BMO celebrates barrier-breaking Black-led businesses
“When we started in 2017, we didn’t see anybody like us doing this,” says Shanelle McKenzie, Cofounder and Director of Community at The Villij. “One of the barriers we faced as black women entrepreneurs was feeling like we are not seen in this industry. Through this, we were really able to heal ourselves, and break those barriers that were put up for us.”
The Villij is a wellness community created for women of color, by women of color. They offer wellness workshops and conversations, yoga, meditation and walking groups, and they’re currently building a digital platform. Shanelle and Kim Knight, Cofounder and Head of Strategy, created The Villij after discovering a shared love for wellness – and a shared desire for more inclusive spaces.
Watch the video:
“Before I met Shanelle, I was doing a lot of traveling and I was really interested in yoga, and every studio I went to, I was usually the only person of color,” says Kim. “We’ve been in many different wellness spaces, and always had this feeling that we didn’t belong.” This lack of representation extended to studio staff, too – Kim and Shanelle also didn’t know any teachers of color.
Access is another barrier to entry. Yoga studio memberships can cost $2-300 a month, which is out of reach for many people. “We heard a lot of, ‘Yoga is for everybody, and everybody has access to yoga,’ when in fact that’s not the reality,” says Kim. She and Shanelle knew many women in their community felt uncomfortable or out of place in all kinds of wellness spaces, so they created one of their own – one with a focus on access, representation and inclusion.
Having met in the corporate world, Kim and Shanelle had no experience or connections in the wellness industry – not to mention no external funding. They created The Villij by bootstrapping; using their own money, cold calling people across the industry, building a network from the ground up. “Looking back, we were super confident,” says Kim. “It was just a matter of figuring it out.”
Still, they faced barriers almost immediately – a lack of resources, for example, but also more complex issues like proximity to studios. “We were thinking about having to leave your neighborhood to do a yoga class. That’s something that in itself is a barrier,” says Kim. “Those were the kinds of things we looked into. How are we ensuring people have access to these spaces?” Affordable pricing was also a priority for them – and providing it meant The Villij didn’t make a profit for a long time.
While Kim and Shanelle had complete faith in their business plan, finding access to funding was another matter. “That was extremely hard, not only as business owners, but as women business owners,” says Kim. “And then as people of color, that was a barrier as well. Showing up as Black women in the spaces that we entered, you’re not seen as someone who has a business that can be sustainable.”
Kim and Shanelle were among the first to receive a BMO Celebrating Women grant. These grants help women business owners support and expand their businesses – and in 2020, they helped women entrepreneurs to pivot and change up their business plans due to the pandemic. The Villij’s grant will help them launch the first and only affordable, culturally adapted digital platform where women of color can move, connect and nurture their wellbeing.
“With the BMO grant, we are able to really address the issue of accessibility,” says Kim. “Thanks to this funding, we are building a platform to provide access to wellness and overall wellbeing for women of color on a global scale.”
The two women consider themselves barrier breakers. “My hope,” says Kim, “Is that we become the blueprint to what it means to hold space for healing, what it means to be inclusive, and really championing accessibility when it comes to wellness and mental health.”
One of the ways BMO is observing Black History Month is by celebrating Black women entrepreneurs. Through a new content series, we’re telling the stories of businesses owners who’ve faced barriers of all kinds – and their inspiring experiences in breaking down those barriers. The series will run on social media across Canada and our U.S. footprint.
In addition to the team behind The Villij, the series features Valarie King-Bailey and Winy Bernard. Valarie went from Chicago’s project housing to graduating as the first Black woman engineer from University of Wisconsin. In a male-dominated field, she’s worked on projects as varied as the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and redesigning the Rolls Royce engine. Then she founded her own company, Onshore Technology Group, which pioneered the concept, principles and best practices of lean validation in the validation and verification business.
Winy Bernard founded Deux Creative, a bilingual branding agency specializing in project ideation and digital marketing. She’s a media contributor, podcaster and blogger, and she created the innovative digital camp, Créateurs Z. Built through partnerships with CBC, Facebook and Apple, the camp is focused on teaching teens the 21st-century skills they need to prepare for the continuously changing digital landscape.