Updated: Feb 4
Written by Feleshia Chandler
For Nadine Spencer, mother, business owner, and chief executive officer of BrandEQ Group and the Black Business and Professional Association, it all started with a bami cake.
Light, fluffy, and delicious, bami (or bammy) cakes are a cassava flatbread traditionally eaten in Spencer’s homeland of Kingston, Jamaica. Spencer’s introduction to business really began with her buying bami cakes and parchment paper from local vendors at a market in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and selling slices at market value.
When she was 12 years old, Spencer says her mother left Jamaica for Canada with hopes of making a better life for them, leaving Spencer behind with a family friend. Little did her mother know her trusted friend would withdraw Spencer from school and expect her to do errands during the days. One errand would be for her to travel alone daily from Kingston to Spanish Town, approximately a 40-minute bus ride away, to buy 10 bami cakes.
With only enough money in her pocket to get to the market and to purchase the cakes, Spencer knew she’d need to sell some of those cakes to pay for her bus ride home. She figured out she could buy 13 cakes for the price of 10 and worked out a deal with another vendor to purchase parchment paper. She sold the cakes in packages of two or four wrapped in the paper, selling 12 in total. The last cake she ate for lunch. In the end, she had earned enough money to buy 10 more cakes to bring home and pay for her bus fare. It was this experience that would send her on a path to entrepreneurship, she says.
Once Spencer’s mother became aware of what was happening, she immediately booked her daughter a plane ticket to Canada. But during her first year after being reunited with her mother, she was unable to attend school, so she again drew from the entrepreneurial spirit she had cultivated in the Spanish Town market. She got herself a paper route and worked odd jobs until she was able to enrol in school.
As the years went on, Spencer says she never stopped working. She worked at a call centre, she bought and sold winter coats, drawing on her sales experience and lessons learned in Kingston. She says her experience at the Spanish Town market taught her the power of branding and marketing. She also learned the power of negotiation by haggling for better prices with vendors. These lessons would catapult her forward in the world of business.
In the years building her own pathway to entrepreneurship, Spencer has learned much about herself, including that decisiveness and determination would carry her throughout her life and career. “I never take no for an answer,” she says.
Her client list at BrandEQ, a global marketing and communications agency, includes Mercedes Benz, Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts, and Holt Renfrew, but she also coaches and consults for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Although her clients vary from the very new to the well-connected and established, there’s one common thread among them all: “People need exposure. Whether they’re a Fortune 500 company or whether they’re a new start-up,” says Spencer, “they need their voices heard in a competitive marketplace.”
Spencer’s focus has now shifted to include community service and engagement. She’s in her third year leading the BBPA and serves as director on both the York University Alumni Board and the Lifelong Leadership Institute Board. She’s also marketing director for Accelerating Women Entrepreneurs, an organization founded by Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey. Through these roles, Spencer’s able to focus on her passion for mentorship, particularly the BBPA’s Boss Women entrepreneurship program she’s running.
“It’s really teaching women the skills I’ve learned over 30 years in business, and so that’s what drives me.”
When asked, Spencer points to three mantras that helped her pave her own path to success. The first is to never be afraid to take risks. “If you take the risk and you make a mistake, you learn, and there’s value in the learning.... Most of the time you’ll take a risk and it’ll work out fabulously.”
The second is to always show up. “If you don’t show up you miss the opportunity, and you don’t know what’s there for you,” she says.
And the third? “Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s okay to go with the flow and just have fun.”
The BBPA provides resources and tools to Black-owned businesses among its membership to help them not just exist but thrive, grow, and succeed.
“The work we do at the BBPA is about advancing and working with Black businesses in different sectors,” says Spencer. “We need to know that we exist, and we also need to be intentional about doing business with each other in the Black community. It’s one thing to exist, but it’s another to recognize the importance and value we bring by giving our dollars to Black businesses.”
Although she says the results of the organization’s efforts in aid of Black entrepreneurship are widely successful, its work is just getting started. “Until there’s equity, the work that we do will not stop.”
That work had to kick into overdrive the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, as the BBPA worked round the clock to provide some of their members with support once the country went into lockdown. As a result of the strain on Black-owned small businesses, the organization ensured their helpline was open 24 hours a day to provide guidance on government programs, loans, and lines of credit available to keep their member companies operating through the downturn.
“I know it’s hard. We know that, but there are people and places like the BBPA, like myself, and other organizations who are willing to help,” Spencer says. She advises those who are feeling the effects of these times and the resulting tumultuous economy to continue to look for those organizations that can help.
There’s now hope and help on the horizon for Black-owned businesses struggling to stay open on the heels of the pandemic. In September 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $221 million initiative in support of Black entrepreneurship. The funding will enable Black-owned businesses to build the foundation they need to succeed, and it’ll fuel much-needed training and mentorship vital to levelling the scales of inequity in this country.
To young, up-and-coming professionals, Spencer advises them to “take advantage of the opportunities available for education and continuously learn.” She reiterates the importance mentorship has on those seeking to define themselves in their industry of choice.
“Get a mentor. Have that mentorship or coaching relationship that is ongoing. It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.”
Although it may be daunting right now to start a business or to even maintain one, it’s still important to stay grounded. For Spencer, her faith and family allow her to thrive during these trying times. Resilience is key, especially in uncertain times like these, and no matter what, she states, “You have to want it.”