Growing up in a small village in Iran near the Caspian Sea, Maria Rasouli felt the rush of freedom as she explored her surroundings riding her bicycle.
Despite being able to provide her with great joy, the activity was seen as inappropriate for an 11-year-old girl.
Things changed when she moved to Canada at age 24. Here, she was finally able to make her dreams of exploring the world on two wheels a reality.
Today, she is the founder and operator of Escape Bicycle Tours, a company that gives tourists and adventure seekers bike tours around Ottawa.
Her company was one of three winners of an Immigrant Entrepreneur Award this year from the City of Ottawa.
“A true source of inspiration [for my business] was my life in Iran as a woman where I was not allowed to bicycle.”
“A true source of inspiration [for my business] was my life in Iran as a woman where I was not allowed to bicycle,” she says.
She adds that Escape Bicycle Tours was the result of two years of self-reflection that finally gave her the courage to pursue her dreams of riding a bicycle. Her passion for the sport is what she aims to provide for her clients.
“I have had guests who said they did not remember the last time they were on a bicycle or they had not bicycled for over 30 years,” she shares. “They were so happy that they took a bicycle tour with Escape.”
Challenges of an immigrant entrepreneur
Despite the motivation to take an entrepreneurial path, new Canadians may find obstacles in things like time-consuming bureaucracy and a lack of local networks.
According to David Crick, an international entrepreneurship and marketing professor from the University of Ottawa, a newcomer’s existing skill set or business model from overseas is not guaranteed to work well in Canada – there may be more competition already here.
“They may have to look towards something that offers value [to Canadians like] lower costs,” he says.
“[There] are still many people who put immigrants into a box, and this is not something that will be changed quickly.”
Another issue may rise from having no local banking history.
“Even getting lines of credit from banks may be hard,” Crick explains. “[It is] a high risk to banks. This makes starting a business problematic.”
Moe Abbas, founder of Ottawa General Contractors and another winner of the Immigrant Entrepreneur Award this year, points out other difficulties such as prejudice.
“[There] are still many people who put immigrants into a box, and this is not something that will be changed quickly,” he says.
“We must all understand how we are viewed in the eyes of the clients we serve. That judgement may not be a bad thing if we know what it is, and can work with it.”
Rasouli also mentions the challenge of being in unfamiliar territory when new to Canada. She had to take some time to establish herself and gain a better understanding of how business is conducted in Canada.
“I actually think it is a good idea for immigrants to work in Canada for a few years before starting their own business. There are lots of things that an immigrant can learn from co-workers and how organizations are run in Canada by being in a workplace,” she says.
“That knowledge could later on be used for starting a business, building partnerships, marketing, sales and customer service.”
She adds that the absence of family members in Canada can result in the lack of a support net, but may create a platform to improve as an entrepreneur.
“I do not have the emotional, psychological, and sometimes financial support that family members could provide. This has led me to build strong professional and support networks and work harder to succeed.”
Tips for immigrant entrepreneurs
Despite the challenges many newcomer entrepreneurs face, networking with similar ethnic groups could be something beneficial to try, Crick says.
“They may have networks overseas that can help in self-employment practices,” he explains. “For example, depending on the nature of the business model employed, some may have access to import or export linkages that domestic Canadian firms may not have.”
“[S]ome may have access to import or export linkages that domestic Canadian firms may not have.”
Abbas, who is in the process of working on a social media start-up, Bumpn Inc., highlights the importance in understanding the consumer’s mindset.
“If you are an entrepreneur selling to a demographic, you must look and behave, or at least understand deeply, the demographic you are serving,” he says.
“People buy from people they trust. They usually trust people like them.”
Rasouli emphasizes the value of making connections.
“Network, network and network: people are often very kind and try to help if you ask them,” she says. “So, make sure that you have a diverse, solid network of professionals and friends who could help you with various aspects of your business and life.”
Success is mostly in an entrepreneur’s hands, Rasouli adds.
“Your success is … dependent on the amount of work you put into your business. You don’t have to wait for a performance appraisal or a manager to acknowledge or approve your work. The harder and smarter you work, the more success you bring to your business.”