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How immigrant entrepreneurs are driving Toronto's tech startup renaissance

Noura Sakkijha and husband, Majed.

Jewellery designed & sold through Mejuri.

Jewellery designed & sold through Mejuri.


Noura Sakkijha is part of a select group of recent immigrants to Toronto attempting to conquer the high-risk world of tech startups by building her own business. She represents a vital new way for immigrants to establish themselves as entrepreneurial leaders and important members of the city’s community. 
Sakkijha is the co-founder of Mejuri, an online e-commerce platform where users can vote on jewelry designs submitted by designers from more than 21 countries. Sakkijha and her team then decide which designs to manufacture, market and sell. The company manufactures all of its jewelry in her native Jordan where her family has a history in the jewelry business. The idea recently beat out more than 100 startups to win the International Startup Festival's inaugural Elevator World Tour
"Investors get quite attracted to business models that embrace new models of disruption while keeping with existing business verticals," says Sunil Sharma, the managing director of Toronto-based accelerator Extreme Startups and one of the judges that helped crown Sakkijha as the winner of the Elevator World Tour. "Mejuri [has] taken new models of customer acquisition and commerce, and applied it to an industry that has been around for many centuries."
Sakkijha came to Canada to pursue an MBA at the age of 23 after completing a degree in industrial engineering in Jordan. She chose Toronto for its good schools and because she had family in the city. While completing her MBA, Sakkijha worked full-time at CIBC. Two years into her degree, however, she decided to switch to the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University. 
"I personally believe that I needed to work in the corporate world before starting my company," Sakkijha says. "It gave me a lot of experience, and, to be honest, I didn't have the idea [for Mejuri] back then. Now that I look back, I also think that, being new to Canada, it provided me with the perfect way to transition into running my own business."
That Sakkijha needed some time before jumping into the hectic world of entrepreneurship shouldn’t come as a surprise. The challenges of building a business from scratch are difficult, especially for someone new to a country and culture. Nor is Sakkijha the only one to report that working elsewhere first can be a helpful stepping-stone for a fledging entrepreneur. 

Matt Man, the founder of traffic reporting app GreenOwl Mobile and an immigrant to Canada from Hong Kong, says the time he spent in Canada’s corporate world was invaluable in preparing him for launching his startup. "It gave me time to overcome the language barrier and gain more confidence in what I wanted to say."
He sees his status as an immigrant as an advantage. "Because of the unique perspective we have--the way we appreciate hard work, and the way we appreciate that there may be people coming to Canada that might not have the Canadian experience but can offer a lot--that we bring certain advantages when it comes to building a business."
For Sakkijha, the time spent studying at one of Toronto’s premier universities also brought with it an added bonus. The idea for Mejuri came to her and her two co-founders while studying at Ryerson, and it was the school’s commitment to its student entrepreneurs that helped Sakkijha with the initial launch of the company. 
Sakkijha entered into the StartMeUp student group's Slaight Business Plan Competition and won $25,000 for her business. After graduating, she pitched her business and was accepted into the school's startup accelerator, the Digital Media Zone (DMZ). "The DMZ offers a lot mentorship and access to resources, which I've definitely taken advantage of," she says. 
University-based accelerators such as the DMZ speak to the lengths organizations in Toronto and Canada are willing to go to help entrepreneurs be successful in building their businesses. In January, the Government of Canada launched its startup visa program. Over the course of the next five years, the program aims to grant 2,750 visas to immigrant entrepreneurs and their families. 
"Ultimately, the idea is that you're going to attract high-potential entrepreneurs and encourage them to immigrate to Canada quickly and build their businesses here, which, of course, will provide long lasting benefits for Canada," says Sharma.  
The startup visa is only the latest in a long line of government initiatives aimed at fostering growth in Canada’s private sector. "In the U.S., it’s much more focused on serial entrepreneurship and a mature [venture capital] industry, but here we have a much better ecosystem from a government perspective," Man says. 
In Canada there are a variety of government organizations and subsidies to help Canadian startups succeed both at home and abroad. In Ontario, startups can apply for the Ontario Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit (OIDMC), a subsidy that allows companies that generate less than $20 million in annual revenue to receive 35 per cent of any labour, marketing and distribution expenditure made during a calendar year back as a tax refund. On a local level, Toronto has numerous independent organizations such as MaRS and the aforementioned Extreme Startups that help accelerate startups. And that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to organizations and programs that are out there to help entrepreneurs.
"What we see is a disproportionately large number of startups where at least one of the co-founders is either a first or second generation Canadian," says Sharma. "That's certainly consistent across startups sectors and categories, and I think, in part, that speaks to the engineering and computer science profile at universities across Canada and the GTA. It's also fair to say that there's a real entrepreneurial culture at play here, particularly amongst first and second generation Canadians, which, when combined with the technical capabilities I mentioned before, make for individuals that very suitable to help in the formation of a startup.”
Sharma says that what's exciting about so many immigrants deciding to try their hand at building a startup is that it echoes a trend that leads to the growth of tech startups in the Silicon Valley.
"Clearly you have communities where there's a critical mass of people who meet the conditions of startup formation, and I think that's very consistent with the trend we saw in the Silicon Valley over the past decade where a very large percentage of Valley startups were co-founded by immigrants. In particular, there are statistics where up to 40 percent of all tech companies in the Valley were founded by South Asian and Asian entrepreneurs." 
If what he says is true, then companies such as Mejuri and GreenOwl Mobile represent only the start of what we can expect in terms of Canadian companies built by immigrants. The best, as it were, is yet to come.
Igor Bonifacic is a Toronto-based technology and business writer. Like the individuals profiled in this story, Igor Bonifacic immigrated to Canada with his family, seeking a better life and future. Follow him on Twitter @igorbonifacic
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