By Hailey Eisen
Andrea Zackary grew up hard of hearing. Born in Jamaica, the Brampton, Ontario-based entrepreneur and mother of five relied on hearing aids and amplifiers for many years of her life. She studied Hotel and Hospitality Management and worked in hotels as a front desk agent.
At the age of 25, her entire world went silent.
“I grew up part of the hearing world and my signing skills weren’t great, so finding out my hearing was gone completely was extremely hard,” Andrea recalls. “And then I lost my job.”
Since she was young and had never had a hard time getting a job before, Andrea assumed she’d find another one. “I didn’t know the challenges I was about to face as a Deaf person looking for work,” she recalls. Having filled out countless resumes and interviewing for many jobs she didn’t get, Andrea says she began putting the pieces together. “No one would hire me.”
With a young daughter at home and her entire career ahead of her, Andrea knew giving up wasn’t an option. She made what would be her first pivot — going back to school and studying to be a PSW (Personal Support Worker). Upon completion of her studies, she quickly found employment with the Bob Rumball Organization working with Deaf seniors.
But something was missing. “I realized I wanted to do more for the Deaf community,” Andrea says. “I wasn’t fulfilled in the work I was doing.”
Around the same time, Andrea’s daughter was being bullied at school. “I was part of the parent council and was involved in my daughter’s school,” Andrea says. “But when the other kids would see us using ASL [American Sign Language] they would give her a hard time on the playground, bullying her for being a CODA [Child Of Deaf Adults].”
“My daughter needed to know she wasn’t alone. She needed to know there were other kids like her with Deaf parents.”
“My daughter needed to know she wasn’t alone. She needed to know there were other kids like her with Deaf parents.” This was the inspiration Andrea needed. An idea was brewing that would start out as a side hustle offering a solution to a problem she saw in her community, and that would eventually grow into an award-winning business.
In 2014, it began with an “old-fashioned,” family day event, with games and activities, bouncy castles, and a BBQ — all accessible to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community and their families. “At the event, Deaf individuals had access to ASL — something that’s not always available to them — and their hearing family members had an opportunity to connect with others in the community,” Andrea recalls.
Events like this one were so greatly needed in the Deaf community that Andrea’s business took off organically. Over the next few years, Andrea worked to build out her brand, hosting a variety of different events from farm trips, to paint nights, to summer BBQs, and more.
Today, Def Events & Beyond Inc. (DEB) has a mandate of building connections between the Deaf/Hard of Hearing and Hearing communities within the GTA, through inclusive, family-friendly social events. Andrea’s tagline for the business is Play. Laugh. Socialize. Bringing Diverse Communities Together — and she has successfully managed to bridge a gap between a number of communities.
In the years since DEB’s inception, Andrea has been featured on CTV News and received a Young Professional of the Year Award, a Brampton Board of Trade Top 40 Under 40 Award, and a Brampton Accessibility in Business Award. Andrea is also featured among 1,000+ other successful, award-winning entrepreneurs in the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub’s See It. Be It. Database.
But none of her success came without challenges and roadblocks.
With no prior business experience, Andrea decided to seek further education in marketing, business planning, and entrepreneurship in 2016. She enrolled through the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre in a number of free workshops and business seminars. But for Andrea, participation in these courses required access to an ASL interpreter.
“Most often, the Entrepreneur Centre didn’t have funds to provide me with interpreters, and though I went to the classes, I ended up missing a lot.” Andrea says her peers did offer to take notes, which they shared willingly, but she could have gotten so much more out of the program with the right supports in place.
Advocating and fighting for accessibility has been on Andrea’s radar ever since. And while she says things are slowly starting to improve, accessibility is still a huge issue for the Deaf community.
“My dream is to build a Deaf Hub, which would be a multi-purpose space for social events, parties, meetings, and a café, where Deaf folks can meet and work and feel connected.”
With this in mind, her goal for Def Events & Beyond has grown into something much larger than an events business. “My dream is to build a Deaf Hub, which would be a multi-purpose space for social events, parties, meetings, and a café, where Deaf folks can meet and work and feel connected.”
In the meantime, she’s working on figuring out what her event business will look like in a post-pandemic world. As with many in the event space, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a major hurdle for Def Events & Beyond. “COVID came at us full on and other than my relaunch that I hosted in the fall of 2021, I haven’t had any events in two years,” Andrea says.
She did use the pandemic as an opportunity to work on her business, re-designing her branding materials and re-formatting her business model to include a membership platform. She also co-created a calendar planner with a local Deaf artist and educator, Leah Riddell. “I gave birth to my fifth daughter in January 2020, so in some ways, COVID also gave me the opportunity to take care of my home business,” Andrea says. Over the past two years, she says, the greatest lesson she’s learned is patience.
In 2020 Andrea also had the opportunity to participate in the Rise Up Pitch Competition for Canadian Black women entrepreneurs, winning in the business service category. “This was such a rich experience for me and also a great experience for Rise Up to learn how important accessibility is,” she says. “I know in the past I’ve been rejected from competitions when I brought up my needs, but they were absolutely ready and willing to accommodate and were nothing but positive throughout the whole experience,” she says.
To prepare for the pitch, Andrea said she had to spend a great deal of time with her interpreter. “I wanted him to know who I was and what my style was, so that would come across in the presentation,” she says. “The whole thing was such a beautiful experience and I learned so much about myself through the process.”
First established by the Black Business & Professional Association, CASA Foundation for International Development, and de Sedulous Women Leaders in 2021, the Rise Up Pitch Competition is an opportunity for Black women entrepreneurs to pitch their businesses for the chance to win thousands of dollars in financial awards and resources. The competition not only helps women entrepreneurs participating in the competition, but resulted in Canada’s largest study of Black women entrepreneurs. Rise Up: A Study of 700 Black Women Entrepreneurs, published with research support from the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub, found that the overwhelming majority (78.5%) of Black women entrepreneurs stated that access to financing was an issue. It also reinforced previous research suggesting experiences of workplace bias and racism often pushed them to start their own businesses. The report highlighted the need to support Black women entrepreneurs across Canada with general business guidance, mentorship, funding, and staff and team assistance.
“You truly never know where your journey will go or where it will end. So, the best thing you can do as an entrepreneur is just get started and figure the rest out later.”
For Andrea, any challenges she faced as a Black woman working to build her own business have been amplified by her disability. “Full disclosure, a lot of the organizations in the Deaf community are run by Deaf white people, so I’ve never fully felt like I fit in,” Andrea says. “I feel like I’ve had to work harder to get those organizations to recognize me, and in all honesty, most of my recognition has been from the hearing community as opposed to the Deaf community.”
That being said, she’s not afraid to lead the way for others, hoping her trailblazing will have an impact and inspire future entrepreneurs. As such, she’s working as a founding member of Black Deaf Canada, a non-profit organization that she and four other Black Deaf women are working to get off the ground.
Everything she does, she does in hopes of inspiring her own daughters. They’ve seen her through successes and failures and supported her through it all. Two of her daughters have already started their own small businesses, following in their mother’s footsteps.
While Def Events & Beyond Inc. is a for-profit business, Andrea remains committed to supporting the International Deaf community, where she says there is often even less support in place. To date she has made donations to Deaf organizations in Jamaica, Haiti, and Guyana. “The more people who come to our events and support our projects, the more chance we have to give back,” she says.
Giving back, rising up, reaching out, and making a difference — Andrea is committed to the work she’s doing and is excited for what’s to come. “You truly never know where your journey will go or where it will end,” she says. “So, the best thing you can do as an entrepreneur is just get started and figure the rest out later.”