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Refugees and Immigrants Get Entrepreneurial Support

Canada loves entrepreneurs of any nationality.

Global Influencer

Global Influencer
Global Influencer

I was thinking about the influx of Syrian refugees and agree with most that it is a great thing for Canada and our economy to have them join our wonderful country. Every newcomer to Canada that I have ever met is grateful, warm and eager to participate in improving their life and that of others. No one could suggest newcomers shy away from employment and hard work.

I’ve given lectures to the RBC bank on ‘How to Do Business in Canada’ and, like it or not, every country has different ways of doing things. Canada is no different. When I see newcomers and refugees getting off the plane I wonder how they will adapt to their new country, how they will meet friends and how they will find work.

Some friends of mine from Iran have ‘gatherings’ every week with other Iranians at their home. They laugh and share their new adventures and reminisce about the troubles they had at home and how now, they can be themselves. They volunteer at every opportunity to learn about Canadians, to fine-tune their English, although like others it’s fine, they just lack confidence in speaking it. Most of them are entrepreneurs not because they can’t find jobs but because they want to own a business to call their own.

The newcomers I know work hard and many have started their own businesses. It is difficult with a new language, new standards, new lessons to be learned and a culture very different from their own.

At my lectures I tell them to embrace where they are and learn from Canadians what they need, which will give them an idea what types of businesses are needed and likely to succeed. It’s important newcomers integrate into Canadian culture rather than be assimilated or as some say put into the melting pot. We don’t want people to work and live in silos but we want their rich cultures to survive and make ours richer.

I tell newcomers that being an entrepreneur in Canada is a good thing with 98% of all business in British Columbia operated by very small entrepreneurs. BC has the highest percent of entrepreneurs in Canada but every province considers small entrepreneurs a valuable resource. I tell newcomers in order to start a business they need to plan, study what resources are available to them and to make use of the support systems they already have in place.

A business plan, obtained by any bank, is just a guide for newcomers to start a business. Newcomers may think they lack resources until they look around their immediate family and circle of friends to realize the value these people represent, not only in money but support. The support of community, family and friends cannot be underestimated and the very nature of a newcomer with fellow newcomers in Canada already makes it a better environment for starting business than most Canadians have in the beginning.

I tell people that the culture in Canada compared to other countries can be seen in the differences we see in the downtown areas of Mumbai, London, and a big center in Canada like Vancouver. The bustle of commerce stands still for no one yet Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, Toronto seems to function at a much slower pace than the big centers from which many newcomers come. It may seem slower but like Mumbai, London, or LA hard work is still the operative word. While Canadians value lifestyle over aggressive business, don’t think for a moment that Canadians don’t work hard to get there. Newcomers with their strong work ethic fit right in.

Canada loves entrepreneurs of any nationality. Entrepreneurs make our country better. There are resources to help. Meetup groups can easily be found on the Internet, Boards of Trade, Government resource centers and Associations allow everyone to network to meet others, find and share opportunities.

Governments are realizing just how enterprising and entrepreneurial refugees are and have stepped up efforts to help them find their business legs in their new country. With more than 65 million people forcibly displaced and 21 million refugees outside their home countries, millions of talented, educated, and skilled individuals are currently prohibited from working in the countries where they have sought refuge. Entrepreneurism is the logical solution.

Australia’s Settlement Services International (SSI) a private company with government support started a ‘self–employment’ pilot program three years ago to address the heavy cost of supporting newcomers arriving in their country. They realized that if they gave some support to incoming refugees who wanted to go the business route it was good for everyone.

Newcomers often lack financial resources, as well as human and social capital. Their lack of knowledge of Australia, familiarity with the local and national market as well as their lack of English made sense for the government to support an entrepreneurial approach. When they initiated the program out of 240 participants they found that 59% had their own business before migrating to Australia. The refugees were from more than 30 countries with the majority arriving from Syria, Iran and Iraq.

After three years the program called Ignite, Small Business Start-ups based on an enterprise facilitation model developed by the Sirolli Institute, is a model that is being studied around the world. SSI’s CEO, Violet Roumeliotis, said that “their eco-system of support has created dozens of small businesses” many of whom run businesses different form the ones they had at home. She also said the refugee entrepreneurs typically hire other immigrants when their company grows.

They have franchised the business model for this program and have identified that a program that will work for immigrants is also well suited for people with disabilities and indigenous persons. I think you can even add other special interest groups to this model including retired baby boomers and military retirees.

Once the companies are setup there are private micro loan funds up to $20,000 available to help them grow. Volunteer mentors, MBA students and some large companies (who see the refugees as customers down the road) round out the support infrastructure.

Germany has been quick to start a similar program and pay refugee entrepreneurs a small monthly support sum as well as helping them with red tape, researching demographics and other services.

I used to run a self-employment (incubator) program for a large NGO called SUCCESS. Government support for the program was stopped in 2012 but an immigrant program continued until recently. While the Federal government initially funded both programs they eventually switched to a provincial authority that was to be their undoing.

With a change of government in Ottawa coupled with thousands of new refugees in Canada, the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is eyeing Australia’s model with interest. Corinne Prince, Director General, Integration and Foreign Credentials, was visibly moved by SSI’s presentation recently in Vancouver and said the government would consider the model as a new stream in their department. She said Canada was “on the edge of social innovation” and new ideas had to be fostered to work with the influx of refugees.

In Canada, as most other Western countries, we want everyone to succeed because it makes our country a better place. It’s wonderful for people to succeed in a new business instead of falling into the typical under-employed situations we see all the time. Let’s hope the Canadian government can follow through with new support mechanisms to follow Australia’s lead.

I’m pro-renewable energy. But I’m against worshiping any technology and blindly glossing over its drawbacks.