Name: Lily Lynch
Business: Sankara | Online Multicultural Marketplace
Industry: E-commerce/ Community
Tanya: The first question – what was your path to entrepreneurship?
Lily: So, my path to entrepreneurship was not necessarily expected or linear. Essentially, I realized that upon moving to a new city after graduating from university, it’s hard to make connections and meet people with similar interests as an adult. So, my co-founder and I decided to go to a local public market and sell his native Nigerian and Cameroonian food to the community, and essentially from there, we realized people were really invested and curious in learning about cuisine. Learning about different cultures all from our perspective. So, from there, we built an online market to facilitate the same types of transactions and build more cross-cultural empathy. And we’re in our fifth year now of business running this online multicultural marketplace across Atlantic Canada called Sankara.
Tanya: I love that so much, especially since there is so much Black and African history in Atlantic Canada. So, to know that there’s still such a vibrant community out there and a need for the marketplace shows that you were doing what most entrepreneurs do – identify a problem and build a solution.
What would you say, thus far, has been your boldest business move?
Lily: Our boldest business move would be developing a platform from scratch. It helps facilitate vendors originating from over 25 countries who now call Atlantic Canada home. And then it enables customers to browse, purchase and receive the world at their doorstep whenever they choose.
We opted not to use existing templates or e-commerce digital tools. My co-founder is an electrical engineer, who’s very ambitious and extremely intelligent. He actually taught himself how to code.
Tanya: Wow. That is really ambitious considering I’m sure it added planning time to the launch. So, that’s really, really impressive.
What would you say was the biggest financial turning point for your company? Your “We made it” moment?
Lily: That’s a great question. And when I reflect, I suppose it has to be the moment that we kept seeing returning customers who were curious and engaged. And seeing exactly how much revenue and subsistence that we were providing to our partner vendors.
We were able to provide sources of revenue for so many who don’t pay anything to be part of our platform or our social enterprise. And that for us was so gratifying and very encouraging in a moment where we were all going through flux and transition. So, we were really proud of that and it was definitely our moment of, “Okay, this is… We’ve made the right move.” We’ve made the right choices, and we can do this and have a lot of impact on the folks that don’t have access to traditional realms of employment
Tanya: What would you say is your business’s greatest triumph and the biggest challenge?
Lily: Our biggest triumph is building bridges between people who might not typically meet one another or interact or see eye to eye. And that’s principally through the vehicle of food. Everyone has to eat and we can create something that satisfies that need. Being able to facilitate opportunities of experiencing new cuisines and new cultures through our marketplace has probably been our biggest triumph. And that’s an ongoing one of course.
Our biggest challenge, to some degree, also revolves around the same thing in a rather homogenous province like New Brunswick. It has been immensely challenging to educate and open up people’s minds to experiences that they may never have had access to before.
And so, while folks have been immensely curious, the initial hesitation and questioning about, “Is this product for me or is this a platform for me?” or “Is it an immigrant-run platform for immigrants only to buy and purchase from?”. Or “What will it be like?”, “What will it taste like?”, “Is it spicy?”. All of those kinds of questions create this hesitation that some people can’t hurdle over. And it’s okay. That just means we’re not for them.
Tanya: How has either the global health and/or racial epidemics affected your business?
Lily: Well, they’re very intertwined. So, like personally, my background, my mom is White and my dad is so Afro-Indigenous. And so, the way that I’m able to move through the world, especially in a province that doesn’t have that many multiracial people and biracial people, it sort of means that I’m cast to some degree. Some people consider me White, White passing given that there aren’t as many community members that would be able to read me racially, I suppose.
My co-founder is a six-foot-three, Nigerian man. And so, I’ve been able to network and access certain spaces in ways that my co-founder does not have the nimbleness, due to discrimination, prejudice, stereotype, and everything.
I have taken on some of those responsibilities and obligations to be able to move our business forward, but I can understand the immense strain that it does have at the same time. To draw it back into sort of the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020. We actually noticed that the more people started tagging us on social media or speaking to the fact that we’re a Black-owned business. And we’re not only Black-owned, but we’re also Indigenous-owned, we’re immigrant-owned, we’re women-owned. We’re all these intersections. But we actually had far fewer orders.
Lily: We had less business for the months of June and July 2020.
Tanya: That is so not what I was expecting you to say.
Lily: I don’t speak to that lightly and we didn’t choose to have that bring us down. It was just interesting to watch that happen.
Tanya: That’s really heavy – having to be the face of your business and people’s biases show up when they see your co-founder. Like that’s a lot. Thank you for sharing that with me because I think that those are things, those are parts of what it is to be a Black. And in this case for you, an Afro-Indigenous entrepreneur, that people don’t see.
How can clients and companies, anyone reading this or eventually listening. How can they support? Well, in this I would be very specific like Afro-Indigenous women, such as yourself at this time.
Lily: My principal value right now from other people, what I look for is open listening and not making assumptions. Not passing assumptions and not having hugely great expectations for the way that someone should perform for you, or speak to you, or engage with you because the truth is that no one can know unless they live the existence of an Afro-Indigenous person.
Tanya: Thank you. How are you taking care of yourself?
Lily: I love Audre Lorde who said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation. . .”. I do a lot of beadwork. I cook quite a lot for myself to make sure that I’m nourishing my body and feeding my mind with the right things to move through the day. I have a giant dog, so I walk her quite a lot. I spend more time outdoors and get enough fresh air to clear my head.
I do have a new role I’m very excited about. I joined an organization called Tribe Network. It’s Canada’s BIPOC Entrepreneurship and Innovation hub. The aim is to build greater capacity for entrepreneurship and innovation among Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. We ask ourselves, “What if BIPOC entrepreneurs and innovators had access to a global network of people, organizations, and enterprises that can support them to turn all their ideas into reality? What if they were at the forefront of entrepreneurship and innovation globally?” These are the sort of questions we aim to resolve and be a part of the solution toward.
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence Honouree Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 30,000 and a national non-profit providing programs and financial tools through grant programs generously supported by BMO. The statements and opinions expressed by guests & interviewees are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bank of Montreal or its affiliates.