Breaking New Ground: A call for discussion from immigrant entrepreneurs

When it comes to succeeding in the technology and start-up landscape, the cards are often stacked against immigrants from minority communities who wish to pursue entrepreneurship, particularly first-generation immigrants. My interest in this topic comes from personal experience. I came to Canada knowing few people, and struggled to build connections and get to a place where I had the confidence and means to strike out on my own. I had a difficult and lonely journey to get me where I am today, but the perseverance was more than worth it. My hope is to use the knowledge that I gained from my own experiences to help first-generation immigrants in similar situations.

This article is a call for action and collaboration. In order to find solutions that level the playing field and provide valuable opportunities and connections for new immigrants, partnership and input from all sides of the board. Please feel free to comment on this article with any thoughts, ideas, personal experiences, or anything that comes to mind.

In North America, there is no question how significant the contribution of immigrants is to the economy and workforce. However, they are often underrepresented as entrepreneurs and face numerous obstacles when starting their own ventures and building professional networks in a new country, particularly in technology spheres. An increased contribution of immigrants to an economy can only bring about positive change. In taking their unique experiences to their new home, they provide an indispensable and fresh perspective.

Factors like lack of information, access to networking, language barrier, and an unfamiliar business culture snowball and make it difficult for immigrants to succeed in the entrepreneurship landscape. Those born in North America, particularly those born into wealthy families, are born into networks of business connections that make it easier to get a foot in the door and raise funding for personal ventures. Immigrants, who often move knowing few people in their new home, do not benefit from these same privileges. Finance options like bank loans and family savings, which often help to get a business off its feet, are extremely limited to non-existent for immigrants.

Not to mention, discrimination is a huge challenge that many immigrants face. Racism and xenophobia run rampant in North America, and the technology industry is no exception. Minorities are disproportionately affected by lack of access to capital and costs associated with launching businesses.

Despite the prevalence of racism in society and culture, most Canadians and Americans are lovely people. Canada offers endless opportunities and incentives for those looking to start their businesses.

As an immigrant to Canada myself, I faced numerous difficulties starting out in business. Of my first-generation network, few went into entrepreneurship as the opportunities were slim. The overwhelming majority chose, understandably, to pursue more stable career paths like medicine and engineering in order to secure a reliable financial future. Most immigrants, already on unsteady footing in unfamiliar territory, do not have a safety net to fall back on if a business idea were to fail. I am lucky to have met some amazing first-time immigrant entrepreneurs throughout my journey, but I would still say that we are a minority within our own minorities.

A photo of me speaking at small business week 2017 at Queens Park, an important day for me

I was lucky enough to gain mentors and role models throughout my journey in Canada. My first boss in Canada was definitely an important one: Dennis Swanek, the president of TotalMeter, who was my first employer in Canada. Through working with him, I learned the vernacular, style, and culture of Canadian business, and was able to translate my skills to the Canadian marketplace. He delegated projects and responsibility to me, and promoted me multiple times in the two and a half years we worked together, allowing me to grow even further. Without his guidance and the opportunities he provided to me, I would likely not have been able to launch my own company and become a working entrepreneur. Most immigrants looking to get a start in business do not have such luck. If we were able to provide immigrants and those in minority groups with mentors, tools to learn, and increased opportunities, the path to success could be much less steep.

This is not to say that my experience is universal or relatable, no two immigrant experiences are the same. As I mentioned previously, I want to open up the discussion and create an exchange of ideas and opinions.

If you are an immigrant, what was something you wished you had when you first moved to your new home (be it money, access to information, connections, etc.)? What was your experience navigating the work and career landscape? If you are an entrepreneur, what did you wish someone had told you before you started your business journey? How do you think we can create more chances for first-generation immigrants to contribute to the Canadian economy?

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Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.

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Saeed Zeinali

Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.