“As an immigrant, as a Black woman, we don’t have readily available access to money, to credit, to loans, or to advice. It’s more than having a great idea and a great product…we need money and we need guidance. Sometimes it’s not easy to find the answers or easy to find the people to help us. Futurpreneur plays a big role in all of this… it gives us access to services that make our dreams come true in our businesses.”
As a Black woman in her twenties, Mary Oliveira arrived in Canada from Brazil in 2014 with a big idea: to introduce the North American marketplace to the joy of Brazilian chocolates.
In previous visits to Toronto, she had been impressed with the safety of the city, the diversity of the community, and the vibrancy of neighbourhoods along the Danforth. One of the few things missing, she deduced, was the availability of a uniquely Brazilian chocolatier, an absence she was determined to address.
After a year as an apprentice to her mother – the family’s master chocolatier in São Paulo – Mary returned to Canada committed to creating a business that would fulfill what she saw as a genuine market opportunity. Renting a small kitchen, she developed her line and established distribution networks through existing local retailers. Emboldened by the positive response to her confectionery creations, she sensed that the time was right to take the next step and establish her own storefront operation. Frustrated by the resistance to her idea from traditional financial institutions, Mary sought guidance through Enterprise Toronto. With the assistance of a helpful representative at the city’s small business service, she was directed to Futurpreneur. As she tells it, her first contact with Futurpreneur was a revelation. Not only was the organization immediately receptive to her entrepreneurial ambition for a storefront operation, it also provided her with a streamlined process for applying for assistance and an array of services tailored to her particular needs. As she says, “Something really interesting happened…they were human. They treated me like an equal and they were able to understand my needs.” Mary cites her first face-to-face meeting with Futurpreneur’s local representative as the indication that they were there to help. “I had a private meeting with an individual. They treated me well. They made me feel comfortable and outlined a process that was much easier – and more comprehensive – than I ever thought. It was extremely easy to understand. Awesome. That’s a good experience.”
While Mary had sought financing as her primary objective to create her bricks-and-mortar shop, she was immediately impressed with the array of services that were made available through Futurpreneur’s program. She singles out the mentorship program as one of several surprises that gave her valuable and unexpected tools to realize her vision. In describing her experience, she points out the mentoring element “was extremely important. Building a storefront was completely new to me. I needed guidance.” She credits Futurpreneur with being sensitive to her business needs in identifying an appropriate mentor. Mary points out that as she was building her plan for a storefront, “I found myself a little bit lost. And my mentor, she was fantastic…so much knowledge, so willing to answer my many questions, and to make me find my own solutions. Don’t forget, I was an immigrant. I didn’t even know how to apply for a job. I needed help even though I knew what I wanted to do. It was important to have my mentor. It changed a lot.”
Four months after establishing contact with Futurpreneur, Mary had built a rapport with her mentor, secured a Futurpreneur loan and a loan with Futurpreneur’s co-lending partner, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and was ready to embark on the creation of her storefront operation. But, as she notes, the relationship with Futurpreneur extended well beyond the fundamentals of financing and mentor guidance: “There’s so many other levels with Futurpreneur. It’s more than an organization that will give you money or even provide mentorship. They also have all the resources – their online classes, marketing – I was able to participate in so many other programs with them. As a result, more people were able to see my business and also to see my story. So, it’s more than the money.”
The opening of Mary’s Brigadeiro (Brigadeiro is a Portuguese synonym for “happiness”) on Danforth Avenue in 2018 launched her storefront operation and provided the opportunity to further extend her business. By 2021, she had added a wide range of products, diversified her distribution network with additional retailers, created a streamlined online capability and, throughout the pandemic, developed and refined same-day local deliveries and curbside pick-up. With these innovations she has been able, as she says, “to offer the same experience that customers have at the store inside their homes, so that they can share moments of happiness with the family” even during COVID related lockdowns.
The success of her enterprise has not resulted in any resting on her laurels. Not only does she plan on continually enhancing and refining her product line, she is already searching for larger premises and foresees expanding her bricks-and-mortar presence to other locations. Today, with a staff complement that is 90% female and from the immigrant community in her neighbourhood, she is a trailblazer for young women with a creative idea and a determination to fulfill their entrepreneurial ambitions. Her unwavering pursuit of her business idea is proof that small businesses in Canada do, in fact, make an enormous contribution to the economy and to the well-being of communities. Her experience in starting her enterprise has provided her with a sensitivity to the needs of women, of immigrants, and of local residents. She points out that her success means that she can support her local community in a meaningful way: “I can support their families, not just with a simple job with minimum wage – we pay more than minimum wage – but with a flexibility that is good for them and good for business.”
While Mary recognizes that her own ambition and drive were essential to her success, she readily acknowledges the contribution that Futurpreneur made to its realization. “To be honest, I’m not sure I would have opened the store without Futurpreneur. They made the difference. They made the difference for me as a young Black woman from outside of Canada. Thank you Futurpreneur for believing in all of us. Just thank you for helping people like me to amplify our voices and to give us a chance.”