Entrepreneurs of colour face barriers created by racism


By Denis Langlois


February is Black History Month in Canada, an opportunity to celebrate the many achievements of Black Canadians and their communities throughout history.

But it’s also a chance to reflect on and continue working to address the challenges and barriers Black and other visible minority entrepreneurs, both in Canada and the United States, continue to face due to institutional and systemic racism.

Black entrepreneurs face barriers to acquiring financing and securing government grants to grow and sustain their businesses, according to a February 2021 “Building Black Businesses in Canada” report by the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce.

Black entrepreneurs also reported lacking social capital and networks to set up businesses for funding successfully and, in regions with lower populations of Black residents, Black entrepreneurs identified isolation and limited networks as key barriers to growing their businesses.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that Black business owners face systemic barriers that have been “exacerbated” by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In honour of Black History Month, Optical Prism is profiling some Black-owned eyewear companies, both in Canada and with products available in Canada, to learn why it’s so important to have Black representation in the optical industry and about the challenges Black entrepreneurs face in setting up and growing eyewear businesses.


BÔHTEN Eyewear

First up is Bohten Eyewear, a brand based in Canada, designed in Ghana and inspired by Africa.

The company launched in 2012 by co-founders and brothers Nana Boateng Osei and Nana Kwadwo Osei.

The brand fosters a culture of diversity and inclusion within the eyewear industry by ensuring Black, Indigenous and other people of colour feel a sense of belonging and self-worth. The company says it is also committed to producing quality eyewear designed to fit the faces of people of African descent.

The company first developed its Barklae frames and has seen its offerings grow to more than two dozen designs, while its staff size has nearly tripled in the past nine years.

Here is an abridged version of our conversation with the company’s founders.

  1. Why is it important to have representation in the eyewear industry?
  2. We noticed early on (before Bohten launched) that there was a lack of eyewear companies that designed frames for people of colour. For people of African descent, in particular, their faces tend to be more prominent, including higher cheekbones, stronger jawlines and wider nose bridges. We thought we could revolutionize the eyewear industry by honing in on meeting the needs of that demographic. As wearers of glasses ourselves, we identified that finding the right fit for our faces was a challenge. If it was a huge issue for us, we recognized that it must be for so many others. So, we decided to be one of the first in the industry that would represent a group of people that have been marginalized in so many ways for so long. In Canada alone, 3.5 per cent of the population identifies as Black, but how many optical retailers carry Black brands? There are numerous studies which suggest that members of BIPOC communities are less likely to get routine eye exams and other forms of optical wellness. We believe that this is partly due to a lack of industry experts who people of colour feel they can identify with. We understood early on that people are more likely to engage in healthy eye care practices when there are people in the industry who look like them.


  1. Have there been challenges to starting up and running a Black-owned business in the eyewear industry?
  2. Starting and running a Black-owned business comes with its growing pains, but the rewards have far exceeded the challenges. In the beginning, we struggled to access optical retailers who would only focus on larger, more established brands that cater to the majority demographic. There appeared to be a lack of consideration for minorities and their representation.

With that in mind, we have been pushing to get our name in these larger retailers in bigger markets, and while we have had some success, the quest for optical stores to stock our products (and other Black-owned eyewear companies) is still a challenge we are working on. 


  1. What motivates you in your business?
  2. Our clients. It never gets old when we read a review from a customer who has fallen in love with our frames because it fits their face perfectly and in a way they were not able to find anywhere else.

We made it a point to not just sell eyewear. We are selling an experience. We combine our love for the African continent, culture and identity to provide a unique experience for our customers. To know we are changing people’s perspectives of eyewear and what it represents has been the biggest reward for us.



Next, we chat with Tracy Vontélle Green and Nancey Harris, two friends who founded New York City-based Vontélle in the summer of 2019.

Their website officially launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020.

The lack of ethnically inspired eyewear styles in the marketplace inspired these two women, who met at university, to create their own line.

The brand offers exotic textiles and ethnic patterns reflecting African, Caribbean and Latin cultures.

Vontélle’s inaugural line boasted 37 “Bold, Brave and Beautiful designs.”

Here is an abridged version of our conversation with the co-founders.

Q: Why is it important to have representation in the eyewear industry?

A: The optics of the eyewear industry for diversity has been lacking for centuries. The industry has been primarily European and male-dominated. From our research, many cultures are wearing ill-fitting eyewear. Our designs include a wider bridge for the nose, a longer temple for a comfortable fit on your ears and wider lens to fit over high cheekbones.

Vontélle’s target market is from the following backgrounds: African; American Black (including Biracial); Latino & Latinx; Asian; and East Indian Asian. Moreover, these ethnicities want to see more colour and pattern in their eyewear selection.

Q: Was there a need when you started to design and create eyewear by and for Black consumers?
A: In the United States and globally, African American consumers spend billions of dollars on eyewear produced by luxury name brands, but they are not owned (designed and manufactured) by African American/Black-owned fashion houses or companies. Most importantly, after conducting interviews, many complained about indentation markings on the bridge, pain behind the ears or glasses that tilted on the face as they just did not fit.

Everyone acknowledged it, but did not have a solution. Enter Vontélle – we realized it was necessary to start to design and create eyewear by and for Black consumers.

Q: What have been the challenges of starting up and running a Black-owned business in the eyewear industry?
A: As two women of colour interacting in a very male-dominated industry, we encountered a few challenges. Initially, it was difficult to find a manufacturer as collaborations are key and essential to any business.

When we decided we wanted to start this business, we traveled to Paris for Fashion Week, which featured all the brands in the marketplace. We immediately stood out. Truth set in as we realized, there were only a handful of African Americans present. Had we not met the right manufacturer during our visit to Paris, we would not have an eyewear collection today.

We interviewed many designers and manufacturers and they either did not believe in us, could not understand our vision and/or did not want to work with two young Black women. Many did not call us back; the three that did, one was overcharging. We had to find the right collaborator who saw our vision and wanted to work with us at the right price.

Q: What motivates you in your business?

A: Tracy: I always lived by the adage challenge yourself. Once you’ve reached a new place, challenge yourself all over again. Success is in every accomplishment; you set a goal and you take the steps to do it. Most importantly, I want to leave a legacy for my son, for other African Americans, that if we are allowed to participate and given the same resources, we have equal opportunity for success.

Nancey: My personal motivations are my son, husband, and mother. My mom migrated to the United States from Jamaica to create a better life for her family. She was successful in bringing the entire family (mother, father, brothers, nieces, nephews), but she never lived out her own dream. Still, she is a staunch supporter of her family and has passed the baton to all of us to live out our aspirations.



Finally, Optical Prism spoke with Marsha Douglas-Sydnor, a brain tumor survivor and mother of three who founded in 2018 Shades of Shades Eyewear, the first luxury eyewear brand exclusively devoted to “nude natural eyewear for all skin tones.”

The brand was created to provide inclusive nude eyewear to an industry that mainly focuses on limited nude colour selections.

Designed in the United States and handmade in Italy, the five Shades of Shades styles are available within a 14 shade-inclusive nude palette.

“I was inspired by the lack of inclusion within the eyewear industry. I needed to change it. There hasn’t been an eyewear brand to exclusively offer nude eyewear, so after not being able to find my custom Butter Pecan nude silhouette, I created it,” Douglas-Sydnor says.

Here is more of our conversation with the founder.

Q: Why is it important to have representation in the eyewear industry?

A: There was a complete void in the nude eyewear industry for those that did not fit into one or two shades of pink or beige. Our brand was created to fill that void. Representation and inclusion is at the forefront of our mission to be leaders in this space. It’s important to not only know that you exist, but to celebrate your existence.

Q: Was there a need when you started to design and create eyewear by and for Black consumers?

A: Absolutely, not only black consumers, but any shopper who the industry has overlooked. The term “nude” is relative and up until now, the industry defined what a “nude” shade should look like. I’m proud to say that we’ve changed the game. WE are nude. All of us….together.

Q: Have there been challenges to starting up and running a Black-owned business in the eyewear industry

A: I believe that there are challenges that come along with starting up any business, including funding, quality sourcing, and marketing, however, our mission continues to outweigh the challenges, and therefore, we continue to move forward, no matter what.

Q: What motivates you in your business?  

A: People. I am motivated by all the beauty that surrounds us in this world. Our differences remind us of how unique we really are and those unique traits need to be recognized, celebrated, and uplifted.