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Calgary Immigrant Business Expo highlights opportunities for economy, challenges for newcomers

Starting a business can be challenging, but for many newcomers those barriers are only exasperated by a lack of contacts in Calgary’s business community, access to capital, and in some cases, credentials required to operate in Alberta or Canada.

The inaugural Calgary Immigrant Business Expo, held at the Calgary Central Library on Oct. 28, connected immigrants to immigrant support agencies, vendors, networking opportunities, business clinics, and a panel discussions with industry experts.

The expo had previously been organized as a Toronto only event since 2016 by New Horizons Media, but was able to be brought to Calgary through a partnership with the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association (CIWA) and the Calgary Public Library.

“Entrepreneurship is just one of the many channels that CIWA has for women towards economic integration. We thought it was going to be an amazing opportunity for people to not just hear, but also hear lived experiences from others,” said Celestina Akinkunmi, Director of Programs at CIWA.

“It’s always good when you’re hearing from people who are actually very successful immigrants themselves that have been able to fully establish businesses in Canada.”

Akinkunmi said that more than 700 people registered for the event, which was an indication of the interest by immigrants to become business owners in Calgary.

She said that part of that drive has come about as a result of foreign credentials not being easily recognized, and that has led many highly-skilled individuals to choose to open a business in Calgary as a way to generate income.

“‘If I can’t use my credentials to work here, I might as well start a business.’ But I’m hoping that today has made a lot of people realize the pitfalls of just going into a business. You can’t go into business when you’re in crisis, but also it pays to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Akinkunmi said.

“So we’re hoping that these are all things that everyone has learned, but it is an indication of what we’re seeing in the economy.”

Immigration is an important driver of economic activity in Calgary

Brad Parry, CEO of Calgary Economic Development, was one of the panellists that spoke on the topic of key success factors for new immigrant businesses at the expo.

He said that 65 per cent of all new jobs in Calgary will be created by small and medium businesses.

“So, the fact that we can promote and support the newcomers, they’re building new businesses, to me that’s amazing. I think for us to be successful, we have to make sure our newcomers are successful when they get here.”

Parry said that the diversification amongst Calgary’s cultures—the city being the third most diverse in Canada and one that he’d like to see as second most—was actually helping to drive increased economic activity.

“We need to bring that population to help drive that scaling and growing our businesses, and our small businesses. So, it’s a huge opportunity for us,” he said.

“As we start to see more and more immigration in our city, we’re starting to see more and more of those communities start to build up, which really helps us assimilate newcomers to come in. People always go to Toronto because, well if I’m from the Philippines, or if I’m from Pakistan, I can go in and I have a community that’s already built out. We’re going to see that happen in Calgary.”

Panellist Sergio Ribera, a loan coordinator with Momentum, offered up some sage advice for expo attendees to help them navigate a difficult market to obtain loans as an immigrant.

At issue, he said, was the lack of Canadian credit history for many immigrants who want to obtain capital to create or grow their businesses.

“There are many institutions, many financial institutions that are available for small businesses… the key here is more than just finding access. It is important to define the business clearly. One of the challenges that we were able to see as a constant variable, it was the absence of a clear business definition,” he said.

“One of the key things that we need to learn ourselves as potential business owners who happen to approach an institution because we need resources is to be able to define your business.”

He said that the basics like financial budgeting, understanding the difference between revenue and profits, and understanding how to show cash flow were essential skills to running a successful small business.

“If you’re not aware of your personal financial situation, I promise you you’re not going to build a business. What you going to build is an expensive hobby. And you don’t want a hobby, because what happens with hobbies is you start dragging money from your own personal expenses to maintain this expensive hobby,” Ribera said.

Changing the narrative about the importance of immigration

Akinkunmi said that there has been a tremendous growth in secondary immigration from Ontario to Calgary, citing recent statistics that have shown the highest levels of population movement into the province in the past 40 years.

She said that, in reference to part of the panel discussion about the perception of immigration as being both good and bad for the nation, that the conversation had become very binary—lack of housing on the one side, and economic prosperity on the other.

“I think there are a lot of nuances to read. On the one side where there are a lot of people who believe that they there’s a lot of uptick for migration into Canada, and upticks for migrants into the economy, but there’s also the lack of support,” Akinkunmi said.

“I think when people speak for and against migration, there’s always a reason for it. I never know what exactly drives people to speak about migration debated, because Canada itself, Canada can’t survive without having migrants come in to take on the labor force. So yeah, it’s a it’s a catch 22.”

Parry said that part of addressing the negative aspects of migration comes through having a strategy. He pointed to the recent passing of Calgary’s Housing Strategy as one way that the City of Calgary is getting ahead of that.

“We actually have a strategy around housing versus looking at some other jurisdictions that hadn’t thought about this when the growth started to happen. So, the fact that we’re getting ahead of that curve now is incredibly important,” Parry said.

“We need to have a diversity of housing, and we need a stock that’s diverse. Not everybody wants to live in the suburbs, we need to have a vibrant downtown, and we need to have other forms [of housing].”

A not-so hidden secret about why Calgary does business differently

Panellist Ranju Shergill, a Partner and executive recruiter with Pekarsky & Co, said that Calgary and the province offer an almost secret opportunity for businesses that has been at times ignored by the rest of the country: The Calgary Stampede.

“I’ve been saying why does the rest of the world not know anything about the Calgary Stampede, it is so unique. You will not find such an event anywhere else in the world, and when people hear about it, like you go to Europe and you tell people about it, they’re shocked,” Shergill said.

“When our newcomers come here to Calgary, to Alberta, they quickly realize we’re not just an oil and gas town. We are new energy. We are entrepreneurship, and the spirit of our city is so much more than what I think the rest of the world sees sometimes, and we just need to do a better job of getting our messaging out there.”

Parry agreed with Shergill’s comments, eschewing the perception of the Stampede as being “pale, male, and stale.”

“It’s totally amazing to walk through that and see the number of different people and different ethnicities that are that are taking part. It truly is about this Multicultural Mosaic of opportunity that happens around stampede itself,” he said.

“To [Shergill’s] point, telling the story is hard. We have limited resources, so that’s why for us it’s this conversation about owning the narrative. We have to stop letting other people tell us what Calgary is about, and we actually have to start telling Calgary story from within.”

Part of that storytelling, said Parry, comes about from listening to newcomers themselves when they are successful.

The combination of the expo and the Stampede had already sparked conversations about bringing business to Calgary by the end of the panel talk.

Raymond Adams and Karlee Stachiw, co-founders of Drip Donuts in Houston, Texas, were drawn to the expo out of interest in bringing the business to Calgary to be a part of the Calgary Stampede.

“When we walked in Brad Parry was speaking, but he’s actually speaking exactly about what we were already talking about: integrating and immigration.”

Adams said that his company has had experience at the Houston Rodeo, an event that is similar to the Stampede, and that made it a natural fit to want to bring Drip Donuts to Calgary.

“The fact that they even came to Calgary today was amazing, right? These are the kinds of things that and get people excited about what’s happening in our marketplace, and provide those small opportunities for other businesses to grow,” said Parry.