Behind the Business: A Conversation with Maureen Simon and Queen Alexis

The next generation of business leaders is here, and they’re looking for entrepreneurial role models who speak to their experiences. Small Business BC invited two business owners, Maureen Simon and Queen Alexis, to the SBBC offices for a candid conversation on entrepreneurship.

Queen Alexis is a young entrepreneur and the founder of Queen’s Academy, a musical theatre program that helps kids develop vital life skills through fun performing arts classes. Maureen Simon is an award-winning, established entrepreneur and the founder of Maureen Simon Foods Corp. You can find Maureen’s Caribbean-inspired food products at grocery stores throughout B.C., including Save-on-Foods, Nester’s Markets, Choices Markets and Fresh St. Markets.

Small Business BC is excited to share the highlights of this conversation where Queen interviewed Maureen about her business, uncovering the passion, perseverance, and invaluable lessons that have shaped Maureen’s entrepreneurial journey.

How did your Business Start?Two black female business owners, Queen and Maureen stand together smiling.

Maureen migrated from Toronto to Vancouver in the 1970s. After a divorce, with four kids to raise she started her own catering business to support herself and her family.

“After living in Eastern Canada, coming to the West Coast was like entering a different world. The food was different, I didn’t see people who looked like me – it was quite a shock. There was nothing familiar here, no products to cook my recipes. So, I started creating my own,” said Maureen.

She built up a catering clientele for five years before turning to the business of manufacturing under her own brand. “I went to the Granville Island Public Market to sell items available nowhere else, and that’s where I learned to be an entrepreneur,” said Maureen. She had a day table at Granville Island for 10 years, introducing customers to delicious products from her own kitchen.

What’s the Most Popular Product Your Business Sells?

Maureen said that her seasonal products are often her most popular. For example, her Caribbean Rum “Celebration” Cakes are extremely popular, although they are only available for three months during the Christmas holidays. Their rich-tasting appeal is inspired by a family recipe dating back to her parents and grandparents in Trinidad.

“Coming to North America – being in Canada – I learned you must tailor food content and presentation, and most of all taste, to suit your consumer audience,” said Maureen. For the cakes she took her ancestral recipe and made it with less alcohol so it could legally be sold in stores. She also made it lighter, as the original recipe is incredibly rich and dense.

Her core products, including her Jerk and Coconut Curry sauces, are also very popular. “That’s a part of who I am,” she said.

What have you Learned About Yourself on Your Entrepreneurial Journey?

“I learned to believe in who I am. I love for people to criticize me. That’s how I grew,” said Maureen.

“When you get criticized, you adjust, and you fix what needs changing. You have to take the good with the bad, and sometimes, when something doesn’t work, you have to look at yourself and ask – What did I do wrong? Where did I go wrong? In response to your supporters and critics alike, you benefit from asking: ‘Tell me the truth, let’s be honest with each other’,” said Maureen.

What’s a recent achievement you’re proud of?

“Being given the 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Black Business Association of BC,” said Maureen.

“It was so mind-blowing to me for these young people of the BBABC to acknowledge what I’ve been doing, and for me to realize how they follow me as a role model. I grew up with many of these young members of our black community watching me push forward and make a difference in business and in my heritage community. For them to recognize what I have done, and to give me such an award, was a hugely powerful gesture. To me, it was beautiful – a real highlight of my career.”

As a Black Female Business Owner, What is Something You’ve Had to Overcome?

“In the face of discrimination, often subtle yet very real – because being female and a racial minority historically has tended to present barriers to overcome – you really must believe in yourself. I really had to and did. I am, and always have been, proud of being a woman and a black woman. If you don’t believe in who you are, you cannot thrive. You have to be strong in that belief, and also about what you believe in, combined with essential patience and perseverance,” said Maureen.

Maureen said she was lucky to have good people around her who helped her grow. Earlier in her business, she felt like a nuisance to her mentors. Now, she can confidently connect with them.

“I have a lot of people around me, in my community and across the business community – especially the food industry. I have role models and good mentors whose presence in my world has been vital,” said Maureen. “Developing and expanding my business, I have had some strong supporters. When people support you and encourage you, it instills greater confidence in you. When they tell you: ‘Come and see me,’ you have to respect their offer, and then be open to following their advice.”

What did you learn on your journey that you wish you learned earlier?

“Treat your banker like a partner,” said Maureen. “The most important thing is going to the bank and showing them your proposal. And if they say, ‘Oh, you’re not ready,” – first we need to fix it – they’ll give you the direction you need. When I started I didn’t have all the necessary resources and didn’t know how to utilize them. So, based on my experience, I would recommend that young people who have a small business go there first and listen to the bank,” said Maureen.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Small Business BC is Here to Help

SBBC is a non-profit resource centre for BC-based small businesses. Whatever your idea of success is, we’re here to provide holistic support and resources at every step of the journey. Check out our range of business webinars, on-demand E-Learning Education, our Talk to an Expert Advisories, or browse our business articles.