“It was a hard road,” she says. “A lot of not-for-profits just didn’t believe in what I was doing, they said there wasn’t a market for a cleaning company or there’s too many cleaning companies.”
Growing up in Mulgrave Park, the single mom of three says the system was pretty much betting against her.
“Coming out of low income, statistics show you don’t have the perfect credit score, because you don’t have the income to build your credit,” Upshaw says.
With no loan, Upshaw began working a second job and saving money to start her business. “I delivered newspapers throughout the night for two years, with my daughter, at the time she was almost five, she was in the back seat at night sleeping,” she says.
Now, Upshaw is the proud owner of three businesses, Top Notch Cleaners, Lux Overnights, and Coco+ clothing, with a fourth—cosmetics company Lips N Lashes— set to begin next month. And, the entrepreneur has started a program to ensure that other women of colour in Nova Scotia have more guidance in the business world than she did.
“The reason I started doing this is because there are a lot of Black women who have skills and attributes and they’re not being utilized because they don’t feel confident enough to do it, or they don’t have the education to do it, or they just don’t know how or where to go to figure out how to do it,” says Upshaw.
In comes Blk Women in Excellence, a series of workshops and business coaching sessions hosted by Upshaw. The first session kicked off in October, with eight women meeting at a community centre in Mulgrave Park every Tuesday night. They'll continue through to February for a total of 16 weeks in the program. The participants’ business ideas range from natural hair products to essential oils to screen printing.
For some, the program is teaching important business skills that Black women have typically been excluded from.
“We’ve gone over budget tips, how to keep track of all of your products, how to build a line sheet for your business doing wholesales, how to take better pictures for your products, how to discuss it and get it into business stores and stuff like that,” says Lezlie Upshaw, owner of Spirit Kissed, which sells products like bath soaks and chakra beads, and Upshaw’s first cousin.
Lezlie says Upshaw has helped her business grow while helping each woman in the program on an individual level.
For the women in her program, young and old, Blk Women in Excellence is about building each other up, not tearing each other down says Upshaw. “There’s enough opportunities out there for all of us, there’s enough money for all of us,” she says. “I understand it’s hard, being Black or being a Black woman going into business, you feel like you have to step on a fellow colleague to get to where you need to go. It doesn’t. If you work together we can all accomplish the same goal.”
Upon graduation from the workshops, each new business owner is paired up with a mentor in their field for six weeks and $300 cash to help kickstart their business. But they can continue to have coaching calls with Upshaw, who’s available for the women around-the-clock.
“I do about four coaching calls a week, so I usually dedicate about 15 hours a week for Black women who are in business, or who want to start a business,” she says. “They can call me if they have any questions or they’re stuck or they need ideas for new marketing, branding, they want to scale their business, they don’t know where to start.”
Eventually, Upshaw hopes to create a directory of Black women-owned businesses and to be able to offer zero-interest microloans to the participants in the program. But for now, Blk Women in Excellence is entirely financed through Upshaw’s own cleaning business.
Upshaw says 15 women have already applied for the next set of workshops, but anyone else who’s interested can email her for an application form—and know that it’s okay not to know everything she asks on the application, especially if it’s someone's first time in business.