Lifetime Achievement Award for Nova Scotia business leader
March 11, 2019
When Rustum Southwell arrived in Halifax in 1972, the goal was to complete his university education and return to the Caribbean.
He never left.
A few months after his arrival, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Liberal government introduced the Adjustment of Status program that allowed persons who had lived in Canada continuously since November 30, 1972 to apply for permanent residence within a 60-day period.
Southwell was among nearly 39,000 people who obtained landed immigration status under the amnesty that was supported by the major political parties.
“The main reason I seized that opportunity was because you didn’t need a visa to travel to the United States,” he said. “You could travel back and forth.”
While at Dalhousie University pursuing science & psychology studies, Southwell had a part-time management job at a CARA food outlet in Dartmouth’s Mic Mac mall.
“My wife and I were both in university at the time and one of us had to go out and generate some income to pay bills,” he said. “I took on that responsibility.”
It was there that Southwell developed a keen interest in business and became one of the first Black franchisees in Nova Scotia as the owner-operator of a Harvey’s restaurant in Halifax.
He soon found out that owning business is stressful.
“I worked very long hours and had many sleepless night just thinking about how to keep the business afloat,” the former Caribbean Association of Nova Scotia vice-chair said. “I was working so hard that some of the employees often told me that ‘the owner must be happy with you because of the amount of time you spend here just toiling away’. I would often giggle because I didn’t tell them I was the franchise owner.”
Through a mutual agreement to part ways after 12 years when the contract was no longer favourable to the franchisee, Southwell ran a program for potential Black business owners on Gottingen St.
“Of the 15 participants, about 13 got into business which was impressive at the time,” he recounted. “I think one or two of them are still in business which is even more remarkable.”
When the federal and Nova Scotia governments established the Halifax-based Black Business Initiative (BBI) in 1996, Southwell became the first staff member as the chief executive director.
Created to address the unique needs confronting the province’s Black community, the BBI is committed to growing the Black presence in a diverse range of business sectors, including technology, manufacturing, tourism and culture.
Retiring in 2012 after taking the BBI from a fledgling organization to an integral part of the economic and entrepreneurial landscape of the province, Southwell spent six months as the United Way of Halifax interim president & chief executive director and was the volunteer chair of Hope Blooms Inc. board of directors before returning to the BBI in 2016 on an interim basis when Michael Wyse stepped down.
“I made a commitment to do that for three years and I am getting ready to retire,” he said. “There were some things that needed taking care of which are completely resolved. The organization is in a lot better shape.”
With Southwell at the helm, the BBI has created in excess of 1,100 jobs and trained about 1,000 people that are now key players in some of Canada’s top performing companies and the combined sales of Black-owned companies have contributed more than $1 billion to the economy.
“The impact that the Black Business Initiative team is having on the economy in the province of Nova Scotia is recognized and validated by the quality of business owners we support and working as a catalyst for supplier diversity with our corporate sector partners,” he pointed out. “We play a vital role in business development and we provide a full gamut of services in terms of business skills development, coaching and networking to the Black community.”
The BBI administers the ‘Business is Jammin’ youth entrepreneurship program that’s designed to expose youth between the ages of ages 13-30 to entrepreneurship as a viable career option through training and developmental workshops.
Digital marketing strategist and public speaker Ross Simmonds, who is a graduate of that youth program, and Southwell will he honoured with Harry Jerome Awards in April.
“I am so proud of Ross and how far he has come,” said Southwell who has served on the boards of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, the Waterfront Development Corporation and the United Way of Halifax. “He’s quite the entrepreneur in his own right and he’s one of my bosses because he’s on the BBI board. He is also doing amazing work with Volta Labs which is one of Canada’s largest innovation hubs and he’s one of the top speakers on content management. We created an opportunity for him and he must be credited for doing the work himself. This guy is a game-changer.”
The Harry Jerome Lifetime Achievement Award is the fourth honour for Southwell in the last 10 months.
Dalhousie University and Saint Mary’s University conferred honouray degrees on him in 2018 and, last month, Southwell and his wife, Gracey, were recognized with Courage to Give Back Awards that celebrate extraordinary individuals in Nova Scotia.
While humbled by the recognition, he said the Harry Jerome Award is significant.
The BBI has built strong working relationships with several organizations, including the Black Business & Professional Association (BBPA) that administer the award program.
“I have worked with the BBPA for many years and the award is coming from my own community which is noteworthy,” he said.
Southwell is the third Nova Scotian business leader to be honoured with a Harry Jerome Award.
When you place an order at Tim Horton’s, the ‘double double – two cream and two sugars in a coffee – is evenly dispensed by a machine invented by Michael Duck who was honoured in 2004. He owns A.C Dispensing Equipment Inc. that manufactures and sells the Sure Shot machine that regulates the amount of cream poured into a cup of coffee.
Larry Gibson, who founded the Dartmouth-based Install-A-Floor company that’s a major exporter of flooring and other interior business products, was recognized two years later.
Southwell is the son of Dominican-born Paul Southwell who was the Chief Minister of St. Kitts, Nevis & Anguilla and later Premier following the death of Robert Bradshaw. The family patriarch died suddenly in May 1979 in St. Lucia while attending a West Indies Associated States Council of Ministers conference.
His son was in university at the time of his death.
“Though my dad was a politician, that wasn’t the career I wanted to pursue,” said Southwell. “I was part of his campaign team helping to distribute flyers and set up the music at rallies. I was happy doing that. I took what he did for granted and it was not until years after his death that I realized the impact of his work.”
A student teacher in St. Kitts who aborted medical studies after a year at the University of West Indies Cave Hill campus in Barbados, Southwell migrated to Canada 47 years ago.
“It’s funny, but it took me more than four decades before I did get that doctor title in front of my name and I got two of them in the space of four months,” he said.