Future List 2022: Sophia Jacob and Toni Jacob spearhead nonprofits that support the Black community
People & Places

Future List 2022: Sophia Jacob and Toni Jacob spearhead nonprofits that support the Black community

Toni and Sophia Jacob credit their mother, Pamela, for their determination to make a difference in Ottawa’s Black community. “Her energy and spirit pushed us to do our best,” says Toni of their 73-year-old mother.

“I was thinking the same thing,” says Sophia. “Mom was like that. She’s a helper. She loves to encourage us. And she’s a go-getter.”

Any conversation with the Jacob sisters inevitably returns to the influence their mother still has on them. The two women have used those qualities to wield considerable influence, and know they’ll need those qualities to keep their non-profits afloat. 

Both can point to singular events in their lives that catapulted them to create their organizations providing services such as counselling, food, and mentorship.

For Sophia, it was becoming a mother at a young age that launched her business career and the eventual network for women of colour. 

For Toni, it was a recent health scare that forced her to re-examine her life and start a community centre for newcomers, refugees, and others in need. It began with the discovery of a lump in her right breast in January 2021. Toni went to the doctor, who confirmed her worst fear — cancer. She got through the ordeal by leaning on family, friends, and her faith.

Her mother says she supported her by praying “three times a day.”

Determined she was going to beat the illness, Toni began thinking about the ways to give back to the community that was supporting her.

“I don’t have a husband. I don’t have children. What I do love is community work and putting all my effort and love into caring for people. Just like God would do. And while I was going through my treatment, I opened up the African, Caribbean, and Black Wellness Resource Centre. I was going to the hospital, getting my radiation treatment, and I was working and opening the centre.”

The 55-year old used all her savings from ventures such as her cleaning business to open the centre, a multifaceted non-profit that serves seniors and refugees, providing academic support for students, language classes, and a food bank. 

Don’t be fooled by the centre’s title, says Toni. It serves the whole community, people from all ethnic backgrounds. “One of our biggest programs is the food bank. We’re servicing over 1,000 people a month. Not only Blacks. We have Syrians. We have Afghans, Caucasian… Help is help. It doesn’t matter what colour you are.

Despite the growing need for its services, Toni says the centre is running short on cash. “We don’t get government funding like other organizations. When I started this [centre], I didn’t know it would grow so quickly. We service more than 1,000 people a month. All the funding came out of my pocket. We need support.”

Toni has identified a location that would allow them to expand their health services and is launching a campaign to raise funds to support this move.

Support is what Sophia Jacob needed when, at 18 years old, she gave birth to her son, now 28. Her mom was quick to remind her that she has a responsibility; she shouldn’t give up because she’s now a new mother. Pamela Jacob encouraged her daughter to finish school, promising that she and their dad would take care of the infant while she went to school. Sophia says she couldn’t have succeeded without her mother’s support and advice.

“There was a decision made,” she recalls her mom saying. “And now you have to hold up your end of the bargain with what God has given you and what he has charged you with, which is being a mom.”

That’s when Sophia decided to use her creative spirit and drive and “to give back more, especially to young Black mothers. To have something to acknowledge who we are, our leadership skills.”

She became an entrepreneur and started a company that organizes events. But that wasn’t enough. She needed something that would connect her to women who needed help overcoming obstacles on their road to success.

In 2018, the 46-year-old created the Canadian Women of Colour Leadership Network, a grassroots organization that provides programs under four pillars: women in leadership, women’s economic development, community partners and events, and wellness. “It really is about the connection, the networking and finding a space for us,” says Sophia of her vision. “Black and racialized women are already leaders in the game. We are leaders in our own right and jumping into things we want to do. However, who’s giving us the opportunities to be seen in a room?”

And now the sisters are facing a similar obstacle endured by the people they serve: a lack of money to keep going. Sophia says she can only stretch her resources for another six months. 

Left: Sophia Jacob, left, and Toni Jacob. Portrait by Christian Lalonde
Right: Dr. Ruby Edet, Toni Jacob, Sophia Jacob, Dr. Danielle Shreves, and Dr. Vera Etches at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation.

“Canadian Women of Colour Leadership Network is in need of core funding to support programs and operations,” says Sophia. “Due to the pandemic and inflation in the economy, non-profit organizations are in very tough positions and are barely staying afloat.”

Her organization is a not-for-profit, but she is seeking charitable status. 

The hardships of the Jacob sisters and other Black entrepreneurs running businesses and nonprofits have resonated with the federal government. Data shows that Canada’s Black populations are disproportionately affected by systemic inequities, with higher prevalence of low-income households, lower employment rates compared to the Canadian average, and a higher likelihood of discriminatory treatment at work, according to a 2021 briefing note about Black Canadian communities prepared for the minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

In its 2021 budget, the government promised $100 million for the Supporting Black Canadians Initiative, and $200 million to set up the Black-Led Philanthropic Endowment Fund. On Oct. 3, the government announced it was looking for an organization to administer the fund. 

Though they welcome the promise, advocates criticize the government for moving too slowly. 

“It needs to move from commitment to action,” said Liban Abokor, a board co-chair with the Foundation for Black Communities, in an interview with the CBC. 

The CBC also reported problems with a program for Black entrepreneurs that offers loans of up to $250,000 for businesses that are majority Black-owned. Many businesses complained about a slow and frustrating application process. 

The problem, say Sophia and Toni, is finding the resources to apply for grants, which larger organizations can do more effectively. Though she founded and runs the network, Sophia doesn’t draw a salary. Instead, she relies on income generated through other business ventures. Though their respective endeavours face obstacles, the sisters remain upbeat about the future.  Their faith and determination — and their strong family bond — continue to push them forward.

Toni tells her sister, “Keep moving. You got this. Don’t allow any negativity to penetrate your spirit.” 

Sophia tells her sister to “reach out to your circles, fundraise, pitch to investors and pray.”

Their mother’s advice is simple: never give up.