'Think outside the box': Newcomers diversify Brandon's business community with culture, new opportunities
Newcomers leave mark on Brandon, sharing a slice of their home countries with western Manitoba
Seizing an opportunity, sharing their culture and deciding to pave their own path — these are three things six Brandon entrepreneurs all have in common.
The six are also all newcomers from different corners the world, all coming in search of the Canadian dream and now giving back as part of the southwest Manitoba city's growing and diverse business community.
Muhammad Farqun was an accountant in Pakistan, and his wife Bushra has a master's degree in economics. But they didn't think owning a restaurant in a small Manitoba city is where they would end up.
"I think we get a new idea everyday we come to the restaurant," said Bushra. She and her husband opened the doors of Khan Foods, which serves Pakistani and Middle Eastern cuisine in Brandon's downtown.
Muhammad moved to Flin Flon, Man., in 2015.
"I stared my career as a cashier at Walmart," he said, a far cry from the accountant's job he held back home. His sister, a doctor in the northern town, convinced him and his parents to join her in Canada.
Bushra joined him in 2016. Her first job in Canada was as a substitute teacher. But the couple had higher goals — she has a passion for cooking and he like meeting new people.
So when they moved to Brandon in 2019, they followed their passions — also noticing Brandon had a distinct lack of Pakistani food — and opened a restaurant.
"We decided to open a restaurant because she cooks really good food," said Muhammad, who said they also briefly contemplated moving to Winnipeg.
"Where we came from, it was a giant city.… [In] Brandon, we found that we can find everything close to our home."
They did their research and sought help navigating the plethora of paperwork and proposals, eventually opening their doors in a small space in the city's downtown in March 2020, just as the province was entering its first lockdown due to COVID-19.
Because their business was new, they didn't qualify for any of the federal government's COVID-19 aid. But they were determined to make a go of it.
"In a sense we are lucky because we didn't see a huge rush," said Bushra. The lockdown allowed them to ease into business, she said.
The couple said despite the pandemic, business has been steady. They have their slow days, but they credit their early success to the support they have received from born and raised Canadians who wanted to try something new, as they have from their own community.
"In Canada, they like to enjoy different cuisine," she said. "It's not just the Pakistani people who give us business. It's Canadians who give us really good business, because they just want to try new things."
Helping expecting moms
Jennifer Murray and Patricia Mcgarvey have also introduced an idea they felt was missing from Canadian culture.
The two women followed their husbands to Canada from Ireland following an economic recession that wiped out jobs. There, they said it is customary for the mother-in-law of a pregnant woman to shop for expectant mom, and give her a bag with everything she might need in the hospital.
"The mothers-to-be are anxious enough, and that just eliminates one of the stresses so they don't have to go from store to store gathering everything up," said Mcgarvey.
But she and Murray said here in Canada, the type of pre-stocked bag they sought was not available anywhere.
"I was absolutely massive, waddling from shop to shop," said Murray of her last pregnancy. "We shopped high and low and couldn't find it."
Murray said a pregnant woman shopping around for each item is especially not ideal during a pandemic. From there, Éire's Leanaí — which means Irish Baby — was born. They are in the process of rebranding as Dottie and Grace.
"Having 10 children between us, we have a little bit of experience of what you need in your bag," said Murray.
She said their bags contain virtually everything a mom and baby might need — minus snacks and a nightgown — and the business has been picking up steam.
"People are like, 'Oh my goodness, I wish he had this when we were giving birth,'" said Murray, adding phone, online and social media orders are keeping them busy.
"We didn't even know each other prior to coming to Canada," Murray added. "She's one of my best friends now.
"It's really exciting, I really have to say."
Building a tech startup
When you can't find a job, make one.
That is the approach Emilio Brown and Tapiwanashe Magwati took after they moved to Brandon. Brown, from Jamaica, and Magwati, from Zimbabwe, came to attend Brandon University. Both have degrees in computer science.
Both wanted to stay in Brandon after they graduated, but couldn't find suitable jobs.
"Most people would move away for that reason," said Brown, adding people might typically move to Winnipeg or Toronto in search of work.
"We chose to stay here."
The pair started a digital marketing agency called Intritech Digital Marketing that now has clients globally.
"If you cant find the opportunity, why not make one?" he said. "Think outside the box."
Brown is now an ambassador for Brandon's Jamaican community, which he estimates is now over 200 people.
"Coming here for the first time was very daunting," he said. "I had no friends, I had no niche, I had no group to relate to."
He hopes to inspire more Jamaicans to create their own career opportunities and give back when they can.
Help for newcomer entrepreneurs
Aurora Project is a government-funded organization aimed at helping newcomers start and build their own business. Project director Trenton Zazalak said stories like these three aren't unique.
In the last two and a half years, he said more than 150 newcomers in Brandon alone have come forward seeking help with everything from business proposals to starting up. The project has successfully launched 15 businesses.
"We saw a lot of newcomers here starting businesses … but they ran it like they did in their own countries," he said. "We found that a lot of them were getting into trouble over and over again.
"In Canada there are many many rules and regulations, it's really easy to get into trouble."
He said Brandon has everything from rocket scientists to people with master's degrees in fashion design, and helping those people use their skills locally should be a priority.
"We have the talent, now we just need to figure out how to leverage that talent to build the businesses to bring more money into the community," he said.
Funding for Aurora wasn't renewed, but he hopes a proposal to offer similar advice — but remotely — will be approved in the coming months.
Back at Khan Foods, the Farquns say they enjoy being their own bosses.
"Downtown has some of its own problems too," said Muhammad. "Downtown is busy … some people get bothered.
"We were thinking that if our business get successful, it will affect the community. It helps change the mindset about the downtown."
They hope to give back to the community by helping change the image of Brandon's downtown one meal at a time.