelligence consulting firm.
“These are life skills but very much entrepreneurial skills. Coming from someone who has the same lived experience, has faced these challenges and barriers, and overcome that — giving you those unique strategies to navigate the business world is so key.”
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Njeri Watkins began mentoring for Futurpreneur in 2017 | Photo: submitted
For potential entrepreneurs debating whether to strike out on their own, Watkins said it’s imperative they develop strategic partnerships if they want to be successful.
One mentee of Watkins’ had been developing the concept behind ghost kitchens locally prior to the pandemic prompting the current explosion in food deliveries.
The idea was ultimately a few years ahead of its time but Watkins said it was a valuable learning experience for the entrepreneur as he came to understand how to authentically communicate value to the marketplace.
“They are young entrepreneurs as well, so I want to give them grace with that,” she said.