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Sault Ste. Marie entrepreneurs find opportunity during pandemic

Small business owners, organizations tell their stories of adaptability and resilience amid uncertainty

In 2012, when Jeannette Adderley decided to launch her event-planning business, the community was skeptical.

She had arrived as a newcomer to Sault Ste. Marie from the Bahamas just a few years earlier, and the bug of entrepreneurship had taken hold.

But her supporters worried that, in a small community with few people who resembled her, and where people questioned her differences, she might face too many barriers to be successful in business.

“I'm a woman, I'm Black, I'm an immigrant, and I'm a mom, and these in themselves could be risk factors to starting a business in a small city,” she recalled.

But she wasn’t deterred.

Adderley decided the attributes that helped her stand out could actually work in her favour.

"Instead of being afraid to start the business because I didn't see a whole lot of people that resembled me, I embraced it and used that as my inspiration to start my business, because I knew that there was something that was missing that I could bring to Sault Ste. Marie."

Her risk-taking has paid off.

In the years since she launched Diamond Engagements, Adderley has accumulated rave reviews for her event-planning work, and, with her husband, launched a second successful venture, Driverseat Sault Ste. Marie – only the second franchise in what is now a growing, multinational chauffeur service company.

Her words of advice for those contemplating the leap into business ownership now, during COVID-19?

"Not to be afraid, because you're always going to have a reason to not start a business,” she said. “If it's not COVID, it's going to be something else.

“So just go out there and believe in yourself and you can do it.”

Adderley was among a half-dozen entrepreneurs and business development experts to share their insight during a June 23 webinar hosted by the city’s Local Immigration Partnership (LIP).

With media buzz circulating about business opportunities that have risen as a result of COVID-19, LIP coordinator Adrian DeVuono said now is a good time to talk about how Sault Ste. Marie entrepreneurs can jump in and be part of that wave.

"Businesses that start during these times are stronger and more nimble on the ground, and changes caused by these situations create a lot of new needs in the market,” he said.

“So if necessity is the mother of invention, then as new needs arise, there are new opportunities available to help us meet those needs.”

Nevin Buconjic, an entrepreneur, author, and the manager of trade and investment at the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corp., said one of the biggest lessons to be learned from COVID-19 is that any business can be shut down quickly, or have its costs decreased dramatically.

So entrepreneurs must be ready to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

"Through the pandemic, we've seen manufacturers revamp their production line to produce lifesaving ventilators and personal protective equipment; we've seen distillers and craft beer brewers produce hand sanitizer; we've seen other businesses change their product service or delivery model to survive and even thrive,” Buconjic said.

“So an entrepreneur must be able to adapt to new realities.”

For the prospective businessperson looking to launch a new enterprise, he sees a number of areas of opportunity.

Online learning and e-commerce are quickly becoming the norm, and that will only grow, Buconjic predicted, along with a need for software platforms that allow employees to continue working from home.

He also sees further development of in-country supply chains for medical equipment.

“Many of these trends are high level, and you might not see connection to starting a local business, but I think it's important to be aware of where business is heading,” Buconjic said.

One industry that’s already experiencing a growth in demand is the agri-food sector.

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David Thompson, research project coordinator at the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN), noted roughly $20 billion worth of food is imported into the province annually, but half of that could be produced right in Ontario.

“The Ontario demand is really demand driven by people’s values, and our values are driven by the look of a product, its appearance, how fresh it is, nutritional benefits that are in that product, how they see that product connected to their local economy, to Ontario farmers, and to the environment in which it was produced,” he said.

Throughout the Algoma district, consumers have been calling for increased access to locally grown food, including produce, beef and value-added products.

In response, RAIN has launched a new iteration of the Buy Algoma, Buy Local online directory, which helps consumers find those sources of locally produced products.

Thompson believes the pandemic has made way for a number of opportunities in the agri-food sector, including in non-timber forest products, wild foods like mushrooms, maple syrup production, medicinal plants, and wild edibles.

There’s increased demand for fish – both wild and caged – and horticulture, while a need for more hops and malted barley is being driven by the burgeoning craft beer sector, he added.

“Value-added food products and beverage products from locally produced foods is another significant opportunity,” Thompson added. “For any new entrepreneur that's looking at the agri-food sector, it's the focus on providing services where farmers are too busy to do it.”

That could include delivering products to the end market or processing fresh crops, like strawberries, into a value-added product.

Producers in the North do face some roadblocks, he said, including access to capital and financing, infrastructure, and the Northern Ontario climate – all areas in which RAIN works to ease restrictions, either through research or financing programs.

Other organizations represented during the webinar included the PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprise, the Millworks Centre for Entrepreneurship, and the Sault’s Community Development Corp. – all resources that offer some combination of business mentorship, counselling, or financing to help entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.

Adderley admitted that her journey into entrepreneurship has meant her fair share of hard work and sleepless nights, risk and perseverance.

But for the entrepreneur with a good idea who’s adaptable and open to growth, the rewards are many.

“I know starting a business, especially in COVID time, is scary because you think, ‘Why would I take the opportunity to start now?’” she said.

“I started in a scary time; I took risks. Every single step that we took in our business, we took a risk. The reason we are here is because we are willing to take that risk.”