Following the leaders

Overcoming financial hardships and lack of experience, these immigrants have not only survived in their adopted country, they’ve flourished.

No matter where they come from, newcomers leave practically everything behind to live in Canada. Once in the country, some create hundreds of jobs or help the country shine on the international stage. Others do business on a smaller scale, contribute to their community or offer a helping hand to other newcomers in search of professional achievement or a safe haven — a place away from armed conflicts or a turbulent economic climate. But what they all have in common is a desire to thrive and, in their own way, give back to their new country, whether they immigrated as children or as adults. Of course, newcomers must overcome many challenges, including language barriers, lack of recognition for their qualifications and the inevitable culture shock. Despite these obstacles, however, many immigrants achieve considerable business success.

Many experts see immigration as the country’s saving grace rather than a threat. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, new residents play an active role in the economic, social and cultural development of the country, as it grapples with an aging population and a shortage of qualified labour in several industries. Beyond that, economists say that Canadian society must increase its consumer base to ensure internal economic growth, although some say immigration will not be enough. It’s no wonder that Canada is among the 10 countries in the world to welcome the highest number of immigrants — 7.3 million or 21% of the total population. What’s more, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada survey, a substantial portion of the population in Canada’s large metropolitan areas is first or second-generation Canadian — 76% in Toronto, 68% in Vancouver and 39% in Montreal.

To speed up the entry of qualified workers and meet labour market needs, the government of Canada launched an immigration application management system called Express Entry last year. According to the Express Entry Year-End Report 2015, more than 31,000 invitations to apply for permanent residence were issued in 2015 to a diverse range of highly skilled immigrants, and almost 10,000 individuals (principal applicants and their family members) have already been admitted to Canada through the program. Financial auditors and accountants are ninth on the list of top-10 groups of invited candidates, and account for 2% of these candidates.

Among the economic benefits immigration brings to the country, a 2014 Conference Board of Canada study found that 12% of immigrant-owned businesses export products and services to countries other than the US, compared to 7% for nonimmigrant-owned companies. And between 2007 and 2011, the average annual profits of immigrant exporters grew at a rate of 21%, while nonimmigrant exporters saw their profits shrink by 2% on average.

Of course, the benefits of immigration cannot be measured in numbers or statistics alone. There are social and cultural benefits as well. Above all, immigration is a significant and multifaceted human experience, as shown in the following profiles of four foreign-born leaders — each known for making a significant contribution to Canada.


When Ethan Song cofounded fashion retailer Frank & Oak with his childhood friend Hicham Ratnani, he reinvented shopping for men. The online retailer offers an innovative, omnichannel experience to a young and busy clientele with little interest in roaming through fashion stores. “We wanted to simplify shopping for our clients, while offering an overall authentic experience that fits their lifestyle and fulfills their need to belong to the community,” says the CEO and creative director. Born in China and a resident of Quebec since the age of six, Song is fluent in French, English and Mandarin. After studying computer engineering and theatre, he went on to work in Shanghai, Paris and Vancouver. However, Song chose to live and start a business in Montreal because, as he puts it, “it’s a city where you find the very best talent in digital technology and design.”

Founded in 2012, the Montreal brand with a global reach has more than 2.3 million members and a mobile app with 500,000-plus users. Each month, users are offered a new collection of stylish and hip apparel and accessories the company has selected for them based on their individual tastes and lifestyle. What sets Frank & Oak apart is a vertically integrated structure, with every aspect of the brand — from design to shipping, including management, manufacturing, and content development for a blog and Oak Street magazine — entirely centralized in Montreal, and real-time, detailed data analysis to better adapt to constant changes in the market, no matter the channel used. It’s no surprise that this bold approach earned the startup a spot on Canadian Business’s list of the 15 Most Innovative Canadian Companies. And the company’s astounding four-year growth rate of 18,480% landed it at the top of Deloitte’s Technology 2015 Fast 50 ranking. Is Song fazed by all of this? “Not really, since this is the position we were aiming for. It confirms that we’re heading in the right direction,” he says. “I have discipline in my blood. Something I inherited from my Asian culture, no doubt.”

Since last year the company has opened multiple brick-and-mortar boutiques in North America as a way to bring clients closer to the brand, to enjoy an espresso — in one of its in-store coffee shops — or to have their goatee trimmed by a “barber in residence.” This expansion nevertheless stays true to Frank & Oak’s business model, which focuses primarily on online shopping. “What has changed is the impact on our sales volume, which increased to 40% from 30% in Canada [in 2015],” he says.

Song also believes in the importance of giving back to the community. “To drive entrepreneurship, I mentor young entrepreneurs who can meet, attend conferences, exchange ideas and conduct business in designated areas in some of our stores. These hubs are essential in a world where we live internationally and consume locally,” he says.


 Jérôme Ferrer

“I traded in the blue of the Mediterranean for the blue of Quebec,” says Jérôme Ferrer, a native of southern France and one of the world’s most respected chefs. His story is inextricably linked to that of Ludovic Delonca and Patrice De Felice, his fellow countrymen and long-time partners, with whom he settled in Montreal in 2001, penniless but with a head full of dreams. Fifteen years later, the trio is at the helm of a food empire worth tens of millions of dollars and that has between 200 and 300 employees. No one could have predicted such success — certainly not these newcomers. Victims of a financial embezzlement that robbed them of the proceeds from the sale of their restaurant in France, they toiled at odd jobs in Montreal day and night for months to raise the capital needed to open their own restaurant, Europea. “We barely had enough money to pay two months’ rent,” says Ferrer. “We wanted to come back with a vengeance. As an immigrant, I had lost all my bearings. I had to relearn everything in record time, from cultural patterns to the health care and tax systems. Fortunately, the tax system here is far less daunting and complex than the one in France,” adds Ferrer, who was named Grand Chef by Relais & Châteaux hotels and gourmet restaurants in 2011.

After “three years of suffering and hard work,” Europea received numerous distinctions before becoming a member of Les Grandes Tables du Monde — an association of 170 fine restaurants on five continents — in 2013 and then ranking second among the world’s top 25 tables by Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards in 2015.

A fiercely ambitious chef, Ferrer continually makes adjustments to his business, which he manages with a seasoned accounting team that provides him with a detailed balance sheet each month to make changes as needed. Given the slim profit margins in the restaurant industry (ranging from 3% to 5%), close monitoring is crucial to optimizing profitability for Europea — which today includes several restaurants, snack-bar franchises, cafés, an online shop, a catering business, a vineyard, a line of prepared foods, a new-generation agrifood processing centre and, more recently, a fleet of food trucks. Ferrer even finds time to write cookbooks and is a consultant to four breweries in São Paolo, Brazil, which he visits several times a year.

Why the appetite for hard work? A passion for his trade, to be sure, but there’s more. “I clung to my work after my wife died of cancer,” he says. “Life ripped from me the most precious thing in my heart, so I focused on the happiness I felt bringing joy to my customers. And when I was granted Canadian citizenship, I felt lucky and indebted to the country that welcomed me with open arms and gave me a chance to succeed in business. The place of my rebirth is where I belong.”


Zahra Al-Harazi 

Nothing in her early life suggested that Zahra Al-Harazi would have such a bright future. But thanks to her remarkable determination, Al-Harazi, who was born in Uganda and moved to Yemen as a refugee at age two with her family, became a prominent businesswoman. Surviving two civil wars, Al-Harazi arrived in Calgary in 1996 at 26 with her three children to give them a better future. “We didn’t know anybody or the cultural codes,” she says. “The idea of saying the wrong thing or committing a faux pas in public petrified me.” And yet, this stay-at-home mother didn’t despair. Overcoming her shyness, she landed a job as a sales clerk in a clothing store. “I quickly became the top salesperson, despite never having sold anything in my life. I learned then that I had a knack for understanding people’s needs. It boosted my self-esteem and enhanced my business sense.”

Determined to go to university, she obtained a bachelor of design and visual communications at 32, rose through the ranks of an advertising agency, and then cofounded Foundry Communications, a marketing and design studio. Thanks to her drive and overall vision, the studio earned $1 million in its first year, and continues to grow due to a bold approach based on giving back. “I always believed in the importance of giving back to the community,” she says, adding, “I always encouraged my employees to do so by accepting pro bono work, for example. [First], they can fully express their creative side. And second, this helps establish the studio’s credibility, gives us publicity and attracts new clients and fresh talent. It’s a win-win situation.” In its second year of operation, the agency made the Profit/Chatelaine 100 list of female entrepreneurs as one of the 10 companies to watch in Canada, in addition to earning numerous awards and accolades on the international stage.

Besides her role as consulting partner at Foundry, Al-Harazi is currently pursuing other business opportunities. “I’m about to start a new company in another area altogether,” she says. An influential businesswoman, Al-Harazi also serves on the board of several major organizations, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, EO Global Communications Committee and Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

Al-Harazi was named Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year for 2011 by Chatelaine for her determination, entrepreneurial vision and commitment to the community, and in 2012 was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her philanthropic contributions to Canada. For all these reasons, she was among the recipients of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award in 2013.

Recently appointed as a UNICEF Canada Ambassador, this true citizen of the world is looking to do her part in conflict-ridden countries, specifically to help women and children. “Their fate deeply resonates with me,” she says. “It’s also a way to give back part of what Canada gave me to make me a full-fledged citizen.”


Yoshua Bengio 

When Yoshua Bengio moved from Paris to Montreal with his family at the age of 12, becoming an international pioneer in artificial intelligence (AI) was the furthest thing from his mind. He dreamed of being a physicist and then a mathematician, but became a stellar student in computer engineering. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the field of AI, due to his work in deep learning, which he has been engaged in since 2006. It is mostly thanks to Bengio that we have access to apps such as Google Now, as well as voice and image recognition on Facebook.

And this is just the beginning, according to Bengio, who turned down lucrative offers from new technology industry giants to devote himself to university research. “Within 10 years, many areas of human activity will be transformed and driven by artificial intelligence,” he says.

At 52, the research professor at Université de Montréal’s IT and research department and head of the Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms supervises more than 25 graduate students and is building a vast global collaboration network. When he talks about his arrival in Quebec, he does so with warmth and gratitude. “I received a wonderful welcome, from both francophones and anglophones,” he says. “My integration was gradual, and I didn’t feel like I had to overcome very many obstacles, or face rejection or xenophobia because I wasn’t from here. In fact, quite the opposite.” Did he ever feel he was different? “For sure,” he says. “I quickly learned that my ‘French’ accent wasn’t exactly an asset in the schoolyard in the late ’70s. So my first instinct for survival was to adopt an authentic Québécois accent. Everything was fine after that.”

But he really began to feel at home when, at 26, he decided “to have children with my former partner, a born-and-bred Quebecer. That was the most significant event in my integration,” says the father of two.

Bengio is also an engaged citizen who contributes to the common good. “Democracy requires people to get involved, think about their collective choices and discuss them,” he says.

“I participate in many debates across social media, and I disseminate ideas that I believe are crucial to the advancement of society. For example, cultural diversity should be considered a valuable resource. People who settle here are a gift and make huge sacrifices [by leaving their native countries]. The more open we are to others, the more our society will thrive economically, socially and culturally.” What keeps him here, helping to make Montreal one of the hubs for artificial intelligence? “It’s Quebec’s values, politics and cultural vitality, which you don’t easily find elsewhere. I feel a bond. Quebec is one of the nicest places to live in the world. This is where I’ve put down roots,” he says.