Business is Jammin’ and other stories: A conversation with Matthew Martel – CEO, Black Business Initiative (BBI), Nova Scotia


By Sheryl Dubois

Organizations far and wide are tweaking – if not all out recreating – their programs in response to safety protocols put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

For the Black Business Initiative (BBI) in Nova Scotia this meant first changing how staff worked and then tackling the problem of programming.

“We’ve shifted to hybrid working arrangements,” explained Matthew Martel, CEO of BBI. “We’ve got work from home, work in the office and work in whatever space is safe for that person.”

The Black Business Initiative is a not-for-profit tasked with delivering to the African Nova Scotian community entrepreneurial and business training, counselling and support.

Programming for youth includes, for example, the “Business is Jammin’ – Break into Business” camp developed in 2015 and held during March Break and summer camp weeks. Designed for students as young as ten, groups in Halifax – and in more recent years, Truro – gather on a Monday morning to brainstorm business ideas. Participants develop products, make budgets, go on site tours, learn about marketing and by the end of the week are prepared to sell samples of their wares or services.

Business is Jammin’ Break into Business, March Break, 2019. Halifax, Scotia Square. After a week of entrepreneurial training youth get to set up a booth and sell their products in a space kindly donated by Scotia Square in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Contributed by BBI.

Given the hands-on nature of the programming it is no wonder Martel describes changes to BBI programming as “more drastic” than changes to staffing.

Training webinars, skills based online training and virtual meetings replaced every in-person program, class, workshop and camp.

The shift, said Martel, was challenging but also brought new opportunities.


“Shifting all our programming from in-person to virtual programming has quite frankly given us the ability to reach more youth in rural areas than we ever have before.”

BBI is in the business of breaking down barriers to deliver their programs. Geography, according to Martel, is always a challenge for the organization because the hub of BBI is in Halifax and black youth live all over Nova Scotia. The advent of virtual training reduced barriers for many participants who could not make the trip but could participate online. In fact, seeing the opportunity, BBI fortified a device-loaning program and Martel said with that, even more youth are participating.

To steward a sense of community among the participants online, the BBI now curate “program kits” and mail them to participants prior to events.

“It keeps as much of the community-feeling as we can,” said Martel. Everyone opens the package at the same time and inside may be a book or supplies for activities listed on the agenda.


While the online programming is going well Martel is keen to get back to a few in-person events. He said there is something the online community experience misses. It is a feeling he first felt while attending the 2019, day long, BBI Youth Summit hosted by Dalhousie University.

Eighty students in grades 9 to 12 came from all over the province to attend the summit.

For many black students, Martel pointed out, it was their first experience standing in a room with 79 peers – “all who looked the same as them.”

“When you were in the room,” continued Martel, “you could kind of feel that it was a special moment,” a one-of-a-kind moment in which “black youth were bonding with black youth.”

Participants at the Black Business Initiative (BBI) Youth Summit 2019 hosted by Dalhousie University – many months before COVID. Contributed by BBI.

“Seeing people like yourself is extremely important, especially early [in life],” assured Martel, and it has an impact.

“I probably haven’t seen people that engaged at a conference or seminar ever, adult or youth. It was just amazing.”

Martel looks forward to the next in-person event whenever that may be. In the meantime, he encourages engagement.

“We are living in a very unique time with a lot of challenges but with that there are a lot of opportunities as well. …If there are any organizations which would like to start to develop a partnership – if they want to engage the community but don’t know where to start – they can certainly reach out to us and we can start that conversation.”

Matthew Martel, CEO of Black Business Initiative

Visit Black Business Initiative at or call toll free 1-888-664-9333.


Participants sign-in at the 2019 BBI Youth Summit at Dalhousie University. Contributed by BBI.

Copyright Sheryl Dubois, 2021

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