Entrepreneurship is an important pathway for newcomers to a country despite perceptions that they are often pushed into it because of exclusion from traditional job markets. I have realised that for many newcomers, entrepreneurship is a desirable career path that can offer many opportunities and benefits. They are slightly more likely than natives to see entrepreneurship as a career choice that comes with status and respect, and that is positively portrayed in the media, because so many immigrant entrepreneur families have a history of business ownership in their country of origin. Through these opportunities, entrepreneurs interact with individuals with many different backgrounds in the host country, gradually moving from being socially excluded to socially included and illustrating the process of local integration. Moreover, most of the time immigrants have trouble getting their qualifications recognised so they pursue a different life path, but everyone agrees that offering kindness is the key to accelerating the integration of immigrants and newcomers.
However, it is true that some immigrants become entrepreneurs because they are excluded from other forms of employment or need to supplement their incomes. Since I became an entrepreneur myself, I have found that the role of entrepreneurship in facilitating the integration process of vulnerable populations is still understudied.
For me, entrepreneurship is a way to economic inclusion, and it’s all about being unique and remarkable. It’s also about those who think out of the box and take risks that others don’t have the courage the take – not only for the sake of experience but because entrepreneurs are the real social and business game-changers of our time. It doesn’t take a lot to turn an idea into reality at a time where you can start your own project with just a smart device and internet (and sometimes you don’t need the latter until getting deeper in the process). Access to resources in our time is a deciding factor for many as we are seeing a massive switch in the global approach towards new startups and businesses. We now understand more than ever before the value of new ideas and the chance to transform our societies for the better by building on our belief that, all around the globe, risk takers are opportunity makers. Newcomers should have the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship as a pathway to success and settlement, and service agencies should be able to refer them to the appropriate resources.
While we understand that the world is more interconnected than ever before, we continue to witness exclusionary policies and rhetoric. We continue to watch people fleeing their homes for many reasons – whether by choice, like most immigrants, or because of wars, instability and armed violence that put their lives at an extreme risk. These refugees lose everything in the blink of an eye and are forced to find another place to call home and rebuild their lives.
The journey of rebuilding can be long and ruthless. The passion to be contributors to the system is what makes this group of newcomers so creative and determined: migrants and refugees are not numbers but human beings, persevering to find ways to fill the gaps in society. Every person should have a place to call home – it is a basic right. It is our duty to treat migrants and refugees with empathy, dignity and respect. We know that migration is an opportunity for individuals, for families and for our countries. It can bring significant economic, social and cultural benefits to host countries as well as income to countries of origin. It also benefits human relations and co-operation across borders.
We need to realise that this new life has barriers that require different skills, competencies and resources – such as financial capital, social networks and educational requirements – to lead to success, however defined.
To succeed as an entrepreneur, the start is everything. Once you help people get on track, they will continue on the road by themselves. Immigrant entrepreneurs can be important for several reasons: they create their own jobs; can create jobs for others; can develop different social networks other than immigrant workers; and, last but not least, shape their own destinies rather than collecting welfare benefits and waiting for cues to become active. They can also provide a different range of goods and services; enhance the vitality of particular streets or neighbourhoods in cities or specific economic sectors; and they can give an added value to the appearance of the city. And of course, they can play their part in the “natural” process of succession and renewal of entrepreneurs. They work hard because it’s make-or-break and, for some, their ship back was burned.
This is directly connected to my family’s story after losing everything in the war in Syria in 2012-2013; we had a little room for hope but plenty of room for frustration.
However, only few days after coming to Canada and landing in small town on the East Coast called Antigonish, we learned that entrepreneurship was our door to integrating into our new community and building connections in the country that we started calling "home".
Contrary to our own expectations, it only took us two months to rebuild our business. The despair and uncertainty that had been bringing us down was quickly replaced by the motivation and inspiration that had always ignited our entrepreneurial spirit. It was this spirit that influenced us to create something remarkable and unique that could show everyone the potential immigrants can bring to their new communities.
In early 2016, we created Peace by Chocolate with the aim to share a taste of peace with each piece of homemade chocolate. It may sound strange, but I was motivated greatly by my background in medicine: both chocolate and medicine have the goal of making the world a happier and less painful place, and both require skills that bring people together instead of tearing them apart.
First, we created the Peace bar, which comes with over 20 different wrappers each displaying the word for peace in a different language. We also created slogans like “One Peace Won’t Hurt” and “Peace Is Beautiful in Every Language” to remind customers of our backstory, and how much we had been through in the last several years to make these little pieces of joy reach their hands.
By September 2016, our story had begun to reach parts of the country we could never have imagined. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was moved by our story and, during the United Nations Leaders’ Summit on Refugees and Migrants that month, he delivered a speech telling the world how we had rebuilt our life and business in Canada with the support of the Antigonish community. Our family’s story went viral, and against all odds, I became the face of the new Canadian Syrians. I believe that chocolate has been the key ingredient of my integration in Canada, and thanks to chocolate, we have been able to give back to our new community, from offering jobs to locals to sharing new methods. We even donated some of our profits to the Canadian Red Cross when we witnessed the terrible wildfires in Fort McMurray that forced many families out of their homes in 2016. We know that devastating feeling and felt that we needed to help our new fellow citizens.
Newcomers must be flexible, acknowledge the risks of entrepreneurship and never take any resources available for granted. I believe that it is an immigrant’s responsibility to speak out and share their ideas when they arrive in their new home: no one will come knocking at your door to ask what plans you have.
One has to be open and give integration a chance. At the same time, I would love to see more diverse resources for new immigrants to prosper. There are some resources out there for sure, but they are sometimes almost too abundant in some fields while too scarce in others. Governments should acknowledge that it’s important for the country to grow at the same pace in both metropolitan and rural areas. A fair distribution of newcomers in their new communities is crucial for the sustainability of small towns.
There are amazing entrepreneurs coming to Canada to share their values and culture, and it is leading by these positive examples. We were very lucky to have such a supportive community – all digging deep to help us find solutions for the challenges we were facing – to push us forward. They continue to show us such kind support. When newcomers are educated on the right guidelines, and where the resources lie, they can go through any challenges they may face.
Through Peace by Chocolate we are able to give back to the community and hire tens of people – in distribution, production, accounting and other specialisations. It’s always important to mention that the new hires in any startup are a great part of the integration process, focusing on getting the host community involved to learn from them, get tips on the system to get loans, build distribution networks and understand the demand and culture. This will also help the business to reverse the prejudices about the impact of the newly created jobs and ensure its policies are as inclusive as possible.
At Peace by Chocolate, we recently announced that by 2022, we will hire 50 refugees, help 10 refugee startups with mentorship and support four refugee businesses to access new markets through our distribution channels.
Generally speaking, we can do a lot for entrepreneurship in immigrant communities: by acknowledging the fast-changing world we live in and by better taking into account increasing automation and technological changes; by transforming our institutions to be fit for purpose, supporting environment-friendly innovations; and also by legislating and overseeing government actions to support youth entrepreneurship, vocational training and education adapted to the job market.
We need to build on the benefits of introducing these talents to society, whether it’s intercultural dialogue, conflict prevention, the contribution to economic development, making opportunities visible or revitalising declining communities. Further, they can enhance productivity and help generate a robust economy, create stronger communities with the ability to meet wide-ranging needs and address racial, ethnic and economic diversity challenges. We also need to encourage existing business incubators to adapt their models and services to accommodate refugees’ and vulnerable populations’ situations.
Some challenges might float to the surface shortly after becoming an entrepreneur, for example understanding legislation, navigating the landscape of regulations and taxes involved in establishing a business and finding financing and talent; this also includes understanding new markets. However, some types of newcomers tend to be highly educated and connected to different social networks, and are better qualified to operate in post-industrial growth markets such as ICT, finance, insurance, real estate, media, tourism and entertainment. Entrepreneurs of this kind are pulled rather than pushed to these markets and, because of their higher levels of human and social capital, they seem to better fit the requirements of today’s post-industrial economy.
All things considered, it’s important to know that no one was born to immigrate. We were all born to live in our homeland.
Entrepreneurship in the new community can be a rebellious way to change economies, and being an immigrant and starting your own business is not always easy, but once the ideas start rolling things can become clearer. There is no better way to face the cultural shock after the first couple of weeks in a new country than starting a small business, reflecting the skills that you came with, that leads to a great movement to embrace the startup and incubate it.
If there’s one piece of advice that I can give to any immigrant entrepreneur, it would be my favorite life quote: “No one can go back and start a new beginning, but everyone can start today and make a new ending”.
- What can policymakers do to ensure resources for entrepreneurs are balanced across different sectors?
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