In conversation with Elcho Stewart, President, Network of Black Business & Professional Women

Elcho Stewart

Elcho Stewart

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in a small village in rural Jamaica that, for better or worse, was also born in me. The 1st child of my parents’ union produced a girl who died at age 5, before I was born. I follow four older brothers and one brother came after me. My blind grandmother tended my mother at my birth. Mom knotted my umbilical cord twice just to make sure that everything would be alright but it left me with a huge protruding belly button for the better part of my childhood but it is o.k. now.

The 2nd thing that has impacted my life is that I passed what was supposed to be a practice-run for my high school entrance exam at first sitting at age 10 compared to age 11 or 12 – but my parents sent me anyways. I was very awkward trying to fit in with the older students but all acts go, it was not my authentic self. I had to learn to come into my own as I got much older.

Speaking of self-acceptance, after years of wanting names that one could easily find on pre-stamped t-shirts, in songs, or on tourist memorabilia – I started to love my unusual name and now see and use it as a significant part of who I am.

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

I admired my father who had tremendous dignity in the face of adversity and the fact that he lived by the courage of his convictions. I did not always appreciate his rigidity but I am thankful that he and I got along fabulously in his later years. My mother was giving, industrious, fashionable and had an adventurous spirit. They both gave more than they took. I would like to think that I have the best of both.

What is your educational background?

When one jumps in the game of life with both feet as I have done, one is bound to make many mistakes and, hopefully learn from them but I am passionate about everything that I do. For my formal education I am plugging my elementary school – Haddo Primary & Infant School in Jamaica -because very few people recognize their primary education which, after all, sets the foundation for their future. I attended Mannings School a prestigious high school also in Jamaica after which I migrated to Canada and completed CEGEP Vanier and Concordia University both in Montreal. For secondary, college and university degrees I followed a business stream which I really feel has allowed me when I started working into the financial services sector back in 1988.

Could you describe your day job as a financial adviser?

I help clients mitigate hardships in the eventuality of death, disability or retirement as well as create wealth and reduce their taxes all with the use of life insurance and investment tools. I also teach financial empowerment to women (Femme-o-nomics-911)and help to prepare them for the monetary implications at the different stages and circumstances of their lives including being single, married, divorced or widowed. Through my financial columns, COMMON CNTS & Money Talk$, readers can continue to garner useful information even when I am not directly in touch with them.

I believe that within one generation the economic power of the Ottawa Black community could change if more families owned life insurance and enough to, not only bury our dead but to also, pass wealth to the widows, widowers, and the next generation. Everything that I do seem to be interrelated….my career, empowering women, the financial columns, my volunteer work and community building.

You are the President and founder of the Network of Black Business & Professional Women. What is the mandate and mission of this organization?

When we are in leadership, whether through self-employment or as management employees, we still have the same family and work responsibilities as everyone else but we also take on other layers of stress and scrutiny. Black women are three times more likely to die of heart and heart related diseases compared to Black men, white women, or the broader community as a whole. The Network is a platform for entrepreneurs, academicians and career women to meet, network, mentor, receive encouragement, exchange ideas, do business with each other or simply de-stress for a couple of hours every month in each other’s company.

Our executive and Planning Team members are a dedicated group of community builders. We have successfully avoided trying to be all things to all people by limiting our interests and partnerships to assisting in select projects that impact women and children locally and globally.

What are the accomplishments of NB2PW and what has been your biggest challenge?

Right from the outset, we wanted to set ourselves apart as a group of Black business and professional women as opposed to one with membership based on country of origin, language, religion or politics. Our Honorary Patrons (the female High Commissioners, Head of Mission, Charge D’Affaires, and Ambassadors from the African-Caribbean diaspora) became the figure heads in helping us to break the cliques that tend to divide the community. Our executive and planning teams also reflect that and at every monthly Networking Session since we started in September, 2011 there new faces in attendance. Our outreach has been tremendous because we now have paid-up Virtual Members across Canada, the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa.

We have raised funds for the Heart & Stroke Foundation, the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, The Sex Assault Centre, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation , One Match Stem Cell Research as well as our equivalent of “Dress for Success” called Dress for Access (DfA). For DfA, our members and friends donate gently used clothing and accessories to the New Life Foundation, a charity that rehabilitates street workers in Sierra Leone and the Ivory Coast and the clothing are given to the women, upon graduation to get them appropriately dressed for traditional jobs.

Linda Clemons was brought in from Cincinnati with her Art of Body Language presentation in 2013, and last year we paid tribute to our Women in the Media who contribute significantly to information gathering, gate-keeping and dispensing in the community through radio, television, social media, and print. We still hope that they will organize themselves into some form of Black media collective as a result of us identifying them by name, numbers and skill set at that event or – at the very least – hope that they join the Network.

We have collaborated with one local community group for our International Women’s Day celebrations and with the Canadian Immigrant Women’s Network from out of Toronto for their annual Minority Women’s Small Business Expo which was held at the Canadian Museum of Nature last year and at the Westin Hotel this year. The Expo showcases the small businesses and entrepreneurs in the Ottawa Black community and the resources available to them.

We became aware of the lack of women and minority candidates in the federal election and organized a discussion panel at the Lord Elgin Hotel where we brought in different stake holders and seasoned politicians including Senator Cools, Equal Voice, #BlackVotesMatter and even women who have had unsuccessfully ran for office. The dialogue is expected to continue as we raise awareness on the importance of having minority women in the political narrative as well as start identifying and grooming future candidates.

Our Community Discount Partnership Program, a kind of a “Black Groupon” in which our paid-up members receive special services or discounts from our Proud Community Partners is a 1st in the Ottawa Black Community but it has not gained the momentum that we desire. Unfortunately, we are all busy women and have not been able to administer the signing up of enough partners to bring the program to its full potential. However, we have tangible proof that our members are doing business with each other and partnerships and mentoring are taking place.

Lastly, our volunteers are doing their best with work/family/volunteer balance and that arrangement does not always give us what we want and when we want it. Nevertheless, we have had several positive mentions in different publications. Financial Juneteenth in the U.S., has billed us as one of the top networking organizations for Black women in North America and we are proud of that recognition.

We really punch bigger than our size and could do so much more with proper funding, more member-participation and a part-time executive director. We want to remain accessible to our constituents, including our student members for whom mentoring is so important, so our membership fees and monthly activities are kept at a bare minimum which puzzles even me as to how we sustain all these endeavors.

Is NB2PW planning any new projects in the near future?

We are a dynamic group and with the great infrastructure that we have laid out we have nothing new planned except that we need more hands on deck and more money to become more effective.

Outside of your involvement with NB2PW, do you have any other outside interests or hobbies?

I am also the founding president of the Haddo Primary and Infant School’s Alumni Association in Jamaica. Our mandate is to assist the students and the school and to continue to promote and uphold the good name of the school. We are raising funds to put in a washroom for the infant school department as well as provide much needed funding for different programs.

I was a public speaker years ago in Montreal until my husband died and I set that aside to raise my children. I have started to take public speaking engagements where speak to the very topics on which I write such as Resolve, Gratitude and Perseverance. I also host a women’s empowerment seminar called Femme-o-nomics-911 and I also love to cook and entertain, garden, hike, mountain bike and I enjoy being the unofficial “Auntie Elcho” of the Ottawa GG’s basketball team.

You are one of very few people within the black community who volunteer for the well-being of others. How would you explain why it is so difficult to get people to commit to volunteering, to give back, so that those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged can prosper. I am thinking of those who are well established in jobs or businesses, who can readily invest a few hours each week or month to mentor our youth, serve on not-for- profit organizations and so help our community move forward.

When you do not have lots of money to get things done, it is easy to become frustrated and lose sight of the fact that we are a community of volunteers. Also, there are many different demands for our attention: Churches, our children’s schools, after school homework groups, coaching sports teams, diaspora groups, and just taking the time for self-improvement and life skill courses. Still, it is always the already busy 2% who do the most.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities, on the one hand, and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. On another front, there appears to be a divide between people from the Caribbean and people from continental Africa. Do you agree with this perspective and if so, what can be done to remedy this divide?

I am happy to report that the Network is one of the few groups that has not experienced that divide – perhaps because of our very name and what the Honorary Patrons represent. Our executive and members are Black – period.

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago? Do you note any differences between progress by black women compared to black men?

My knee-jerk reaction is that the Black Community is larger in numbers and there is a greater diversity that did not exist when the first wave of Black immigrants predominantly from the Caribbean. They were certainly pioneers who had their unique hurdles to jump. This new demography and how it is perceived by the wider community has its own challenges. Of course, the seeming break down of police relations are in your face on social media and the men seem to be always in the spotlight but I don’t believe that Black men are not capable or are not doing well. The spirit, rule and execution of the law cannot remain static in a dynamic world.

I was on a leadership and economic empowerment panel in Toronto earlier this year and was pleased with the amount of Blacks vying for elected office at the school board, municipal & provincial levels.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa. They suggest that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

I don’t speak in generalities. I am from a long line of married Black couples, including my parents, who were married for 59 years and had the utmost respect for each other. I believe that since we are a minority living side by side with a majority, there is bound to be interracial relationships. How we perceive them is a question of our own biases and values rather than fact. Having said that, I am secretly bemused that when a Network that is full of single, Black women hosts events, including dances that are open to the public, that the Black men generally do not come around. Enough said

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?

If one’s greatest strength tends to be his biggest weakness, is it possible that the opposite could be made true meaning that our biggest weakness is our strength? As we work on assimilation, acceptance and fairness from the boarder community, we need to simultaneously hold up the mirror as a community. Municipalities realize that amalgamation gives them economic power. The same goes for the creation of the European Union and the Euro. We need to find the common ground that supersedes all other agendas where we can join forces.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

The relationship between individuals and communities is symbiotic. We do not necessarily need to have all our ducks lined up in a row as individuals before we can participate in community building. Great leaders sacrifice a lot of their autonomy and individuality for their higher goals. If we ever find that common ground, we would be quite the force to be reckoned with.

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