By Florence Hwang
Starting a business can be hard. Startup capital, asset management, and just attracting customers; are all obstacles new small businesses must learn to overcome on the fly. But these challenges can be amplified for female immigrants, most especially for those in rural areas that are not accustomed to working with diverse populations.
“It’s a constant battle with people questioning your qualifications because of your background and overlook[ing] your business,” says Tia Luangomba. A small business owner, who immigrated from the Republic of Congo almost 10 years ago. She has worked diligently to build a strong reputation.
“I realize that people fear what they don’t know [so] I let my work and talent speak for me. If you are confident in your work and your talent, people will trust you and the outcome will be a satisfied customer,” she continues.
When Luangomba first moved to Niagara Falls, she had trouble finding salons that could do her hair. This would then force her to trek out to either Toronto or St. Catharines in her various searches. Identifying a glaring need within her community, she decided to become a licensed hairdresser.
In 2012, she came out with her own salon, Hair by Tia Nicole. Beginning as a multicultural hairstylist, in a relatively new country, she didn’t have much support. In need of additional guidance she began a course in business application from the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program.
“I needed help with the business aspect of things, where to register, how to start, where to build a business, demographics and other important aspect[s] of starting a business,” she admits.
The program has helped her with social media advertisements, gaining clients, adjusting financial strategies and understanding different legal aspects including taxes and name registration. But it has also benefited her in a variety of other ways as well.
“Since the course I have a lot more confidence in how I am running my business,” she says, stating that she would have not been able to start her own business in Congo.
“In my country there is no resources available for one to get help to start a business on their own and with war raging every day and violence, poverty and hunger level rising. No one has time to even try. Here in Canada there are so much resources, help and places like [the] multicultural center available for anyone who is will[ing] to seek help, work hard enough and achieve their dream,” she says.
In her own salon, she takes comfort in the effect she has on those around her. “Knowing that I not only have an impact in my clients’ appearance but their confidence makes it all worth it,” she concludes.
Catering to the Caribbean community
Luangomba’s experiences with a lack of offerings for her individual needs, are one that is all to well known for many immigrants. With Naomie Cesar, it was beauty products for her hair, which she had trouble purchasing.
“Lot of newcomers all of us have the same problem,” says Cesar who originally came from Haiti.
Like Luangomba, Cesar applied and was accepted into the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program.
Following completion, she purchased beauty supplies from Toronto and went to local multicultural centres, churches and other places newcomers gathered. But she soon realized customers were not just looking for hair products, they were also looking for other things from their homelands – food. Realizing the demand in the area, she opened a shop in downtown Welland called CaribAfrica Specialty Store.
Soon, she was selling Caribbean staples such as okra and cornmeal before eventually moving to full on dinners. A jack of all trades, she now sells food products as well as makeup and hair products.
“In the afternoon I make chicken roti. I also make rice and beans, oxtail, soups. Different meals. I explain to them how to cook it at home. It keeps me busy,” says Cesar, referring to her two children.
But her heart wasn’t always set on entrepreneurship. With previous training as a nurse, she looked at bridging courses upon arrival in Canada, before settling on specialization in foot care. Prioritizing a work-life balance, she looked for alternatives to the scheduling requirements of nursing.
“I love to be independent, meet other people, be inspired, get inspired. I enjoy it. Get to spend time with my kids. The most special time is to have time with kids and be able to do other things. I get to do other things like missionary work. I get to do those things instead of being somewhere [to] just work,” she says.
Providing Welland with ethnic alternatives that were previously missed, its clear there are many in the community that are happy with her decision.
Lori Webster is the coordinator of the Women’s Entrepreneur Development Program and has worked with the organization for the past five years. Meeting with a variety of immigrant women, she identifies language as one of the biggest barriers for those looking to learn about the Canadian marketplace.
“We have seen women start businesses in graphic design, commercial cleaning, hair styling, ethnic food store[s], imported products, online grocery delivery, jewelry-making, seamstress, holistic health care, and pet grooming, for example,” says Webster.
When the program began in 2013, it was originally set up as a two-year pilot project for six programs across Ontario. However, it continues to receive funding almost three years after the initial two-year pilot project. Helping educate immigrant women about the regulations and legal requirements of starting a business in Canada.
Over the years, a total of 102 women have completed the program. And of those, 56 have gone on to start their own businesses within 12 months of graduation.
Although the true success of these start-ups cannot be accurately measured until more time has elapsed, if the 2013 program is any indication, they should continue to thrive. Of the 23 net new businesses started since that initial program, 20 are still in operation.
Coordinators of the project hope to further the progress they’ve made and await a funding decision that could extend it for at least another 3 years.
This piece is part of the “Ethnic Women as Active Participants in Ontario” series.
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Administrative Assistant.