I want to dedicate this post to newcomers to Canada that come from China, in celebration of the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. It marks the first day of the New Year in the Chinese calendar.
When I was living in Toronto, this celebration was BIG (and continues to be!). It is a little more subdued in my current hometown of Ottawa, but I continue to be fascinated by the colours, the traditions and the food and textures associated with it.
Most importantly, I am fascinated by the hard work ethic of the Chinese Canadian community, in particular its entrepreneurial community. They are hard working and EXTREMELY humble, which, in my opinion, are two very special traits that make an entrepreneur an inspiring leader. According to a report from Statistics Canada, immigrants of India and China account for most business owners in Canada – 43% by 2010.
According to the Chinese Zodiac, this is the year of the Rat – the first of all zodiac animals. In Chinese culture, rats were seen as a sign of wealth and surplus. To celebrate the year of the Rat, its wealth and surplus and being “the first,” I want to highlight amazing immigrant entrepreneurs of Chinese descent that have taken strong risks, followed their dreams and have achieved success in their business careers.
Happy New Year! 新年快乐 (xīn nián kuài lè)!
Cindy Lee – T&T Supermarkets
Cindy Lee moved from Taiwan to Vancouver in 1976. As a young wife, all she wanted was to have a simple life and – in her words – be a housewife. However, as a newcomer, she needed to contribute to the family’s household income and finding a job proved to be harder than she thought. No one wanted to hire her – with poor English skills and no “Canadian experience,” the only job offer she received was 5 months later as a dishwasher. “I felt I didn’t belong and wanted to return to Taiwan,” she said recently in a ceremony where she received a Lifetime Achievement award. She recalls how she even offered to work for free in order to start building her Canadian work experience, landing her a $5/hr job as a bookkeeper.
When she used to go to her local Chinatown in Vancouver with her three children, she was inconvenienced by the constant lack of parking, lack of washrooms and shopping carts. That’s what sparked the idea of creating a true Asian supermarket with all the conveniences of the Western shopping experience.
In 1993 she opened the first T&T in Burnaby, BC (T&T the name comes from the two companies that invested money in the grocery store. T&T also stands for Tina and Tiffany, Cindy Lee’s two daughters). In July 2009, Loblaws, Canada’s largest food distributor, bought all T&T Supermarkets for $225M. Cindy Lee retired from her role as CEO in 2014 and is succeeded by her daughter, Tina Lee.
Watch this amazing acceptance speech (starts at min 3:50).
Sharifa Khan – Balmoral Multicultural
Sharifa Khan, a Hong Kong native, came to Canada in the mid ‘70s. She came to Toronto as a student and eventually built her life permanently here. Thirty years ago, she noticed that marketers and the corporate world were not communicating effectively with the immigrant communities. They weren’t even on their radar.
She saw this as an opportunity and opened Balmoral Marketing in 1989 to address the multicultural communities in Canada and to offer companies a communications path to speak to these audiences. Sharifa is considered a pioneer in multicultural marketing in Canada, where she leads a team of seasoned ethnic marketing professionals to service corporate, government and non‐profit organizations – guiding them to outreach and expand market share from Canada’s diverse ethnic communities.
Fun and certainly impressive fact: Balmoral Multicultural is the longest established woman-owned marketing firm in Canada.
Kit Poon, Ron Wai and Peter Poon – Mint Health + Drugs
This trio of young entrepreneurs have created a pharmacy business that is not only revenue generating, but also has a high impact in its Alberta community and economy – one independent pharmacy owner at a time. They believe that pharmacists, not corporations, shape the future of patient care. They have created a true-and-tried concept through the opening of their first pharmacy in 2010 – which they are now opening up to encourage other pharmacists to become entrepreneurs (think similar to a franchise). Their family of pharmacies includes 13 locations across Alberta and continues to expand.
The core values of Mint Health+Drugs are rooted in the drive to improve the health of their local communities.The very letters that make up “Mint” represent these guiding principles – from recognizing the motivation to improve to innovating best practices, nurturing communities and teaching and sharing.
These principles make up the foundation of everything they do – from creating specialized tablets to providing community outreach to establishing new mom seminars to offering travel consulting.
These Honk Kong natives immigrated with their families when they were kids. However, they understand and have lived the struggles of re-establishing a new life through their parents’ first-hand difficulties.
These inspiring Chinese-Canadian entrepreneurs are revolutionizing and humanizing the way healthcare is delivered in their communities and firmly believe that if you take care of your communities, business is going to take care by itself.
Watch a recent acceptance speech (min 3:50).
Allen Lau – Wattpad
Hong Kong native, Allen Lau, immigrated to Canada in the late 1980’s as a 19 year-old after high school grad and went on to study engineering at the University of Toronto. Little did he know that in 2006 he would become the visionary behind Wattpad – a social storytelling platform connecting writers with an audience – think of Youtube but for the written word.
Originally an e-reader app, Wattpad now has over 80 million monthly users who write and read stories on the online platform – all while sharing their opinions about characters, dialogue and story arcs. The company has teams in Los Angeles, New York, Mumbai, Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Manila.
What’s best is that his platform has helped launch up-and-coming writers by connecting them to global multi-media entertainment companies. Increasingly, the more popular stories and serials are being turned into hit novels, TV shows and Netflix movies.
Lau is a true visionary disrupting the publishing and entertainment industry.
Do you know any other Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs? Let me know who they are so we can celebrate them too. Big or small, Canada is that much better for the contributions to communities, economy and society that all immigrant businesses generate. xīn nián kuài lè !