Business Tips from Birthday Lady - Viola Desmond (6 July 1914 - 5 February 1965

Picture Courtesy of Cape Breton University/Wanda Robson (Viola's sister) Collection 2016

Picture Courtesy of Cape Breton University/Wanda Robson (Viola's sister) Collection 2016

Viola Irene Desmond, nee Davis (6 July 1914 - 7 February 1965), would have been 103 years old today. I would like to acknowledge her for the legacy in Business and Civil Liberation she has left in our community and for women, and marginalized people around the world.


In recent months, I have discovered a great deal about her entrepreneurial skills and business acumen.  In her field, she was extraordinary, outstanding and phenomenal. She was a beautician, teacher, mentor and inspired young women to become business owners. Black women did not have the opportunity to attend school and fulfil their dreams and ambitions because of racial segregation at the time.


In my view, Viola Desmond, "broke the mould and shattered the glass ceiling” long before the phrase was coined. She may not have had a C-Suit but she certainly owned and drove her own car.  A fiercely independent woman. She travelled across Canada and had strong connections with places like New Brunswick, Quebec and America. Viola started the Desmond School of Beauty and Culture and had graduates across the city of Halifax. She also encourages black women to build and their own businesses. Thereby creating her own customer base and extended her capacity for growth and development. She made a significant contribution to our economy as well as the import and export trade market at that time.

Picture Courtesy of Susan Bannon

Picture Courtesy of Susan Bannon


Viola Desmond is an example of what can be achieved even in the face of adversity.
 A savvy businesswoman with an endless list of dreams and ambitions.
She was determined to succeed and did not allow barriers to prevent her. 
Viola Desmond was a visionary, passionate, purposeful and with a mission in mind. She was ahead of her time and born to the cause.
She never gave up. Event when faced with insurmountable challenges.
My research showed me that Viola was innovative, creative and used her creative and cultural intelligence to raise the profile of other women who were less fortunate.
Viola surrounded herself with women who were of the same mindset. For example, her mentor Madame C J Walker the first African-American Woman Millionaire, Carrie Best, Owner of the Clarian Newspaper, the only black owner newspaper at that time in Canada and others not mentioned.
A confident woman. There is absolutely no doubt that her industry was dominated by men and she had to overcome sexism, racism and much more.
Viola Desmond understood the business of science and technology of her day. She knew how to blend chemical treatment for her customer's haircare and beauty products.  Viola also had a mail order business long before Amazon and other online services appeared.
 A strong negotiator, networker, and navigator.
 Viola was a risk-taker, bold and tenacious.
Self-starter and self-motivator.
Viola Desmond not only knew how to market her business but she was an excellent seller and deal closer.
 She understood her marketplace through research, records showed that she gave veterans discounts.
 Viola Desmond’s business would be known today as a “Vertical Integration.” She owned the supply chain and the company. I would go as far and say, she also had the monopoly of the market to grow and sustain her business.
She was a strategic thinker and invested in her education.
She left no one behind, Viola continued to share her knowledge, skills, and expertise through educating others.

Picture: Graduates of Desmond School of Beauty and Culture. Courtesy of the Black Cultural Centre

Picture: Graduates of Desmond School of Beauty and Culture. Courtesy of the Black Cultural Centre


This is just a fraction of what we know about this phenomenal and savvy businesswoman who has left a roadmap for us to follow. 
Happy Birthday Viola and may we as women, women of colour continue to draw courage and strength from what you have accomplished.  We look forward to seeing your face on Canada’s 10 dollar bill in 2018.

So what I can learn from this birthday lady? Well, everything I need to know about business and more.
“As long as you participate, you remain competitive and give yourself an opportunity to win.” JD Gershbein

Information for this article was gleaned from the Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, Gwen Tuinman - Harbinger of Change and the Black Business Initiative Magazine Issue 64 and other sources.

 Written by Ann Divine, Ashanti Leadership & PDS