Community Partner Profile

An Interview With Lola Adeyemi

Lola Adeyemi is a Nigerian Canadian immigrant and the founder of “It’s Souper,” a food company that produces Afro-fusion soups and sauces that are distributed online and in retail stores across Canada.

Lola is the 2020 inaugural recipient of the Cassels Black-Owned Small Business Grant. Created to foster a diverse and rich entrepreneurial environment, the Grant provides financial assistance and equivalent pro bono legal services to Black business owners in each of the three offices in which Cassels operates — Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver.

When did you start your business, “It’s Souper,” and what inspired you to do so?

I registered the business in June of 2018, but I had my first product available for sale in December of 2018. I wanted to fill the void in the Canadian mainstream retail space for African-inspired, ethnic foods. You’ll see an Asian, Indian, and Caribbean presence in your local grocery store, but there’s almost no African presence. And yet, we’re the biggest Black immigrant pool that comes into Canada on a yearly basis! I wanted to share love, through food, with a community that has given me so much. As a first generation African immigrant, I have had the opportunity to live and work in Canada without having to forfeit my connection to my birth country, Nigeria.

When did you come to Canada?

I came to Canada in my early twenties in April 2005. At the time, I was a student at the University of Nigeria, studying medicine. There was a lot of political unrest that was affecting the educational system there, so I seized the opportunity to come to Canada as an international student. I studied communication and writing in Winnipeg, met my husband there, and then we moved to Ontario in 2009.

What were some of the key challenges you faced in the startup stage of your business?

I come from IT, so I didn’t know how complex and complicated the food industry was, especially when it comes to African food — our unique ingredients are not easily accessible, for example. And, as a first generation immigrant, the lack of both mentorship about financial matters and exposure to a support network within the industry had a huge effect on my ability to learn and grow. Spending my savings to achieve this dream is one of the reasons why there are not that many African or Black-owned brands in the food and beverage industry. I can count on my hands how many of us there are.

In what year and in what stage of your business growth did you hear about the Cassels Black-owned small business grant?

I met Cassels at a pivotal time in 2020. I needed funding to grow the business because I’d already spent the savings that I had in 2019. I had some interest from the national grocery store chain, Sobeys, and I wanted to move into pouches, from plastic tubs. I also wanted to get a co-packer so I could focus on the operational side of the business. There was a lot of focus on Black businesses in 2020. I found the Cassels Grant online while doing my funding research. I had applied for other grants but wasn’t selected. I refined my story and presented a clearer vision for my business. I put my best foot forward and was so shocked when I got the call that I was the sole winner of the Grant. It was life changing.

What did you plan on using the grant for, if you won? Did those plans change?

Just the switch from plastic tubs to pouches for my four recipes was going to be $20,000. I also wanted to develop more recipes, fulfill orders from Sobeys, hire employees, and generally get to the next level of business growth. Those plans stayed the same — I got into a co-packer, was able to pay for the pouches, and got a social media intern. The Cassels Grant is the only reason why I haven’t had to try and get a bank loan for what is considered a high-risk business during the pandemic.

How has receiving the grant impacted you and your business?

Beyond the money, knowing that a committee of brilliant people has confirmed your business idea really gives you the confidence that your idea is feasible, that the brand, story, mission, and vision that I have for it is worth supporting. The other thing is the exposure and opportunities that being the first winner of the Grant has brought for my company. And, the impact it has had on the Black community, seeing a law firm that is predominantly white owned having the spirit and commitment to support minority communities.

How have you made use of the equivalent pro bono services that were part of the grant?

Cassels reviewed and revised all of the paperwork associated with my corporate structure. They also revised the materials for my Canadian trademark and helped me apply for my US trademark. When I got on the reality TV program, “Dragon’s Den,” and was offered a potential deal, Cassels helped me with the due diligence on that.

You were on the oversight committee to review the applications for the four recipients of the 2021 grant. How did it feel to be on the other side of that process and what were you able to uniquely contribute as a former recipient?

It was enlightening. I felt honoured that they would include me in assessing each application. I brought certain insights to the table as a bootstrapping business, former recipient of the Grant, and a member of the Black community. Seeing how difficult it is to make a decision, I respected that whole decision- making process. Every applicant has their strengths and you’re trying to make a decision that will ensure that the Grant makes a positive impact on the Black community.

If someone were to ask you what it has been like to work with Cassels as you grow your business, how would you describe that relationship?

Family. I know that seems odd, because they’re corporate and they’re lawyers but, as an immigrant, you’re always looking for ways to connect and build bridges. The reason I connect with Cassels so much is because, beyond the grant, they continue to find ways to support me. Some of the members of the firm have become my customers. One of the lawyers offered to introduce me to someone at Export Development Canada to help me when I’m ready to start exporting my product. That continuous support — there was no gain for him — that is why I say that Cassels is like my corporate family. Family is where you feel safe and where you feel supported, so that fits. Having that family has had a huge impact on me and my business.