Immigrant entrepreneurs missing out on valuable help

Many company owners in Surrey are passing up available programs, city business leaders say

Ankit Sharma, founder of Surrey's Kitply Industries, says programs like Small Business BC and government grants have greatly helped his bottom line

Government aid for small businesses is being underutilized by the immigrant community in Surrey, says one entrepreneur who got valuable help from the province while building his successful company.

Ankit Sharma, founder of Kitply Industries, a cabinet hardwood distributor, started his business back in 2009 out of his home. Now he has five full-time staff members and 10,000 square feet of warehouse space, and he has regularly tapped multiple government programs such as Small Business BC and the Industrial Research Assistance Program at every step of his company's expansion.

But Sharma said his story is not the norm in Surrey; in fact, he is an anomaly. He said the city has a high number of immigrants running small businesses (more than 30% of the population is of South Asian descent), but they're unaware of the government programs available.

“A lot of immigrants come from countries where there isn't a lot of support from the government. So they don't naturally think of the Canadian government of being supportive of small businesses when the opposite is true. There's a lot of support there.”

Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade, said culture does play a role when it comes to accessing government grants.

“The challenge lies in language, or being focused on selling product or services, not education of the owner or staff,” Huberman said. “For us, to help business immigrant communities and offer quality service, the face-to-face interaction seems to work, but yes, more needs to be done.”

Kitply Industries, which wholesales hardwood and plywood products for cabinet manufacturers and designers, has found a niche in the market. Sharma said he recently completed a free Small Business BC program, partially funded by the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training, to help with another step of his business expansion.

“I just did a webinar through them for our new online space and social media, and then one on taxation for different provinces.”

Sharma was 24 when he started Kitply Industries fresh off a business degree from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and he would have had a much rougher time without government help during the startup phase.

“They should do outreach to the owners – to the immigrant community. I'm an immigrant myself, but I came here when I was younger. They're doing something great but nobody knows about it.

While the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and low-income immigrants have been grabbing headlines recently, there's another demographic quietly making its way to this province.

In 2012, more than 9,000 U.S. citizens applied for permanent residency in Canada – many of them white-collar workers venturing north in search of a better quality of life – making the U.S. the fifth-highest country in terms of immigration to this country.

Among the newcomers are Jay Chakravarty and his family. Chakravarty is commuting weekly by plane between Los Angeles and his new home in South Surrey while job hunting in Vancouver. Chakravarty is still employed in the information technology sales and business development industry for a large corporation in the United States, but wants to settle down in Surrey with his family.

“Obviously Canada just gives you a better opportunity for a healthier life,” he said. “So that was my motivation to choose Vancouver. And we moved here for the quality of life, and we think Canada has great potential as the country down south becomes more saturated.”

In August, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced that Canada had added 150,000 new citizens in 2014 – double the number compared with the same period in 2013. Changes to the Citizenship Act that took effect in June have streamlined the process, clearing backlogs and speeding up some paperwork delays.

While she loves their new home, Chakravarty's wife, Aparna, whose background is in teaching, said her job search has been tough.

“My experience so far has been very challenging, especially since a lot of employers seek experience in Canada that I don't have. I've started to find some part-time opportunities of late that should hopefully lead me into the mainstream.”

Chakravarty said another factor for choosing Canada is the natural setting. Having been in Los Angeles for the past five years and having worked in various places around the world including Atlanta, New York, South Africa and Dubai, he said nothing beats the scenery in Vancouver – and the lifestyle that goes with it.

“In the United States and especially California, it's a really crazy life. And one of the things I was also looking for was something a bit more laid back, even though Vancouver is not one of the greatest places for a tech professional like me. But we still chose this place because of a more laid-back and relaxed life, hopefully.”

The family has already reaped one of the rewards of being Canadian – medicare. Their son, Shuv, 10, fell off his scooter and broke his arm shortly after arriving. However, being a young boy full of energy, he seems relatively unscathed by the whole incident.

“I've started liking our place even though I'm missing my friends in California a lot.”