In a world in which female Black business owners are largely invisible, undervalued and under-appreciated, Jamaican-born Yvonne Grant and Monica Lewis have withstood the test of time and are shining lights on Canada’s entrepreneurial landscape.
When Grant found she could not cope with the politics of her clerical job in the private sector, she quit and in 1978 opened Caribbean Corner in Kensington Market which was known as Jewish Market years earlier after the significant influx of Jews in the neighbourhood in the 1920s and 30s.
More than three decades later, Caribbean Corner – which sells West Indian groceries and other products – is one of two remaining Black businesses in the market which was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2005.
Grant and Lewis were recognized for their longevity and business savvy at Bethel Restoration Ministries’ Black History Month celebration last Sunday.
Accompanied by her mother, Grant said that becoming an entrepreneur was not at the top of her career options.
“I wanted to be an accountant, but when things did not work out in the 9 to 5 job I had in this country, I made the switch,” said Grant, who migrated to Toronto in 1972. “It took a lot of encouragement from my friends, the help and support of family members and just the thought of not failing, to sustain me through the years and bring me to where I am today.
“Being your own boss is a lot of hard work, but I have no regrets because I have met so many people and learned so much about what it takes to own a business and make it work for you.”
Itah Sadu, who co-owns A Different Booklist bookstore with her husband, Miguel San Vicente, said Grant is an integral part of the historic Kensington Market business community.
“I see her in the tradition of the market ladies who played a vital role in Black economics,” said Sadu. “She’s part of that…We go to Kensington Market partly because of nostalgia and I think that’s what makes Caribbean Corner a very vibrant bustling place.”
Historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor said Grant must be commended for her resilience.
“It’s not easy to get into Kensington Market in as much the same way it’s not easy to get into Exhibition Place to do business,” said Taylor. “When somebody from our community could be there for over three decades, it demonstrates staying power and the belief in her ability because it’s a very competitive market area. It also means that she’s very tactical because one can get squeezed out of that area very easily, especially if you are a visible minority.”
Lewis opened Monica’s Beauty Salon & Cosmetic Supply Inc. on Eglinton Ave. W. in 1970 a few months after coming to Canada from England where she lived for 10 years.
“I saw a need to get in the hair industry and went for it,” said Lewis who was a nurse in England. “I received a lot of support along the way, especially from my husband, George, who has been there with me every step of the way.”
Lewis has employed and trained many stylists while expanding her business and clientele over the years.
Bethel Restoration Ministries pastor, Rev. Raymond Burnett, and his wife, Wendy, hosted last Sunday’s community celebration.
By RON FANFAIR