The Oxford Small Business Support Centre (OSBSC) invited current and past participants in its Ontario Self Employment Benefit (OSEB) program to help celebrate success and recognize the final recipient of the OSEB Entrepreneur of the Year award.
Cindy Walker, a professional chocolatier and tea sommelier, took home the award Monday night, having started her business in 2013 in Ingersoll with the help of the OSEB program.
"I was blindsided," Walker said. "It was definitely a privilege."
Walker said she had the idea for her business, which is a fine chocolate and tea shop in Ingersoll called Chocolatea, but the OSEB program gave her the tools to drive it forward.
"I've been a business owner before, but I bought into a business," Walker said. "This was taking from the ground up, so it was a totally different angle. It was everything from the marketing, especially social media, that was a big thing."
The OSEB program also helped Walker with other elements, like bookkeeping, which was something she had left up to an accountant before.
"It was a better understanding of what I was doing and why," she said. "Why it was working and why it wasn't, that sort of thing."
Unfortunately, Walker will be the last recipient of the Entrepreneur of the Year award, as the OSEB program was terminated earlier this year by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, which was responsible for its funding.
The ministry said in a statement earlier this year that funding used for the OSEB program would be transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure for other entrepreneurship programs.
"After well over 20 years of this program supporting entrepreneurs in Ontario ... they've decided to take that support away from entrepreneurs," said OSEB program manager for OSBSC Cheryl Buchner. "The self-employment benefit program was a program fully intended to help people who were unemployed and having difficulty getting back to work.
"It provided training, as well as some financial support through a living allowance while they were starting the business. It certainly, and dramatically, increased the probability of success."
Buchner suggested it would prove great loss to Oxford County to lose the entrepreneurial support for small business, as there aren't any other programs like the OSEB that offer the financial support of a living allowance.
"The reality is, small business is the driver of our economy in Canada," Buchner said, "and when we have difficult times, the big companies are the ones that have the massive layoffs and the small businesses are the ones that keep on going ... To lose the entrepreneurial support is a major disappointment."
Walker was also disappointed with the termination of the OSEB program.
"That's what makes me really sad, is because the government focuses on bringing manufacturing jobs to different areas, but unfortunately those are the ones that come and go," she said. "It's the small businesses, the mom and pops, that keep everything running smoothly between their highs and lows of manufacturing.
"Without (OSEB), I would not be here. So I know that there are many other people that won't have the opportunity to say that. It was a bad move on the province's part to cancel this program."