Helping women at the intersection of art & business

As an artist, Areej Alazem is a student of the world. She’s traveled throughout West Asia from her home in Syria to Qatar and Turkey. Thanks to digital technology and video calling, she’s been able to learn art and calligraphy under teachers from China, London and most recently, Morocco. While her art journey has taken her across the globe, her journey as a student of business didn’t start until she was in Edmonton and first walked through the doors of Action for Healthy Communities (AHC).

“It’s a new world for me,” she says. “I found it very interesting, very enjoyable. And as a newcomer, I dealt with some other organizations, but I found credibility here because I like how they work and follow up with you.”

Since Alazem started in the Support for Traditional Enterprises Program (STEP) just over a year ago, she’s attended regular classes on business financial literacy and tailored one-on-one sessions. This has helped her gain knowledge, develop her social capital and build a business plan for her art business. Thanks to a $50,000 grant from Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), she and 25 other entrepreneurial women in the arts have learned important money skills and developed or scaled up their businesses.

The AHC enlists the expert tutelage of professional accountants and business counsellors like Kevin MacDonald and Kirsha Campbell, whom Alazem says was “the most valuable” to her. Now, Alazem has registered her business, become a member of Edmonton’s Chamber of Commerce and is finalizing the last stages of her business plan.

She plans to sell her art, show at galleries and eventually sell household decor and clothing inspired by her art. But her biggest goal, she says, is to open her own art school here in Edmonton. Support from STEP has helped her connect with art galleries, art councils and even other established Edmonton artists like Elsa Robinson.

“It’s not just looking for that business knowledge, but other supports that lift them up,” says Tulin Sadouzai, a Stakeholder Engagement Facilitator at AHC. “It’s not one barrier that they’re facing; it’s multifaceted barriers and we work with them to address and help alleviate many, if not all, of them through capacity building and pathfinding to relevant resources for the business ecosystem.”

Sadouzai says STEP was born out of a previous program at AHC, which sought to give market exposure to newcomer entrepreneurs. But when reviewing the data for this program, Sadouzai noticed something concerning — women participants weren’t registering their businesses. Through follow-ups, the AHC Entrepreneurship program team found that many still felt they needed skills like business financial literacy to take their businesses to the next level.

“That is how we applied for STEP,” Sadouzai says.

When asked about the support received from ECF, Sadouzai says it matters “a lot.” Since most of AHC’s operational funding comes from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), their funding is usually limited to providing services to permanent residents and refugees, not Canadian citizens.

“If [Alazem] gets her Canadian nationality, we’d just be her friends then. We wouldn’t be able to serve her. The funding from ECF gave us this much-needed flexibility that we can outreach to all Edmontonians,” Sadouzai says.

Alazem’s story is just one of the many clients AHC serves, mostly newcomers. Some may become Canadian citizens, and some may stay as permanent residents for some time, but all of them are community members who rely on AHC’s support.

Alazem says, “The nice thing is, here, if you ask for support, you will find it.”

This story comes from the Spring 2024 Edition of Legacy in Action. Read the full issue.