New Canadians get entrepreneurial help

Published in the Business section of Centretown News.
Nov. 25, 2005

Mohamed Rahman is an inspiring example of how immigrant entrepreneurs can make it in Ottawa.

The engineering graduate from Bangladesh arrived here in 1993, and got a diploma in systems engineering at Algonquin College. He was all set to start a computer systems support company, when his work in a bathroom and kitchen design store gave him instead an innovative idea for a lighting business.

Nearly two years after opening Exclusive Lighting and Electrical Home in Orleans, Rahman has seen the sales of his store jump from $73,000 in 2003 to $450,000 in 2005.

Now he is about to open a new showroom for his lighting business on Industrial Avenue, and has just been nominated for a Best Small Business Award by the Greater Ottawa Chamber of Commerce.

For every story like Rahman’s, there are many immigrant entrepreneurs who don’t know how to start up their own businesses in their new home countries, says Jack DeJong, project co-ordinator for the Ottawa Community Economic Development (CED) Network.

This need, DeJong says, has fuelled a pilot program to help immigrant entrepreneurs get a start in the local marketplace.

Many new entrepreneurs are unaware of the services available to them to help them get started, like the Ottawa Community Loan Fund’s “character-based lending” program.

The fund acts as an alternative to banks and credit unions, which often provide lending based on credit history and net worth, rather than on the strength of a person’s business plan.

“New Canadians may have problems obtaining financing because of their lack of credit history,” says George Brown, managing director of the Ottawa Community Loan Fund.

Brown says most new entrepreneurs also tend to skimp on the planning as they are usually “get-up-and-go” people.

“The typical entrepreneur doesn’t want to do a business plan, just wants to go ahead with his new business, and may do a bit of running off without the planning,” he says, adding that the discipline of a business plan is important in the management of a new company.

DeJong says the immigrant entrepreneurship workshop aims to help aspiring businesspeople work through these problems as they begin their enterprises.

At the same time, the Ottawa CED Network is hoping to strengthen community ties by uniting entrepreneurs with strong ideas with seasoned professionals.

The expectation is these successful ethnic mentors, like Rahman, will provide them with tools to build profitable companies within their communities.

“There are lots of people who don’t know where to go, what to do,” Rahman says. “I want to give them the methods for success.”

DeJong explains that the Ottawa CED Network is trying to give successful immigrant entrepreneurs a chance to help develop community businesses.

“It’s all about community participation,” he says.

Brown agrees it’s important to have mentors for new business owners.

“You need someone who’s been there, who understands what you’re going through,” he says.

The program will involve a series of workshops in French and English held once a month between December of this year and March 2006.

It will give entrepreneurs insights into creating a business plan, building a customer base, and marketing their product.

The participants will also learn to manage their new businesses successfully, obtain financing and keep their books in order. In addition, the program will inform them about Canadian laws and taxation.

Richard Edwin, the co-ordinator and co-operative developer of the African Diaspora Community Co-operative, says small business owners often lack information about these issues.

“It’s important to know how to access the market,” Edwin says about the challenges of developing a marketing strategy. He explains entrepreneurs often have to reach a specific audience within a larger, scattered market with different needs.

Edwin, one of the mentors for the immigrant entrepreneurship program, adds there are a lot of free resources business people can tap into to.

He says he’s eager to share these with the participants of the program.

“The experience you have gained over time is something you can share,” he says.

Rahman says the program will be useful in getting new entrepreneurs to explore business opportunities they might not otherwise know about.

He adds that he believes there are a lot of talented people who have come to Canada to find success, and he would like to help them get it.

“There are a lot of possibilities for me to show them the way,” he says. “I want to make a strong team of successful entrepreneurs.”

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