How Black Owned Toronto went from an online directory to a major mall retail store

A platform created to promote Black-owned businesses is now making them even easier to find, all under one roof

Kerin John is the founder of Black Owned Toronto
Kerin John launched her Instagram page Black Owned Toronto in Toronto in May 2020. John wanted to create a space where people could discover and support more Black-owned businesses all in one place.  COURTESY KERIN JOHN

Kerin John, 24, started 2020 with a New Year’s resolution to support more Black-owned businesses. A year and a half later, she’s opening her first retail store at Scarborough Town Centre, selling everything from baked treats to scented candles.

“I always knew I wanted to open a store, but I definitely thought my first store was going to be on the street or something,” John said. “I didn’t think I was going to end up in a major mall so quickly, so I’m really grateful.”

The Black Owned Toronto store will be one of the first of its kind in a major mall. Launching as soon as COVID-19 restrictions permit, it will be located adjacent to Victoria’s Secret and Samsung on the upper level of Scarborough Town Centre.

“We don’t get a lot of chances as small business owners,” John said. “So, I thought it was important for when I opened the store to focus on very small businesses.” 

When John initially began her search for Black-owned businesses, she quickly realized her community needed a central place where people could go to find them.

The need for a Black-owned space

She decided to create an Instagram page last year in May called Black Owned Toronto to help highlight Toronto’s Black-owned small businesses.

A recent study published by the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce found that 34 per cent of participants started their Black-owned businesses to fill a market void and what was most important to their business was advertising and promotion. 

As a photographer and graphic designer, John was able to draw on her expertise to create an inclusive but equally aesthetically pleasing platform centred around promoting the work of Black owners and entrepreneurs. 

“I know offhand the importance of marketing and professional pictures,” she said. “But when you’re a very small business owner just starting out, this can be very expensive.”

Due to popular demand, Black Owned Toronto was later expanded to an online Canada-wide Black-owned business directory. Then the leasing team at Scarborough Town Centre reached out to John to discuss the possibility of opening a retail store. They worked together closely to develop a concept that supported Black Owned Toronto’s objectives.

“Through this pop-up, we are leading through action,” said Hailie Campbell, the specialty leasing manager at Scarborough Town Centre. “Scarborough is very diverse, and our goal is to reflect the community in which we’re located and connect [them] with products and services that are important to them.”

Supporting small Black-owned businesses

The owners of the small businesses that will be featured in the retail store are able to drop off or ship their products directly to the store. 

Among the merchandise are vibrant silk scarves inspired by streetwear. They were designed by 23-year-old Amera Kimya. She had extra time on her hands during the pandemic and decided to launch her own small business, Kimìra, in November 2020.

“If the pandemic didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have started my business as soon as I did,” Kimya said. “For that I am grateful.”

  • Silk scarved from the black owned business Kimìra
  • Silk scarved from the black owned business Kimìra

From a young age, Kimya remembers being head over heels for the world of fashion and would style and perform fashion shows for her family in their living room. 

With the help of the Black Owned Toronto platform, Kimya was able to grow her business, network with other entrepreneurs and connect with her community on a deeper level.

“I just love how it’s a creative platform for all black creatives,” Kimya said. “It doesn’t matter if you have 100 followers or 1,000, anyone can be featured.”

Inclusivity and being recognized as a Black-owned brand were important to Kimya when establishing her business. She wanted to create a safe space where her customers could feel comfortable, confident and know she looked just like them.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, such as the postponement of the store opening, both John and Kimya are grateful for the opportunities it has brought. To them, this is only the beginning and dream of opening multiple stores in the future. 

“I think it was the perfect moment to start because look where we are now, we’re going to be in a Black-Owned store,” Kimya said. “It’s an amazing thing.”

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Posted: Jun 11 2021 11:00 am
Filed under: Shift to Online Spotlight On Small Biz