03 Jul 2014

Young, Black and In Charge! Meet The C.E.O.S

Community Empowering Enterprises (CEE), is an organization dedicated to helping Black youth

who face multiple barriers achieve financial stability for themselves and their families.

In 2013, CEE launched its pilot program ‘Company Challenge' in the Jane and Finch community. During the 7 month program participants met with the coordinator on a weekly basis and were given specific challenges to build their capacity as entrepreneurs. Participants were provided with a stipend, but, like a job, compensation was subtracted as penalty for underperforming, tardiness or being unprepared for tasks.

One of the first challenges involved racing to the nearest Toronto Reference Library where the competitors met with a librarian, who introduced them to a valuable business tool; one they would soon be extremely familiar with, market research. The skills learned in ‘Company Challenge’ were later put to use in another facet of the program known as ‘Business in Action,’ where the focus was placed directly on business development and business pitching.

‘Company Challenge’ and ‘Business in Action’ demanded a high amount of dedication from its young entrepreneurs. The goal was to select ten participants between the ages of eighteen to twenty-nine, but after being unable to decide on ten people, twelve young men and women were selected as members of the first cohort. Chosen participants were asked to come up with a name for this cohort and shortly thereafter, CEE’s first group became the C.E.O.S, Chief Entrepreneurs Operating Startups. It’s a name that has bonded the participants.

I spoke with Tyrone Smith, Jason Blackwood, Mikkalia Samuda, Richmond Antwi, and Andrew Elliott, high achieving C.E.O.S who emerged from the program demonstrating a range of skills including negotiation, problem resolution and conflict management, in addition to business etiquette and the appropriate use of body language in the workplace.

Makkalia Samuda grew up in both Rexdale and Jane and Finch and lived in subsidy housing for most of her life. Not having much money was something Makkalia was used to, and she says her family’s money problems actually helped to enhance her business sense as she was often forced to improvise to support herself. For Mikkalia, watching her mother struggle motivated her to seek a higher quality of life for herself and her daughter. Mikkalia recently registered her business, “Hood Invasion,” a program helping youth open up to diversity, and is now developing her first youth tour.

“As a woman, it’s harder to be taken seriously when building and networking.” - Makkalia Samuda

Makkalia’s fellow CEO, Tyrone Smith, also grew up in a marginalized community and often didn’t have money for bus fare or lunch. In school, Tyrone was relegated to the special education program and not given the attention he needed from his teachers. Tyrone recognizes the emotional toll his experiences have had on him. CEE and ‘Company Challenge’ is helping Tyrone regain control of his life and his struggles. He demonstrated a newfound sense of confidence and self-control when he overcame his fear of public speaking, live on CHRY radio. Now he is focused on running his first showcase for emerging artists under his startup Divine Exposure.

Participation with CEE has helped the C.E.O.S recognize personal shortfalls. For Richmond Antwi, the program prompted him to narrow his focus and prioritize his endeavours. He says the program was unlike any other he’s ever attended, since it was practical and enjoyable, and the people were genuine. Richmond however, never finished the entire seven-month program and decided to dive straight into his business alone. Despite his limited experience in the program, his confidence has increased immensely.

“I used to rely on other people to get places, now I rely on myself.” – Richmond Antwi

Like Richmond, Jason Blackwood is a self-starter. He’s already launched a clothing company called “Grandslammers Clothing” with his business partner and he’s focused on growing the brand among athletes. Seeing others thrive is a big part of Jason’s business philosophy. Jason’s proudest moment in the program was during the second “business in action” challenge. Along with his fellow CEOS they ran an event called “Handle Yo Business” which aimed to introduce young people ages 10-18 to the idea of entrepreneurship through a food stand challenge.

“Know your addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication because math is a huge part of the business life.” – Jason Blackwood

Even for a person who is sufficiently motivated to start a business, the workshops and the events hosted by the C.E.O.S as part of the program’s ‘business in action’ challenges would not have been possible without collaboration with fellow C.E.O.S, business partners, and/or clients. One student, Andrew Elliott was particularly good at working with others and establishing a sense of comfort amongst his peers. With a great sense of humour and positive outlook, Andrew has a natural talent for networking and building personal connections that will no doubt take him far as an entrepreneur. Andrew plans to start a company called, “Lion Heart Logistics” and is saving up to put his truck on the road.

“Developing personal connections is integral to any business” – Andrew Elliott


“For people looking to build businesses, my advice would be to just start. Stop the waiting and the shoulda, coulda’s, or the only if I have... Just make one step and from there your goal is to survive.” – Shereen Ashman

According to the coordinator of “Company Challenge,” Shereen Ashman, the program has also helped the C.E.O.S be decisive in regards to what businesses they will operate. Shereen spearheaded “Company Challenge,” and she started with the support of her colleagues at work, a laptop, and a few ideas. From there she began to organize tasks, and consult with youth and other community stakeholders. When ‘Company Challenge’ launched, it was relatively unknown in the community but once the concept of the program was spread through word of mouth, youth and other organizations wanted to get involved. 

“As an entrepreneur, seeing your dreams turn into reality is incredible. I love my job!”- Shereen Ashman

While the pilot program was a success, Shereen continues to find new ways to improve the model. She is always concerned about efficiency and effectiveness. Her aim is to ensure that the program’s material is innovative and requisite to business success, so participants can quickly accomplish their goals.

“You should have that element of surprise and excitement in a community program”- Shereen Ashman

Before her work with CEE, Shereen studied social service work at Centennial College and political science at York University. After graduating, Shereen was unable to find a job and launched a business, but something was missing. With CEE, Shereen is the social entrepreneur she has always wanted to be. Coordinating and facilitating ‘Company Challenge’ is the dream job she envisioned after having experienced a traumatic event that left her questioning her purpose. Shereen was shot in 2001 and she remembers thinking, “What have I done with my life thus far? What is my legacy?” The shooting was revelatory for Shereen, who decided that day, that she would no longer waste her talent. At CEE she is challenged to use her talents toward youth development.

“If god hadn’t taken me off my feet, I don’t think I would have had the time to review my life.” - Shereen Ashman


The existing C.E.O.S will now be the first Alumni of the Company Challenge program and CEE is developing a mastermind group consisting of alumni and business experts. CEE is looking for persons who have an interest in volunteering to join the board. Persons with a background in finance, public speaking, marketing, or any other career relevant to business success are encouraged to apply. If you are willing to lend your talent to a great cause, and are available once a month to chair a table, visit www.ceetoronto.com or email Shereen Ashman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to be on the board.

To become a participant of the ‘In Company Challenge’ program, visit www.ceetoronto.com. The online application for the next cohort will be launched September 2014. CEE will be starting two cohorts, one in Jane and Finch, and one in Scarborough.

Read 3038 times Last modified on Thursday, 13 August 2020 18:19
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