Women’s Zone: The Story of Service & Retail
As our demographics change our market will change in response as our newest consumers want products that are familiar to them but new to us.
Earlier this year we helped launch an exciting business. It’s been an exciting ride on many levels. On one level it’s a true sign that our community is changing and growing: as our demographics change our market will change in response as our newest consumers want products that are familiar to them but new to us. On another level, it’s an opportunity for a specific demographic to be served in ways they haven’t been previously in Saint John.
Women’s Zone is the premiere example of what inclusive service & retail could look like in the Port City. On the retail side, the business is clear; the fundamental target audience is women who wear Arabian style dress. On the service side, they offer a warm, inclusive space for women to bring their young children and become a part of a community. Whether it’s the childcare room that allows them to shop in peace or if it’s a hot cup of Turkish coffee to gossip about the news of the day, Women’s Zone wants to become a premiere location for women.
It’s also a small part of a larger story. The story of Service & Retail. In the immigration space we’re seeing what I’ve started to categorize as ‘defaults.’
Defaults happen for one of two reasons: one is a pull factor and the other is a push factor.
- The founder believes a business can work by default because they’ve seen it work in the past: this is the pull factor. Think: convenience store, ethnic restaurant or buying a service station of some kind. This is the pull towards service & retail as an immigrant entrepreneur.
- The founder feels constrained by the immigration legislation as it pertains to immigrant entrepreneurs. With the current legislation, the window of opportunity to start a business and be eligible for a percentage of their refundable deposit is small (each applicant puts down a deposit to be eligible for certain streams). Even for a local founder who already understands the market, the time-frame required puts pressure on the entrepreneur. So, in an effort to retain their deposit they make default business decisions that are based more on getting their deposit back than what the market needs or what their life goals actually are. This is a push factor and we see it time and time again.
In the current system, business plans rarely apply to the reality on the ground, the settlement phase of the immigration experience takes longer than expected and immpreneurs find themselves with a window of roughly 18 months at best to put together a functioning business (some folks come seeking our services within 3 months of arrival but they’re the outliers). There are likely knock-on effects here in retention numbers and the percentages of newcomer-led businesses that survive long-term.
If you have to submit a business plan based on a high-level analysis of the market and a temporary visit, the business plan will inevitably need to be readjusted and changed. Time and again I hear our clients comment that what they understood about doing business successfully in Saint John before they attend the Business Immigrant Essentials program after they graduate, is night and day. It’s A and B. The program has become a game-changer.
If the business is rushed and based more on getting the deposit back as opposed to rock-solid validation we risk a gas station, a Chinese restaurant and a small retail outfit as opposed to a new agri-tech company, a consulting firm or a small IT company. Now don’t get me wrong, the former business models are not bad within themselves. Our economy is largely built on the back of SME’s but what I want to communicate clearly is that we risk losing the incredible expertise and global experience of our newest entrepreneurs if we don’t adapt legislation and post-arrival services to meet the needs of our clients.
So what can be done? We’ve come so far already as a province and it’s clear we’re willing to go even further to make the immigration space the defining force in long-term prosperity. Now, let’s be clear: I am not invited to the tables where these decisions are made so forgive me at the outset if this has been attempted in the past, but I would not be honoring the 100 newcomer founders we’ve worked with over the past 2.5 years if I didn’t write these words.
- A list of potential business investments available/needed in a specific market: our clients often have the luxury of experience, time and resources. They actively want to contribute to the economy and growth of our market. Knowing where to invest is an ideal way to do that. Could we find a way around the liability that entails or should we be okay with the risk?
- Business plans cross-referenced with the destination economy: Business plans conceived at the time of exploratory visits are rarely based on solid evidence. Could we come up with a committee based vetting system?
- ‘Validation experiences’: Exploratory visits are great, but only if we convert a high percentage of visitors. Validation Experiences may be a more appropriate way to categorize those travelling for the specific purposes of business and long-term settlement. Facilitating connection to the business community and individuals specific to the business plan is key. We’re making huge strides on this front thanks to the contribution of the Saint John Newcomer’s Center, EDGSJ, the City and other local stakeholders.
- Longer window to allow for true settlement, prior to the pressure of opening the business- an additional 6 months?: Good businesses take time. Starting a business is easy. Staying in business is hard. We want to incubate long-term businesses. Currently our immpreneurs must present the steps they’ve taken to start their business within 60 days of landing. The primary focus at this stage of the game should be settlement. Within 2 years of landing our client must start their business and maintain at least ⅓ ownership as well as a senior leadership role or they forfeit their deposit. If this window was extended by 6 months, I believe you would see tangible results in businesses survivability.
- Brokering business relationships: Our clients often want to partner with local professionals or other incoming newcomer entrepreneurs. If we were able to broker business relationships, or there was an organization who could do so, we may be able to create fruitful business relationships. Such is often the case organically through the Business Immigrant Essentials process (as was the case with the founders of Women’s Zone!).
- Restructuring the legislation so that the immpreneur is majority owner by default: As it stands the eligibility criteria dictates the immpreneur in question must be at least 33.3% owner of the enterprise and make a sizeable minimum investment. I get where this comes from. It allows for potential business partnerships or buy-in of an existing business but it also leaves the door open for immpreneurs to be taken advantage of. Bad actors could easily lure our immpreneurs into a misleading business relationship, and actively cut them out of the deal with next to no recourse other than legal action. By default, our clients should be encouraged to maintain a minimum of 50% of the business interest, thereby closing that gap.
We’ve taken huge steps as a province to catch up to the rest of the country in regards to population growth and innovation. We’re well on our way. With some good decisions on the back-end and high-end service on the frontlines, we’re bound to become the province we know we can be.