Immigrants find success a means to survival

Newcomers to Canada make up close to 20 per cent the self-employed in the country. But for some, hardship can be the spur to owning your own business.

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Viktor Schaefer’s first two months in Canada were a nightmare. The Russian native was a licensed industrial mechanic and, before immigrating, worked as a mortgage and insurance broker in Germany. After moving to Canada, though, he found himself washing pharmaceutical equipment for a Manitoba company for $9.50 an hour. His wife wanted to return home to Germany, and Schaefer had trouble arguing with her. Yet, instead of giving up he did the one thing that so many immigrants have in common with entrepreneurs: he kept taking risks.

Newcomers to Canada make up close to 20 per cent of the self-employed in the country, five percentage points higher than the native population, according to Statistics Canada. In April, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the government plans to create a special stream for entrepreneurs with strong startup ideas, a likely combination since the kind of person who uproots his or her life usually has the kind of fearlessness that fuels entrepreneurship.

But another factor often pushing Canada’s immigrants into self-crafted job is their inability to land a good gig with local employers. When Schaefer moved to Canada with his wife and three children in 2002, the 33-year-old was overly optimistic. He figured that, with around seven years of experience in finance, he could easily work as a mortgage broker in his new home. Instead, he struggled to wrap his head around a different banking system. He also discovered that though his everyday English was good, his “finance English” was so poor he required a translator at job interviews. “That was probably the worst time in my life,” he says. “I went from having an established income in Germany to falling down completely.”

After being turned down by big companies such as TD and Scotiabank, Schaefer started work as an independent broker just two months after arriving in Canada. His lack of connections, paired with his language struggle, though, made it hard to find clients and support his family so he had to get creative. He took a job as a production worker for the pharmaceutical company in Manitoba while continuing his brokerage business on the side. His salaried work was miserable, though, and after one month Schaefer demanded a job in the company’s engineering department.

Within two years, he was supervising 16 equipment mechanics and his part-time brokerage was starting to do well. By the time his wife became pregnant with their third child in 2005, he had to choose between the stability of being employed and the satisfaction of entrepreneurship.

The results of that choice speak for themselves: Schaefer is now processing the most mortgages of any broker in Manitoba, about 35 a month, and is ranked 19th in Canada for overall volume. He has five staff working for his company, V.S. Mortgage Inc., in Steinbach, a town of 14,000 just an hour south-east of Winnipeg. Half of the city’s population is German, and Schaefer’s ability to speak the language, as well as Russian, is what distinguishes his business. As many as 70 per cent of his clients are new immigrants and now his original biggest weakness—language—has become his biggest asset. Schaefer says he would never return to work for a company; “The Bank of Canada would hire me on spot if I applied but I’m not interested.”