- Canada has a beautiful long-standing history of immigration. Since the confederation in 1867, more than 17 million immigrants have come to Canada and made it their home. This mosaic of ethnicity, culture, racial identity, and language brings together Canada’s proud portrait as a nation.
Apart from enriching a country culturally, a riveting IMF report found that migrants also profoundly impact the economy. When migrants and natives come together in the labour market, their diverse skills complement each other and increase the country’s productivity! IMF’s simulations indicate that even modest productivity increases from immigration directly benefit the average income of natives.
According to Statistics Canada, immigrants are already making very important contributions across every sector of Canada’s economy as a part of the labour force, as well as job creators or entrepreneurs.
As of May 2021, immigrants in Canada aged 25 to 54 represented
- over 36% of people working in accommodation and food services
- nearly 38% of those working in the transportation and warehousing sector
- over 34% of those working in professional, scientific and technical services
- over 20% of those working in construction
- Business ownership and self-employment rates are generally higher among immigrants than the Canadian-born population
- Immigrant-owned firms tend to be younger than firms owned by those born in Canada, and younger firms generally create jobs at a higher rate than older firms
- Product and process innovation is marginally higher in firms owned by immigrants than in other firms
An HBR research also reinforces this remarkable narrative that immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs and job creators. It seems to come all down to a ‘personality-based self-selection.’ Choosing to emigrate voluntarily or start a business both involve taking on considerable risks. This common thread of a larger risk-taking appetite is what emerges as a driver of immigrant entrepreneurship!
Let’s meet some of Canada’s famous immigrant entrepreneurs:
Meet Karim Hakimi, his journey from a challenging childhood in Iran to becoming a thriving business tycoon in Canada is nothing short of inspiring.
At just 5 yrs old, Hakimi faced a tragic loss as his father passed away. Despite the following hardships, he embraced the responsibility of supporting his family and started working at a very young age. From being a blacksmith to grinding magnifying glasses from old window panes, Hakimi’s curiosity about eyewear began to bloom.
At 14, he enrolled in night school to learn to read and write. His thirst for growth led him to join the Iranian Navy and become a diver, where he also interacted with American guests, honing his language skills.
After his Navy stint, young Hakimi’s pursuit of a better future took him to Germany and Switzerland, where he continued to work in factories making lenses. Finally, he decided he didn’t want to be a factory worker anymore; he wanted to own his factory. He wrote letters to the US, Canadian, and Australian embassies, and as luck would have it – Canada responded!
Hakimi landed in Toronto and continued working in local factories until he decided to go solo. He rented space in the former Elmwood Hotel on Elm Street downtown, where he posted a handwritten sign on plywood that read “Hakim Optical”.
Not driven by money but by the joy of his work, Hakim went from store to store, offering to make prescription glasses. Hakimi earned $3.50 for each pair of lenses, which left him with a profit of 50 cents. However, the retail outlets would sell the same glasses for $50 or even higher. Later, he established his business, boldly undercutting the competition by offering a pair of glasses for $8 and bifocals for $12.
Hakimi transformed the eyewear market. Offering glasses at more affordable prices, he quickly gained popularity and success. He wasted no time investing in new machinery and even purchasing the building he had been renting. Fueling his ambition further, he acquired additional properties, building his empire.
He achieved his first million-dollar milestone by the early 1970s, beginning a remarkable journey towards even greater heights. He remained dedicated to his craft, driven by the passion to make a difference.
Today, at 84 years old, Hakimi continues to work 10 hours a day, refusing to retire. He says, “There is always something to do!” Hakim Optical flourishes with over 160 outlets across Canada. In recognition of his philanthropy, Scarborough Street was renamed Hakimi Avenue in 2014, celebrating his contributions to the community.
2.Peace by Chocolate
Once upon a time, in the bustling city of Damascus, a man named Isam Hadhad embraced his passion for chocolate and built a thriving business that captivated hearts across the Middle East and Europe. Life was blissful. But alas, war descended upon Syria, and with it came devastation – their chocolate factory was obliterated in a bombing.
As refugees, the Hadhad family sought solace in Lebanon. In the midst of uncertainty, Tareq, Isam’s son, dreamt of continuing his medical studies. Canada’s refugee program offered a lifeline, inviting the extended family to join him. Tareq set foot on Canadian soil with a handful of belongings, envisioning life in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. But the refugee agency placed him in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a quaint town of only 4650 residents.
Tareq, the first Syrian refugee to arrive there, expressed excitement and apprehension. Still, in the true spirit of Atlantic Canada, locals warmly welcomed the Hadhad family at the airport, extending their arms in friendship. This heartwarming reception laid the foundation for an astounding journey of acceptance, community, and the pursuit of a shared dream.
The Hadhads knew exactly how to win the hearts of their new neighbours. At a communal potluck, Isam whipped up his chocolates. Their neighbours loved it. Enthusiasm spread like wildfire, and the word soon reached everyone’s ears – the Hadhads had a talent for crafting phenomenal chocolates! With the upcoming winter farmer’s market just around the corner, their neighbours couldn’t help but suggest that they showcase their creations at the event. When the day finally arrived, within a mere half-hour, every last piece of chocolate disappeared into the hands of delighted customers.
The small-town Canadian dream was unfolding before their eyes. Seeing the immense potential in their chocolate business, the community volunteers rallied to lend a helping hand. They built a small shed, giving the Hadhads the space to take their craft seriously. Loans were extended, and expertise was freely offered as the town united to spread the word about the family of Syrian refugees creating the most exquisite chocolates around.
During the Fort McMurray wildfires, the Hadhad family saw an opportunity to make a difference and decided to create special products to support the desperate residents of Alberta. They raised $100,000, and each truffle and gold bar symbolized hope. As their mission took shape, Peace by Chocolate was born.
Prime Minister Trudeau shared their story in his speech to the United Nations, and their sales catapulted. They rebuilt the chocolate company, and their story has inspired a book, a film, and many entrepreneurial awards. Tareq Hadhad, founder and CEO of Peace by Chocolate, has received Start Up Canada’s National Newcomer Entrepreneur Award, was named one of the Top 25 Immigrants in the Maritimes, and was selected by Google as the National Hero Case for 2018.
At the age of 6, in Koblenz, Germany, Tobias Lütke had his world transformed when he received his first computer. Little did he know that this simple gift would ignite a lifelong passion for technology and set him on a path to becoming an influential entrepreneur.
Tobias Lütke had a record of bad grades at school but learnt how to program video/computer games by 12. He dropped out of school at age 16 and enrolled in an apprenticeship as a Fachinformatiker – a computer programmer. Tobias often attributes his success as a young founder to his apprenticeship, giving him a solid head start.
Tobias had developed a love for snowboarding, leading him to go on a ski trip to British Columbia, Canada, where he met his future wife, Fiona McKean. Eager to embrace this newfound romance, Tobias tried to convince Fiona to move to Germany but eventually decided to leave his homeland behind and follow his heart to Ottawa, Canada, in 2002.
Tobias and his two friends decided to start an online shop for custom-made snowboards, Snowdevil. However, they couldn’t find suitable software for online distribution. Undeterred, the skilled programmer took matters into his own hands and developed the platform he needed. To his surprise, the platform was getting more attention than he imagined.
Weinand and Lake, Tobias’ other partners, took a bold step by leaving their jobs to dedicate themselves fully to the dream of Shopify. By 2006, they launched Shopify. The company was soon profitable, and its potential did not go unnoticed. In 2010, Bessemer Venture Partners led a groundbreaking Series A funding round, raising an impressive $7 million. The company went public in 2015. Today, Tobias Lütke stands among the wealthiest Canadian entrepreneurs owning 6% of Shopify’s shares. In 2021, Shopify had $4.6 billion in sales It is used by approx 2 million businesses around the world. Despite Shopify’s achievements, Tobias remains grounded, recognizing the importance of a supportive community. He continues to live in Ottawa and has headquartered Shopify, now a multinational e-commerce company in the Canadian capital.
Trained in gemology and having worked as a jeweller in Lebanon, Mohammad Fakih’s life took an unforeseen turn when he arrived in Canada at 26 to help a struggling friend. Drawn by the country’s vibrant multiculturalism and abundance of prospects, he felt like staying in Canada a little longer. While wandering through Eaton Centre mall one day, a chance encounter led him to a jewellery store where he offered his assistance for free. In just a year, he swiftly climbed the ranks to become the store’s sales manager. Fuelled by his lifelong aspiration to launch his venture, Fakih soon connected with a partner and embarked on opening his jewellery boutiques.
We know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this the story of a food entrepreneur?
While planning a boat trip to Niagara Falls with friends, his wife suggested bringing some baklava as a treat. She recommended Paramount Fine Foods, known for serving the finest baklava in the city. An unexpected meeting with the owner would change his life forever.
The restaurant owner recognized him from a magazine article and made an outrageous request for a $250,000 loan to save his struggling establishment! Fakih initially declined, insisting he only wanted to buy baklava. However, the owner persisted and said they would shut him down in 5 days.
Fakih decided to lend him the money. However, just 4 days later, another call came. The owner confessed that the situation was far worse, and the debts had exceeded the loan amount. He suggested that Fakih take the equipment, sell it, and reclaim his money.
Instead of getting upset or feeling cheated, Fakih visited the restaurant with a renewed purpose and met with the staff and the chef. Seeking advice, he consulted friends at a consulting company about the potential success of a Middle Eastern restaurant in Canada. They pointed out that an authentic experience was lacking, as many existing small-scale establishments lacked proper systems.
Despite having restaurant experience, limited to cleaning tables at a Tim Horton, Fakih saw potential in the restaurant’s talented chef and realized that implementing a strong system could turn things around. He dedicated himself to the task, working 18 hours a day for the next year and a half to build the restaurant from the ground up.
Eventually, Fakih transformed Paramount Fine Foods into a resounding success, popularizing Middle Eastern cuisine. Today they have 7 brands under the Paramount banner. Their franchising model continues to propel the brand’s growth. Fakih’s leadership style, characterized by a genuine appreciation for his team, fostered a close-knit and motivated workforce that played a vital role in the company’s accomplishments.
5.My Skill It
Zahra’s journey began in 1970 in Kampala, Uganda, but her family was forced to flee as refugees with only seven dollars hidden in her father’s shoes. They sought refuge in Yemen, where she was married at a young age and faced the hardships of the Yemen civil war.
A survivor of two civil wars, she bravely immigrated to Canada with her three young children in 1996. She had no formal education, just an indomitable spirit.
In Canada, Zahra attended the Alberta College of Art and Design, and within a mere three years after graduating, she founded Foundry Communications as its Creative Director. She has been recognized as one of Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40 (2009), Business In Calgary’s Top 20 Leaders of Tomorrow (2010), Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by Chatelaine (2011), and one of the most powerful women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network.
Her incredible story has reached audiences worldwide, as she has delivered powerful speeches to renowned institutions like The Royal Bank of Canada, Ernst & Young, and Great West Life, inspiring others with her determination and resilience.
Today, Zahra is the co-Founder of her second company, the promising startup Skillit. Additionally, she consults with some of Canada’s top organizations, providing invaluable expertise in strategy and communications.
Her childhood experiences have deeply shaped her worldview, and her advocacy for women and children in conflict takes centre stage in her role as UNICEF Canada Ambassador.
These amazing Canadian immigrant startup founders share one thing in common – their unwavering determination to overcome adversity. No matter the past, their sheer tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit helped them succeed and contributed significantly to Canada’s economy and society.
They’re proof that Canada is the land of dreams! They inspire so many daily to chase their dreams and leave a mark on the world.
Starting up in Canada?
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