The Philanthropist Journal interview: Mona-Lisa Prosper

Mona-Lisa Prosper is the director of the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program, recently launched by Futurpreneur Canada to address systemic barriers faced by Black entrepreneurs.

Mona-Lisa Prosper is the director of the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program, recently launched by Futurpreneur Canada to address systemic barriers faced by Black entrepreneurs.

In December, a report called Unfunded: Black Communities Overlooked by Canadian Philanthropy revealed that Black-led and Black-serving non-profits are underfunded by public and private organizations and that when support is given, it is often unsustainable. The study amplified the public understanding of an issue many Black non-profits have experienced for years and preceded a shift in the attention of funders. This April, the federal budget pledged $300 million to support Black-led non-profits in 2021/2022.

Futurpreneur Canada, a national non-profit organization that supports aspiring business owners aged 18 to 39, recently launched the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program to “foster greater equity and diversity among Canada’s entrepreneurs.” The group started gathering data on self-identified race last October and launched the program on March 24, 2021. It is funded by Royal Bank of Canada, with additional loan financing from the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Mona-Lisa Prosper, director of the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program, holds a degree in law and brought her own experience in diversity, inclusion, and entrepreneurship to a role that, she says, combines her skills and core values.

Could you tell me a little bit about the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program and how it works?

The Black Entrepreneur Startup Program is a tailored version of our core start-up program. There were twice as many young entrepreneurs that self-identified as Black or Indigenous that noted credit ineligibility as one of the main barriers they faced when they were trying to access loan financing. (Futurpreneur Canada also has an Indigenous Program.)

Entrepreneurs who self-identify as Black and choose to go through the Black Entrepreneur Startup Program have access to up to $10,000 if they watch the credit training videos. Two years after their first disbursement, they have access to up to $40,000 of follow-on financing to help them scale their business. The complete loan offering is up to $60,000, depending on different criteria and, of course, on the business plans and the cash-flow presentation. Other than that, mentorship is a very important aspect of all of our programs. There’s a thorough matching process to address looking for the right fit for the entrepreneur.

Could you give me a sense of the businesses that you’re looking to support and how the projects are chosen?

We’re really looking for early stage [businesses] to be able to help them scale. The beauty of Futurpreneur is that we are not focused on one specific industry – we fund nearly all sectors, with a few certain exclusions. With regards to the way the businesses are evaluated, we have a team of business development managers and we also have a team of client relationship managers that help the entrepreneurs throughout the process come to a point where their business plan is viable and they have cash-flow presentations that are viable. The evaluation is done very thoroughly and looks at every aspect of the entrepreneurs and the business.

Could you tell me more about the barriers that young Black entrepreneurs face and how this program helps to address these barriers?

When you ask them about the issues that they face and how we can help, everybody mentions funding. We offer funding. Now, how can we offer funding in the right way? Can we tailor the mentorship even more? The whole Black Entrepreneur Startup Program – we’re a team with lived experience that can understand the issues that young Black entrepreneurs face, address them, and give the proper advice.

This is the very first step. It’s going to be important to assess as we go, to speak to all the young Black entrepreneurs that we’re helping and ask ourselves, “Did we address the issues properly? Is there anything more that we can offer?” And for sure the program will evolve.

How do you stay involved to keep the business growing and keep the process sustainable?

Some entrepreneurs come to us and get funding in less than a month. Some, it takes a year, because when they came to us at first, they had [just] an idea. Our program is really to take the entrepreneur where he or she is at, build a business plan that’s viable, go through the process of analyzing all the eligibility elements and see if the business is viable, and then disburse the loan. Once the loan is disbursed, there’s a two-year mentorship contract that’s launched with the mentor that we match. Then we like to stay in touch with the entrepreneurs to see where they’re at and make sure, of course, that the mentorship relationship is still going in the right direction.

What else do you think the sector or the government could do to address the issues raised in the Unfunded report?

In my opinion, the Unfunded report has done an excellent job at highlighting key reasons why Black-led organizations and Black-serving organizations have been lacking funding for years. It is essential to bring these reasons to light, and the authors’ recommendations are spot-on, including the crucial need to have more Black representation at the top.

The ultimate goal is for Black communities to retain autonomy and be able to allocate funds based on their needs. And for that, the philanthropic sector and the government have to work together to provide long-term support through different initiatives. The concept of community philanthropy could help better address systemic issues and should be adopted more. I salute the federal government on the Supporting Black Canadian Communities call for proposals, but I am hoping to see this opportunity evolve into a permanent program. We all know that change and impact take time – and funds!


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