Leading the Way to Excellence

You might wonder how Tia Upshaw, CEO of Blk Women in Excellence (BWIE), has enough time in the day for everything that she accomplishes. As the owner of three businesses and the mother of three children, her dedication to the community requires balance and a lot of hard work. Her ethos is straightforward: “I have goals, professionally and personally, that I need to achieve for myself. But along that walk, I want to ensure that I’m able to bring other Black women along with me.”

Building Blk Women in Excellence

BWIE, founded by Tia in 2020, developed out of a sense of community. “I was looking to have a group of Black women entrepreneurs that wanted to connect weekly and talk about our strengths, weaknesses, barriers, and what we can do to support each other to overcome racial discrimination and sexism.”

Tia’s idea came to her in August 2020. By the end of that September, BWIE was registered as a non-profit organization.

“Our objective, I quickly knew, had to be to educate, encourage and inspire Black women entrepreneurs through their journeys.”

Tia explains, “I’ve been through a lot in life, so for me this is the work I need to be doing.” Reflecting on her own business journey, she acknowledges the difficulty in not having had a mentor while starting out, now striving to be that person for others.

“This is what keeps me going,” she explains. “When another Black woman starts a business, she registers it, I see her out there being booked and busy - she won, I won.”

Since first registering in 2020, BWIE has worked with 73 Black women through their startup 16-week program. Out of the 73, Tia says, 37 of them are now fully operational.

“There was a huge need,” Tia says. Barriers as simple as a lack of access to computers, she explains, can limit Black women entrepreneurs while developing business plans.

“I had women that would go to a library with their children in tow,” She says. “I’ve had them do their business plans on phones. Or I would drive to where they lived and let them use one of my personal laptops.”

Tia approached the government to work together on a solution. Three months later, the Provincial government provided BWIE with 20 brand new laptops. Their new laptop lending program has been a success so far, with all 20 currently in use out in the community.

“Not only are we being amplified and springing up everywhere as Black business owners, as women,” Tia says, “But we’re actually giving back to the economy and offering a rise up for the economic development within Nova Scotia and Canada.”

She Means Business

BWIE offers several six-to-16-week programs, including She Means Business (previously called Level Up Your Business), which launched in 2022.

“We call it She Means Business because ‘Level Up’ just didn’t really pertain to the women. We had a vote through the board and through community engagement, and they chose She Means Business.”

Designed to support Black women entrepreneurs, and to provide connection opportunities for partner organizations to better support the success of Black women entrepreneurs, She Means Business received funding in 2022 from CUA’s Community Investment Grant Program.

The CUA Grant funded facilitators, guest speakers, honorariums, travel, and childcare associated with executing She Means Business. Tia explains that the funding also allowed BWIE to be re-educated on what barriers exist for businesses that are looking to scale up, since many organizations only offer programming on starting up. Tia explains that this “opened up another can of worms,” and boosted demand for BWIE’s programming.

Additionally, Tia says, they utilized a portion of the money to brand She Means Business through an Afrocentric lens.

“It’s not being taught through a Eurocentric, traditional lens; we’re using wording, phrases, language that Black Nova Scotians or immigrant Nova Scotians understand.”

When asked about what has changed for the organization since receiving CUA’s Grant, Tia says “It’s completely different, and it’s hard to explain. I don’t know if it’s the Grant promotion, or if it’s attaching Blk Women in Excellence to CUA, but for the outside world looking in, it’s almost like ‘CUA believes in them; we should give them a chance too.’”

Becoming a Grant recipient was a deviation from the norm, says Tia. “From the point of view of the Black community, it doesn’t happen often. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at data; we don’t get money. We thank CUA because [they] were the first ones to give us money.”

For other organizations interested in applying for the Community Investment Grant Program, Tia emphasizes its accessibility.

“I speak highly of CUA all the time to people,” she says. “Certain applications are built intentionally for Black people not to understand the language. [CUA] made it accessible, and it didn’t feel intrusive. It didn’t feel like I needed to ask anyone to sign an NDA!”

“We couldn’t thank CUA enough.”

Community matters

In addition to the training and mentorship opportunities provided through BWIE, events have kept the organization busy this past year. BWIE has facilitated a number of Black women entrepreneurs making their mark in Nova Scotian communities, as well as creating room in historically exclusive spaces.

In 2022, BWIE partnered with the Annapolis Valley Apple Blossom Festival to organize a pop-up event with over 30 Black women vendors in Kentville. Tia explains, “There’s never been Black people who attended, let alone Black businesses. And I intentionally partnered with them to create a safe space for Black women vendors. It was the first time, for their 100th year anniversary, that it’s ever happened.”

The event was a success, as was BWIE’s second annual pop-up event at the Halifax Hydrostone Market in August. Tia explained that, having grown up in the area since she was four years old, she had never set foot in the Halifax Hydrostone Market as it didn’t feel like an accessible space.

Partnering with the Market, BWIE’s pop-up event hosted over 50 Black women business owners, offering Jamaican, Caribbean, and Nigerian food, hair braiding services, clothing designs, cosmetics and more.

“It was a fabulous day,” Tia says.

Another upcoming initiative is the wellness retreat scheduled to take place in March.

“We have chosen 14 Black women to be a part of this. We have a CPA coming in to talk about the importance of keeping your books in line. We have a lady that specializes in grant proposals coming to talk about how to leverage funding.” In addition, a social media expert, mental health specialist, and yoga instructor will be meeting with and speaking to the group. Self-care and mental health, Tia says, are important points to emphasize during this retreat.

“In the Black community, you’re not allowed to have anxiety and depression. People will say ‘Oh, you’re just being extra,’” Tia explains. “As a Black woman, we are not allowed to complain. That’s how we were raised. So, I’m bringing awareness to mental health and really how that set back things, not only in the Black community but communities at large with entrepreneurship since the pandemic.”

Pitch perfect

Their biggest event of the past year was the Pitch Competition, which Tia says put BWIE on the map in Canada. “We had an overflowing amount of applications.”

Through the Pitch Competition, BWIE was able to amplify Black women entrepreneurs in the Atlantic Provinces. “We ended up having 11 women who pitched their businesses through Pitch Deck, almost like Dragon’s Den,” Tia says.

BWIE partnered with an organization called Pitch Better, which works with Black women to teach them how to leverage funding for businesses. Women in the competition worked with several coaches for a weekend to develop their pitches, culminating with an all-day event where they presented their ideas to a panel of judges—each one a woman of colour herself.

“It started at 9 a.m. and we didn’t finish up until the end of the networking event, which was close to 9 p.m. We had it livestreamed, and people from all over Canada were watching.”

Tia says that the response was very positive, and that if you didn’t want to be an entrepreneur before watching the Pitch Competition, you certainly did afterwards. “Even my daughter, she’s 24 and she has a luxury chocolate bomb business. But she’s an introvert so she said, ‘I’m not pitching.’ I had her volunteer that day. When it was over and done, she told me ‘Mom, next year I’m on it. These girls can do it, I can do it too.’”

Check out 2022 Pitch Competition Winner and fellow 2022 Community Investment Grant Recipient Tiffany Young of Natural Butter Bar.

The future for BWIE

Tia’s organization has been leading the way in collecting data from the Black entrepreneurship community, with 378 surveys completed. Organizations like the Women’s Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub have reached out for the data, of which Tia says there is typically little. The benefit of having a Black businesswoman in leadership cultivating research for the community cannot be understated.

Going forward, Tia says it’s crucial to meet the growing demand in the Black community for women entrepreneurs, explaining that “there’s not enough of us Black women—successful entrepreneurs or leaders in our community—that we can tend to them [mentees]. So, the ones that are here, like me, we are getting tired. We are burning out because everybody wants a piece of us.”

Most recently, Tia was selected as a finalist for the Halifax Business Awards’ Business Leader of the Year. Her outreach to other leaders in the community has only been increasing. “I’m now calling out Black leaders, calling out Black women in professional settings, you know, just give us an hour a week. An hour a month. Whatever you can give, I’ll match you to someone because we need it.”

Beyond these limitations, financial resources can be limiting as well. “It’s like a forest fire, when you start something and people are like ‘Finally, someone’s doing it!’ And then as a CEO and founder, I find it very hard to say, ‘We’re at capacity, we can’t do it.’” As such, securing funding for both future and ongoing programming is key.

BWIE currently has 27 mentors, all Black women themselves. Tia hopes that by the end of the year that number grows to 55. “That is the goal by the end of 2023 – that number may not be high to some people, who have big organizations, but for us, that number is tremendous.”

Tia’s advice to other mentors? Set boundaries to avoid burning yourself out, keep the relationship with your mentee business-focused, and instead of telling your mentee what to do, listen to what they say needs to be done.

Reflecting on everything that BWIE has accomplished since 2020, Tia explains that she “never, in a million years, would think that we would be where we’re at right now.”

We look forward to seeing how far BWIE has yet to go.

Our team at CUA is happy to have been able to help Tia on her journey, and we look forward to supporting more organizations like Blk Women in Excellence through our 2023 Community Investment Grant Program.

See other past grant recipients.