Micro Skills ‘a saviour’ for budding entrepreneurs



Working hard and long hours do not necessarily equate to happiness and financial success. With her fledgling business floundering in its first year, Mariette Stephens was at a loss for answers as she was rapidly losing money, weight and the appetite to pursue her dream of being a successful independent entrepreneur producing West Indian food, including rice and peas, roti, oil down and salt fish cakes.

Unable to convert $50,000 of her personal savings she invested in a restaurant into meaningful personal wealth, Stephens was forced to turn to a financial institution for assistance to keep the business afloat. She was advised to do a business course and directed to Micro Skills.

Over the past 27 years, the community service organization has provided women, youth, newcomers and minorities with the tools to run a successful business.

“Micro Skills was my saviour,” said the mother of four who was presented with an Entrepreneur award at the organization’s 14th annual gala last week in Brampton. “I learned about myself and that a business was more than just doing the work and collecting money without knowing how to manage the resources. I learned that I had to have a business plan if what I was doing was going to be done well.

“I was involved in business from the age of five when I would help my mother sell bread and other food stuff back home in the villages. That’s where my passion for cooking and business came from. She did well and I was under the impression that I would do the same here and be just as successful as she was. I was so wrong and Micro Skills was my wake-up call. This is a different ball game and it is obvious now that I had no clue what I was doing from a business perspective.

“Before I found Micro Skills, I was in deep depression and I had lost nearly 40 pounds. Now, just look at me today. I am happy, I feel good about myself and my business is doing well.”

Prior to opening the restaurant just over two years ago, Stephens operated a cleaning business for nine years. She was forced to quit that job in 1999 after suffering a serious neck injury while riding in a taxi that made a sudden U-turn on a city street.

In addition, her first husband died in Grenada and her second husband is in a Toronto nursing home.

Micro Skills executive director Kay Blair said Stephens’ story is quite phenomenal.

“This is a woman who came to us feeling very shattered,” she said. “Mariette had some capabilities, but no confidence to build a successful business. We took her in and provided her with support services and tools she needed and an extended network that she could bounce ideas off. In that environment, she felt respected and she started to believe in herself. She applied what she learned and is now a very confident person and her sense of self-worth has been elevated.”

Other Entrepreneur award winners were Lily Castillo-Insley and Nigerian-born Buchi Onakufe who, like Stephens, was turned on to business at a young age.

In high school she sold her baked products to friends to earn some extra cash and in university, she operated a bakery and sweet shop on campus. This business was so successful that, by her third year, she was creating part-time jobs for fellow students.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree, Onakufe worked in the food processing industry for a few years before migrating to Canada a decade ago.

Like most newcomers, she faced numerous employment hurdles until learning about Micro Skills through a job fair she attended a year ago.

“This award represents success given to me by the organization who gave me the tools to succeed,” said Onakufe who operates Oluchi Group Canada which is a food processing, export and distribution company introducing Canadian processed foods to West African markets. “It allows me to start exporting what we have instead of importing everything.”

Micro Skills also presented Youth Leadership Awards to North Albion Collegiate Institute graduates Tanika Dawkins-Williams and Ahmed Adan.

Dawkins-Williams volunteered in her high school’s Micro Skills Bridge to Success Leaders in Training program and is a first-year Business Administration student at Nipissing University in North Bay while Adan, who was born in Canada to Somalian immigrants, received homework help through the Micro Skills Bridge to Success initiative.

The first-year Ryerson student is now a program facilitator.

“I graduated from high school last year, so I know what is going on in the lives of young people and I can relate to them,” said the eldest of four children.

Blair said the gala is a rare opportunity to honour the real Micro Skills heroes who have been brave enough to transform their lives.

“When the women graduates attend an event like this, they have access to the corporate sector to market themselves, to network and eventually increase their market share,” she said. “Besides our clients, the gala also benefits our organization and the community because we are coming together and sharing our clients’ success, how we use resources efficiently and effectively and how we are contributing to building a civil society.”

Beginning with just four staff in one facility and a budget of about $450,000, the service organization now employs 132 full-time staff in seven locations across the Greater Toronto Area with a budget this year of nearly $10.6 million.

Because of federal cuts, the staff was reduced by 24 in the last five months and the budget was slashed by approximately $2 million in the last year.

Micro Skills served 27,000 clients in 2010.

“What is significant is not that we are growing as an organization, but people’s condition of poverty is deepening thus the demand for our services continue to grow,” added Blair.

Five years ago, Micro Skills launched the Margot Franssen Leadership Award to honour the Order of Canada recipient and former Body Shop of Canada president and partner who has helped the Canada Women’s Foundation raise thousands of dollars for violence prevention and recovery programs for women. This year’s winner is Hilda Mackow, president and chief executive officer of Mackow Communications Inc.

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