It’s been a long journey for local entrepreneur Weggon Allen. Today, he is the proud co-owner of Lenz Studio, one of Ottawa’s premiere photo and video studios, but many years ago his life was like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Born in Guyana, Allen’s first experience with entrepreneurship came at just five years old. After seeing his mother, an entrepreneur and tradesperson, sell homemade food, he started his own business selling candy, Kool-Aid and his mother’s food to earn extra money.
His life would change in 1987 when he immigrated to Canada with his mom and brother at 14 years old. First settling in Montreal, he was bullied at school and begged his parents to move somewhere else. A year later, they moved to Ottawa.
“Moving to Ottawa was a lifesaver because the culture shock in Montreal was real,” Allen recalls. “I would have lost my mind there if we stayed.”
Adding to the difficult transition was his strained relationship with his father, whom he had only met once before. To escape the pressures he was facing, Allen left home and dropped out of school, sleeping wherever he could. But it was at Ottawa Technical High School that he met two friends who would change the course of his life for years to come.
One friend had brothers with connections to crime who would introduce Allen to the ways of the streets.
The other schoolmate would take Allen down a completely different path: music. This friend owned turntables that the friends would use to hone their craft as rappers and dancers.
Allen’s love for music and the streets converged when he co-founded the rap group Clarence Gruff. It was also at this time that his knack for entrepreneurship re-emerged.
Aside from having a music video on rotation at MuchMusic with the single Mystery Unsolved (a rare feat for an Ottawa act at the time), Clarence Gruff was the first Canadian group to self-fund its own music videos instead of seeking funding from VideoFacts. The group also owned a recording studio and worked with a number of notable Canadian acts, including K-OS and multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning rapper, songwriter and producer BELLY.
But just when the members of Clarence Gruff were about to sign a major recording deal with Laface Records in New York, their lives in the streets caught up to them. Sitting in a holding cell behind bars, Allen decided to change his life.
Although he put his friends and music behind him, his true about-face would come while volunteering at the Salvation Army. One day while sorting donations, something that would change his life fell down the chute: a poem. It was the final push Allen needed to set him on the right path.
“After reading Charles Swindell’s poem ‘Attitude’, I realized that changes are necessary for growth and, in that moment, I got the paradigm shift that would change my life for good,” he explains.
In 2000, Allen was invited to become a partner at the upstart hip-hop media platform HipHopCanada, which would become one of Canada’s premiere hip-hop music media outlets. However, after a difference in opinion over the direction of the company, he would move on.
His next venture would come while working at Costco after overhearing a man talking about needing business cards. He offered to design the cards for the man, even though he had no design experience. After teaching himself to use design software, Allen delivered his product to a happy customer. Out of this transaction he founded the print company that eventually became known as Ottawa Print Hub, which would go on to serve some of the biggest companies in the capital, including Bayshore Shopping Centre, Absolute Comedy, Tanger Outlets, Adidas and Booster Juice. But eventually the rigours of the printing business would take their toll on him.
“I became a slave to my business. In order to ensure a high level of quality control, I had to be hands-on with every client,” Allen recalls.
Meanwhile, Allen’s former partner Neville Francis had opened a new photography studio called Lenz Studio. Seeing that the world was going digital, Allen joined and started getting into video. When Francis was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, Allen took over the daily operation of the studio and when Francis passed away during the pandemic, Allen inherited the equipment but the space closed.
But all wasn’t lost. He then partnered with local photographer and film director Fitch Jean, with whom he had produced a few short films, to reopen Lenz in August 2020 at a new location in the Hunt Club West Business Park. Together, the duo, along with new partner Jelan Maxwell, is slowly building a budding film industry empire with Lenz Studio, Lenz Films and Lenz Creatives, with no signs of stopping.
“It’s a very exciting time in the film industry in Ottawa,” Allen explains. “The new film commissioner is going to bring new energy to the city and we’re still optimistic that a soundstage is on the way. We want to position ourselves to serve this growing industry and to be one of the players that helps to support its growth.”
In 2019, they launched an education platform called Unilearnal. Their 28 Moments of Canadian Black History educational content is currently being used by 40 schools across Canada, as well as by the private sector. This summer they are launching an experiential learning program for BIPOC youth to teach digital content creation through filmmaking. Students will create a commercial for a charitable organization.
Their latest venture is Lenz Rental, a film production equipment rental service that aims to bring the latest in Hollywood film equipment to the capital and surrounding areas in anticipation of the new soundstage. The pair raised an initial round of funding from family and a second round from investors, valuing the company at $3.5 million. They took possession of the new Lenz Rental space in November, just around the corner from the photography and video studio, and have been busy doing repairs.
“The bigger picture is for Lenz Studio to have a soundstage where creators can come and create movies or anything they want,” Allen explains. “We’re starting small, but our aspiration is to have something like what Tyler Perry has developed in Atlanta. For Lenz Rental, we see ourselves having rental studios across Canada.”
From the streets of Ottawa to the Hunt Club West Business Park, Allen has learned a lot, but it all boils down to one lesson.
“Believe in yourself and don’t let little things stop you from achieving your goals.”