“The African Canadian Woman who broke the mould, “Shattered the Glass Ceiling” long before the phrase was coined.”
Recently, I was asked to comment on Viola Desmond's success as a business woman, what can we learn from her legacy and how this has impacted on Black women and women of colour like her human rights activism.
Until then, I had not given it much thought. The first person to speak of Viola Desmond's business acumen in some detail was the former Lieutenant Governor, Mayann Francis, at the launch of the ferry named after her. Even then, I did not grasp the magnitude of this women's entrepreneurial inventiveness.
During my research, I was astonished to learn about her accomplishments in business and would like to share my finding. This is a proud moment for us, as Black women, and women generally.
In the past, I have struggled to find and note Black Women in business in Canada who had such business acumen in the 1940s, only to turn my attention to women such as Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American woman millionaire and others, without realizing we had such a powerful woman and a great teacher in my own backyard, right here in Nova Scotia.
She was on mission to educate everyone, her family, students and communities where ever she traveled.
Viola Desmond is one of those rare gems, a gift or a pink diamond we only find once in a lifetime. When I considered her gift box this is what I found.
Over the years, we have focused considerably on her human rights activities because of the racial discrimination she faced at the theatre in New Glasgow. However, there is so much more to this woman that is yet to be discovered.
As a person who teaches leadership, professional development and entrepreneurship, I have come to realize that Viola Desmond has given us so much and we must ensure that this body of work is shared in our institutions.
To be such a successful business woman, she would have had a tremendous amount of what I call my three "N's": Networker, Navigator and Negotiator skills. In addition, she knew her own Value so she could not be Undercut, undervalued nor Underestimated in her business.
Why was her business so unique? and Why was she was so successful?
I believe Viola Desmond understood what made her the business so different. She knew her Unique Selling Proposition (USP). That is she found the right product and the right marketplace for her services.
She recognized there was a gap in the marketplace and because of who she was, she could fill that gap. For example, her adverts referred to hair texture and skin complexion, the “Nut Brown” face powder, the “Red or black lipstick” are my favourites.
She thought of everyone because she paid "special attention to veterans." Can you imagine this modern way of thinking?
Viola Desmond even had some technological skills too. You could have your products by “mail order”. She was a creative genius. She had an online business before Amazon.
She knew what it meant to be a Sales Woman first and foremost to build a relationship with her suppliers and consumers.
In addition, she must have been a keen researcher, who studied the needs of her customer carefully, trained her students well ,and in order to maintained her Competitive Advantage, Viola Desmond leveraged her Unique Selling Proposition by creating her own customer base through educating other women to start their own businesses and purchase her supplies. Thus ensuring economic prosperity for her community. It also meant that the dollar was circulating at least a few times in the community.
At that time in our history, women in business was not a popular thing. A woman's place was in the home and there were little or no support women in business let alone a Black Women owning a business of such magnitude. Women in business at the time were not taken seriously.
Here are some of her characteristics and leadership skills.
A Teacher with a creative flair for the programs she delivered in her school of cosmetology. There is no doubt she had insight and vision.
She was a chemist and scientist. Preparing her products to meet the needs of men and women. As most of us know the process we must go through to get that perfect hair relaxer or perm. Skin Care products for Black women were not found so easily, and they are still very limited to date here in Nova Scotia. So, to have the right blend and balance, the chemicals had to meet a certain standards to protect her customer's skin.
A distributor. The products were distributed and sold across the country. She even had a mail order process. This was long before the online business before Amazon was invented. She used the technology of her day to grow her business.
Can you imagine she was also a vehicle owner for her times in the 1940s. This demonstrated her independence. She was also a feminist. Viola Desmond knew her own mind. And to survive in a male dominated business environment, she must have been assertive too. Turning the nom into new opportunities.
Her leadership competencies surpassed her male counterparts of her time because she was a risk taker, fearless innovator, creative, and a person of whose sphere of influence spans way beyond the borders of Nova Scotia. She had business in Montreal, New Brunswick and traveled frequently to the US to meet her mentor Madame C J Walker. There were no mentors in Canada. She was an investor in her personal and professional development and took it very seriously.
Viola Desmond's business acumen cannot be questioned. Researchers or academic lecturers in business and management programs would see her as an anomaly. One of a kind leader.
So what can we learn from Viola Desmond, the businesswoman's legacy?
In my humble opinion, she is a priceless jewel in Canadian History. And this must be taught in all business program across Canada as an inspiration to women, marginalized women and girls, especially those who wish to enter the business world.
Viola Desmond "broke the mould and shattered the glass ceiling" and us as Women, African Nova Scotian Women, and African Canadian Women, immigrant women, Indigenous women, we can celebrate this fact every day.
When I reflected on her sheer creative genius, as a visionary leader, I can't help but think what a loss her departure from the North End community in Halifax, African Nova Scotian and African Canadian communities generally.
Viola Desmond did not allow the opinion of others to stopped her or barriers of discrimination. She refused to remain invisible and stepped out on her own. As I considered how she traveled alone from Halifax to New Glasgow she demonstrated she was not afraid to go it alone, and met the challenges head on.
She must have encountered some steep terrains as she navigated the business world which would have been hostile toward her and her ideas on business growth and profitability.
Following the discrimination case, Viola Desmond moved to Montreal and we seem to have lost track of her business activities. Just think what a loss this was to the Nova Scotian economy and economic sustainability which was not recognized at the time. She was a savvy businesswoman.
By choosing to put Viola Desmond's image on the $10.00, Canadian Dollar bill in 2018, the most used Canadian currency in circulation, has finally given her the recognition and status she justly deserved in the financial world. She continues to be an exporter and importer because as Canadians travel and exchange their currency, Viola Desmond continues to be recognized not just for her human rights activities but her business acumen, something that even those who made the decision may not have fully understood.
From this moment on, I am owning this space, to prominently feature Viola Desmond in my leadership programs. In my speeches to all women about what we can achieve despite the barriers discrimination and challenges, we may face. I will continue to draw on her as an example of a woman with tremendous leadership competencies, tenacity and intent.
I also believe that she should be recognized at the Centre for Women in Business, the Black Business Initiative and the Nova Business Inc. A Business Award of Accomplishment should be given out annually to a woman or women who inspired others to succeed.
Viola Desmond's legacy epitomized what we all aspire to be and can learn from irrespective of our race and ethnicity
So, next time when we are feeling that we have not much as African Nova Scotia’s, African Canadians, Women and Immigrant Women, however, we choose to identify ourselves let us remember that Viola Desmond did it and so can we.
Just take a look at one of her Adverts.