Ignore the naysayers! Everyone will want to give you their two cents when you start a business. Many of your family members and peers will be supportive, while others will doubt you and doubt your ability to run a business. It’s your business, your money, and your dreams. Stay focused on the end game and block out all of the noise. I’ve had a lot of people question and/ or doubt me, but it didn’t deter me. It fueled me to prove them wrong.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Akilah Newton.
Akilah Newton is an activist, entrepreneur and author. She has always had a fascination with the arts and pursued her passion by studying music, drama and dance, and performing in productions at John Abbott College and as a member of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.
In 2003 she moved to England to attend the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. After earning a BA in Arts, Music and Entertainment Management she returned to Montreal and founded an organization for artistically- inclined youth. She founded Overture with the Arts (OWTA) in 2009; an organization committed to making the arts accessible to youth from all walks of life. She made it her mission to produce OWTA programs and events that spark discussions about social change. One of OWTA’s most popular programs is their annual Black History Month school tour. The tour visits schools across Canada and educates youth about Canadian Black History using music and spoken word.
Akilah is also the founder of Big Dreamers (Akilah Newton Projects Inc.); a company that celebrates diversity in ethnicity, gender and orientation through literature, games and art activities and supplies. In 2018 Akilah co- wrote and self-published the children’s book Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1. The book highlights the achievements of Black Canadians whose stories are often left untold. Since 2018, Big Dreamers has sold over 6,000 copies. Due to the popularity of the book, in November 2020, Akilah co-wrote and self-published Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 2, which has sold over 3,500 copies.
2022 is an exciting year for Akilah with several more book and product launches to come.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 2009 I started a non-profit organization called Overture with the Arts. The mission of my organization is to bring arts and culture workshops and events to youth in Montreal. Since founding my organization, I launched a national school tour delivering presentations on Canadian Black History (hosted by my twin brother, Omari Newton) in elementary and high schools. By visiting schools and speaking to school administration and teaching staff, I discovered that there was very little literature on Canadian Black History. The narrative followed American Black History. I saw an opportunity to take everything we had been presenting over the years and put it into a book. Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Vol 1 was released in 2018; this is how I became my own publisher and created my company, Big Dreamers. My company was created two years ago, and now I have an extensive product line of educational books, toys, games, and stationery that celebrates diversity and inclusion.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Since self-publishing my Big Dreamers book series, I’ve had the honour and privilege of meeting several trailblazers featured in my books, including Senator Anne Clare Cools, Yolande James, Jean Augustine, Zanana Akande, Nancy Oliver-Mackenzie, Dr. Oliver Jones and Dominique Anglade.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve been working on producing a line of skin tone crayons to go with my activity/ colouring books. I found a manufacturer, ordered samples, and approved my samples. Since this is a new product for my company, I found a supplier online with great reviews and decided to work with them. I paid for my crayons by wire transfer; when they arrived, they were not the colours I approved. I tried to get a refund, but the supplier refused, stating that “we produced the product based on the colours you selected, but colours can be slightly different.” I learned that always pay for your orders, especially large ones, by credit card or PayPal. This way, you can do a chargeback if you’re in a situation where your supplier scams you.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Big Dreamers celebrates diversity in ethnicity, gender, age and orientation through literature, toys and art. Being a champion of positive change, my company shines a light on diversity and representation through books, puzzles, toys, accessories and more, intended for the use of general consumers, educational institutions and resource centres.
Big Dreamers is providing the next generation of children with representative product offerings.
I believe my company is making a significant impact as there are very few products and businesses like Big Dreamers in this market. I believe we have impacted socially in the following areas:
- Authenticity — the celebration of Black excellence, the spotlight on diversity and the education of Canadian Black History is not performative. It’s an authentic sharing of my experiences and passion.
- Commitment — This is not just a business; it’s a lived day-to-day passion for me. This can be felt by our customers and community alike.
- Quality — in order to properly celebrate Black Excellence, a high standard of quality for all products produced is primordial.
So far, several Big Dreamers’ products — Big Dreamers Vol 1 & Vol 2, Movers, Shakers, History Makers, and the Memory Match Game are featured in-store at Indigo in select stores across Canada. In addition, AidenAston, an organic children’s online clothing and accessories store in Montreal, also carries our products. Furthermore, Big Dreamers has been featured by National media, discussing my company’s mission and why I believe my products are essential.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A couple of years ago, a teacher told me that one of her students created a book titled “Le Code Noir: A Compendium of Black Excellence in Montreal”, and my name was included in the book. The student was inspired by the stories that he read in my book, Big Dreamers Vol. 1, and decided to create his own book. Let’s pretend I didn’t ugly cry when I saw his book!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
On a federal and provincial level, I believe there could be stronger organization when it comes to fulfilling government grants to Black non-for-profits and charities and Black owned businesses. Unfortunately, while there has been positive movement forward in regard to providing more financial opportunities in the way of grants, the execution of these grants has been disappointing.
I believe we still have a lot of work to do regarding racism, diversity and inclusion. Continual discussions need to be had instead of just focusing on these issues in February. This needs to be a constant focus if we are ever to have a level playing field. Inclusion is the number one focus of my company. If we continue to work on pushing that issue to the forefront, this will undoubtedly help society move forward in a more open-minded way.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe leadership is moving through the world with integrity with a clear vision and purpose to help solve an issue.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Ignore the naysayers! Everyone will want to give you their two cents when you start a business. Many of your family members and peers will be supportive, while others will doubt you and doubt your ability to run a business. It’s your business, your money, and your dreams. Stay focused on the end game and block out all of the noise. I’ve had a lot of people question and/ or doubt me, but it didn’t deter me. It fueled me to prove them wrong.
- Keep it simple. Any business you start should focus on trying to solve a problem. When I decided to start my company, I noticed a lack of resources available for children about Canadian Black history, which was a problem. My solution was to write and self publish a book about trailblazing Black Canadians.
- Be prepared for the unexpected. No matter how organized or prepared you think you are for a product launch, an event, etc. — Always be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to adapt your original plan to reflect your changing circumstances.
- Don’t be afraid of failure. Being an entrepreneur involves risk taking. Some of your products will be hugely successful, while others won’t be as popular. You may even have a product(s) in your collection that’s a flop. Just because you run into a few hurdles along the way doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel. It’s all about trial and error and likely some failures along the way.
- Set Boundaries. Being an entrepreneur (or solopreneur) does not mean you have to work around the clock. Although a lot of work will fall on your shoulders, you have to find the right work/life balance to avoid burnout.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
First off, thank you! I would bring more diverse stories into classrooms. It’s so important for children to feel seen and heard. When they see themselves reflected, it boosts their self-esteem and they feel a sense of belonging. By seeing themselves represented in books, children will dream bigger dreams and go on to achieve greatness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life lessons/ quotes is from Aesop’s Fables The Tortoise and the Hare — “slow and steady wins the race.” We’re living in a time where so many people want instant gratification and instant success. I’m sure 15 minutes of fame is great, but what happens when that fades? It’s much more rewarding when you put in the long hours and have years of hard work to back you, and you begin to see the fruits of your labour. My career trajectory has been slow but steady, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Oprah would be my first choice! I’m so inspired by her journey, career, person, and amazing things she has done for the Black community and other communities worldwide. She is the original boss, and she is an incredibly inspiring woman.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit my website: www.BigDreamers.ca
Follow my journey on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/BigDreamersCA. I post a vlog every two weeks.
Follow me on my Instagram page: @BigDreamersCA
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Akilah Newton Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.