‘We aren’t as visible:’ The importance of supporting Black-owned businesses in Alberta
Two Alberta entrepreneurs reflect on the importance of community building and giving back through their businesses
10 February 2021 8 min read
We all know it’s important now, more than ever to support Alberta businesses—after all, they’re the heart of our communities. This month at ATB, we’ve been focusing on highlighting some of the amazing Black-owned businesses we have in the province.
We sat down with Seble Isaac, owner of Tiramisu Bistro and Lift Me Up Market in Edmonton, as well as Jameela Ghann, co-founder of Alora Boutique and founder of she[EMPOWERS] to learn more about their respective businesses, their entrepreneurial journeys, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.
How did your first respective businesses, Tiramisu Bistro and Alora Boutique, get started?
Seble: I’m originally from Ethiopia, and when finished school went to live in Italy where I travelled around and worked in several restaurants on top of my other jobs. There I learned to make Tiramisu and simple pasta dishes with Grana Padano that became my favorite things to eat daily! Several years later I moved to Edmonton and started working at Italian restaurants here as well. I was getting tired of the restaurant business and went to college and got a job with the federal government. I got married, had three girls and stayed home for 10 years. Meanwhile, I loved cooking and entertaining, and friends would say, “hey, why don’t you open something?” But I didn’t have the resources at the time.
I started entertaining the idea having [a restaurant] of my own as my children were all in school. I love 124 Street and wanted to open my business there even though at that time there were only a couple of restaurants on the street. Just next to my kids’ school there was this little cafe and I was talking to the person who owned it and he said, “you know, you seem to have a lot of passion, why don’t you come work for me?” I was working there for a little bit while the kids were at school. His brother had a building on 124 Street, but they had a tenant there. I waited for that building for two years. I would drive by it every day and envision how it would look. Two years later...I got the building, and the work started.
Jameela: Alora got started in 2009 as a hobby. My mom and I went and took a jewelry class together and we liked making jewelry so much that we didn’t stop. We had a lot of jewelry and we started giving it away, and at a certain point people were like, “can we buy your jewelry?”
We started doing little things like farmers markets, and we did a little show at [my mom’s] work and we donated 10 percent to the Mustard Seed. We realized we could have fun making jewelry and doing good.
You’ve both built an element of giving back to your communities into your respective businesses. Why is community involvement so important to you?
Seble: I started going out a couple nights a week from 9pm to 3am, helping the women on the streets. It was quite transformational. When we think of marginalized people or people in need, we often think that they’re so different from us. What I found is that all our hopes and dreams and wants are very similar; it’s just that circumstances are different for a lot of people. I’m very humbled and thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had to be able to make a difference in people’s lives.
Jameela: That’s just how we were raised, always trying to give back and do good where we can. With every purchase at Alora, five percent of profits goes towards transitioning women out of poverty and homelessness.
COVID has caused a lot of businesses to have to pivot. How did Lift Me Up Market grow out of Tiramisu Bistro?
Seble: When people think of the word Tiramisu they usually think of the dessert, but it actually means “lift me up.” When COVID hit I was like everyone else; I just didn’t know what to do. I was sitting in my home office and praying and thinking “okay, what should I do?” and then this idea just came to me—”Lift Me Up Market.” From there I could envision how it would look. 124 Street needed a market, somewhere to go quickly buy meats and fresh bread and local produce. We have all that and some imports we bring from all over. It’s really fun and I’m so glad I did it. We actually renovated the main restaurant during COVID, added a garage door to allow interaction with the street and freshen up the ambiance. When we reopened that was the magic that was needed after ten years. Tiramisu has done so much better than previous years because this was also another stream [of revenue].
What’s it like working alongside family at Alora?
Jameela: We all have our own roles and I think we work pretty well together. Right now, I’m in charge of creating collections and marketing, and then my sister does social and she fulfills orders, and my mom likes making bracelets. We outsource a lot of other things that we can’t be bothered to do. We do a lot of text and email communication so that we don’t actually have to talk about the business in person so when we do talk in person it’s all family stuff. Anything that’s online is business-related, so it’s easy to keep the emotions out of it.
Why did you decide to launch she[EMPOWERS]?
Jameela: I noticed a lot of product-based businesses, especially makers, were having a really tough time selling their products. Sometimes they didn’t really understand how to run a business, or basic things like how to market for wholesale or how to optimize their website for consumer sales. I really made a bunch of mistakes when I started Alora. she[EMPOWERS] is mostly to help other people avoid any mistakes that we made. It’s mostly for product-based businesses because we had a retail store, we’ve done wholesale, in-person sales and online. All of the experiences and ups and downs from Alora has really informed she[EMPOWERS].
When you first started your own entrepreneurial journey, did you ever imagine you’d one day be supporting and coaching other female entrepreneurs?
Jameela: It just kind of happened. There was a need in the market, I thought, “let me offer this to people” and then people were like, “I’ll pay you for it!” It’s kind of like how Alora got started, too.
What was the most challenging part of opening Tiramisu Bistro and Lift Me Up Market?
Seble: The experience was very interesting. You have your dream come true, it’s successful, but being a mother and after staying home for 10 years, it was [hard to know] where I wanted to be. I wanted to be at work, I wanted to be at home, I wanted to attend school events, etc., because my assumption was that I’d be able to do these things as I’m my own boss. Even though my husband was supportive I felt guilty leaving my children or leaving work as it seems unfinished all the time! You’re still a parent, but at the same time you’re doing something you love to do and want to do. Sometimes I would finish at 1 or 2 am and I would wake up again at 6 or 6:30. And you can’t complain; you can’t have it both ways.
Although opening Lift Me Up Market has been such a joy, investing during the uncertainty of a pandemic is not to be taken lightly. I had to keep a single-mindedness of purpose to get it finished and keep the spirit of staff in optimism and hope that it became contagious to all.
How can the broader Albertan community better support Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs?
Jameela: It’s extremely important to just do a little bit of homework to support Black businesses. We aren’t as visible as some other businesses with certain types of networks. It’s really important to help us grow because with that revenue we reinvest it in our business, we reinvest it in our family. The information is there, it’s just that you have to look for it.
Seble: Be mindful of where you spend your money. With a little bit of research and curiosity, you are bound to find a Black business that sells what you are looking for! Supporting Black local businesses as opposed to investing in big-box stores is a really important way of tangibly showing your support for our local Black community.
What’s your advice to other Black women entrepreneurs who may just be starting out?
Seble: Try to find a support network and some guidance or mentorship. I would have loved to have someone older or someone who knew when to say “this is how it is and it’s okay.” Just finding people that you can relate to. Ask those scary questions, the things that you’re worried about. It’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to feel insecure, it’s okay to not know all the answers. You’ll never know how your business is going to go; you just have to figure out some things while you’re doing it! Be persistent and don’t take no for an answer unless you have exhausted all resources, outlets, opportunities, and ideas. Don’t make decisions while you are discouraged…wait a few days!
Jameela: Black women shouldn’t be afraid to sell also to people who aren’t Black. I think a lot of Black people who are starting businesses start with Black people as their market, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but we shouldn’t be scared to sell people who don’t look like us and who don’t maybe share the same background as us, because the market is large. And look for mentors who can help you move into that space. Never be scared to ask questions!
To get to know more amazing Black-owned businesses, check out ATB Financial on Instagram.