For the last 20 years, PhemPhat Entertainment Group’s Ebonnie Rowe has channeled her time, energy and (when necessary) money into Honey Jam, an annual, multicultural, genre-straddling music showcase designed to nurture and promote female talent. But Rowe, who calls herself Honey Jam’s “queen bee,” admits that when she held her first event in 1995, she thought it would be a one-off.

“It really started by accident,” she says, thinking back to the origins of an event that has kick-started the careers of hundreds of women, including Nelly Furtado, Jully Black, Divine Brown and Kellylee Evans. At the time, Rowe was running a mentoring program for at-risk youth in Toronto. She was troubled by some of the language and misogynistic attitudes her young charges were picking up in the mainstream rap and hip-hop music at the time. “There were no ‘clean’ versions of the songs – so these kids were hearing this stuff and repeating it,” she recalls.

“People really seemed to like it. They kept saying ‘When is the next one?’”

Frustrated, Rowe took her concerns to a local DJ, who in turn invited her to produce a radio special exploring the portrayal of women in hip-hop music. A magazine editor who heard the special, then invited Rowe to edit an all-female edition of a now defunct hip-hop magazine called Mic Check. The party held to celebrate the magazine’s release was called ‘Honey Jam.’ It featured female DJs and MCs, among other performers.

Though Rowe was content to return to her day job after the event’s success, it was clear she’d struck a chord. “I had just opened my mouth because I had seen something I didn’t like,” she says, “but people really seemed to like it. They kept saying ‘when is the next one?’  Though she had no training or experience in the music industry, Rowe decided it was an opportunity worth pursuing.

At least 100 women performing everything from jazz to gospel to rock to pop now audition to be part of the annual Honey Jam showcase each year, with 15 or 20 ultimately selected. Rowe stresses that once the young women (generally ranging in age from 17-24) have made the cut, the competition aspect is over. They then take part in a series of industry workshops and other development initiatives as they work towards a summer concert. “The girls all bond together,” she says. “It warms my heart.”

With Honey Jam’s 20th anniversary on the horizon, Rowe admits that finances are still the biggest challenge as she works to keep the event afloat – no matter how much the showcase has become a destination for talent seekers looking for the next big thing. But looking back, Rowe says that it has been the successes of her alumni that have made it all the work worthwhile. “I’ve burned the candle at both ends for a long time, but I do feel a huge sense of accomplishment and fulfillment,” she says. “It’s really the reason I keep going.”