Eno Eka never imagined there would be someone to pick her up from the airport when she landed in Toronto in 2018 as a new immigrant from Lagos, Nigeria.
The lead-up to her journey to Canada had been stressful – the stories she heard about the cold in Canada, the tight job market and immigrants stuck in survival jobs had already made her nervous.
But Ms. Eka had been networking with like-minded people in the months before she landed in Canada, a move that she says helped her a great deal.
“The person who volunteered to pick me up on my first day in Canada was someone I met through a WhatsApp group,” says Ms. Eka, who is now the Calgary-based CEO of her own IT business consulting company and founder of a school which helps professionals sharpen up their business analysis skills.
“I was able to connect with a lot of communities online – immigrant professionals from Africa, immigrants from Nigeria, Black immigrants, these were the people who really helped me,” she says. “I had no family in Canada. But I found them here, in these communities.”
Ms. Eka’s new contacts helped her find an apartment rental and a first job, assisted her with banking information and even help her find her first roommate.
Online platforms like WhatsApp, LinkedIn and Instagram can be instrumental in forging connections between new immigrants and Canadians who share a common culture – people who are acutely aware of the challenges of establishing yourself in a new country.
Building a sisterhood
Ms. Eka connected with Calgary-based beauty maven Adedoyin Omotara, founder of Adoniaa, and transformational mindset coach Ehi Ade-Mabo through a WhatsApp group and LinkedIn respectively. Both women are immigrants from Nigeria who had similar struggles and self-doubt when it came to setting up their respective businesses. They introduced Ms. Eka to their communities of Nigerian-Canadian women, who served as a sounding board as she developed her new business.
“When I started my consulting company, I assumed that since I had professional success as a business analyst, I could replicate that with setting up my consultancy. But that was not the case,” she says.
“New immigrants like me, especially Black women, have very little credit. There was really no support system and most grants available for entrepreneurs were for people who already had established businesses and had revenue. Meeting with Adedoyin and Ehi at the initial stages of starting my business gave me a significant leg up.”
Ms. Omotara helped Ms. Eka get the word out by inviting her to talk about her business at her beauty events, connecting her to other women entrepreneurs and sharing insights into how she had built her own business successfully. Ms. Ade-Mabo encouraged Ms. Eka to get comfortable in her own skin and own her talent.
“Before I connected with these women, I did explore some programs at newcomer centres but I found that a lot of people cannot relate [to] the cultural aspects of immigrants,” Ms. Eka says. “For example, in African culture, we don’t just share our opinions. We are taught to respect people, not look people in the eye, and as a girl child you’re taught to not be too outspoken or assertive. I struggle to talk about my business and that’s where Ehi, who understands where I come from, taught me to have confidence.”
Ms. Eka says she was initially skeptical of people wanting to hire her and wasn’t always comfortable sharing her immigrant story.
“Ehi helped me to get comfortable with my immigrant story,” she says. “She helped me understand that my story is unique to me; that’s where the power lies in the sense that people will relate to my story. And those are the people that would love to work with me.”
Ms. Ade-Mabo, whose clients are mostly marginalized women of colour, says that being mentored by women who look like them, talk like them and have a similar upbringing helps women gain confidence.
“Eno had the ideas and the spark. We have a very similar story. So I knew right off the bat what the problem was; I could see through her and I knew that this was just a confidence issue. She simply needed to be told that she could achieve what she [has] set out to do,” she says.
Specialized programs offer support
The COVID-19 pandemic was yet another curveball that newcomer women planning to launch businesses had to cope with.
According to a 2022 report released by the Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub (WEKH), majority women-owned businesses experienced a greater decline in early-stage business activities, laid off more employees and were more likely to sell, shut down, discontinue or quit their businesses (compared to their male counterparts).
The report also found that diverse women entrepreneurs, including Black women and other racialized women, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and 2SLGBTQ+ individuals have been among those most affected by pandemic disruptions.
Programs like the CWB Business Incubator for Women Entrepreneurs, an initiative of Surrey, B.C.-based newcomer support group, DIVERSEcity, can be lifelines for immigrant women who want to translate their skills into business ideas. The program covers the entire process of launching a business – from fine-tuning an idea to having the end product in the market – while providing support from specialists and peers.
Jaycika Gill owns a handcrafted jewelry brand called Soufflé Studio based in Vancouver. She says she benefitted from the seminars and workshops on taxes and insurance provided by the incubator after launching her jewelry line in 2020, as well as the community of women who were part of the program.
“We prop each other up because we know what it takes to set up your own gig,” she says.
Florence Sufen Kao, program coordinator for the CWB Business Incubator for Women Entrepreneurs, says that an important step for immigrant businesswomen is to get out of their comfort zones and connect with people from outside their communities.
“My recommendation for new immigrants is to try to reach out to people outside of their own cultural network, and also to see themselves as Canadian. That is how we build confidence. Most people don’t realize that when we come here, we are Canadian already,” she says.
“We should [also] realize that as immigrant entrepreneurs, we are importing new, unique ideas from our native countries to the local Canadian business economy. That is our advantage.”
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