Canadian immigrants who made it big share their best tips for entrepreneurial newcomers

Want to know what it takes to succeed in business? Who better to ask than Canadian immigrant business leaders who have overcome their own challenges as immigrant entrepreneurs to make it big? For Small Business Month this October,  business success stories like Maninder Dhaliwal, Robert Herjavec, Karim Hakimi and others share their business wisdom.


Maninder Dhaliwal. Photo by Tiffany Cooper

Maninder Dhaliwal
CEO, Lions Gate International

Maninder Dhaliwal came to Vancouver in 1999 to study engineering at UBC. With a master’s degree in hand, she found work in her field, but something didn’t quite fit for her. She then tried her hand in the non-profit sector as executive director of Tradeworks Training Society before turning to entrepreneurship. She co-founded Lions Gate in 2013, which today specializes in India-focused international venture projects in technology, manufacturing and innovation applications in health care.

A Top 40 under 40 winner, Dhaliwal’s expertise is highly sought as a speaker and corporate director. Here’s what she has to share about the challenges she has faced and how she has overcome them.

“Not having access to local business networks and resources was definitely a challenge. Opportunities do not float like clouds. They are firmly attached to individuals.  As a new arrival to Canada, I found it a challenge that I did not know enough people to succeed in business.”

“Immigrants are risk takers. We leave behind everyone and everything we know to start a life in a new country. We take such a huge risk because we believe in a better future. Yet, I find that moving to a new country, most people stick with the familiar — they spend most of their time with people of their own ethnic group. I would recommend that newcomers move out of this comfort zone. Growth and comfort do not coexist. Embracing Canada as a whole not only connects you in your local community, it allows you access to all types business resources and networks that you need to succeed.”


Robert Herjavec.

Robert Herjavec
CEO, Herjavec Group

Robert Herjavec is one of North America’s most recognizable business leaders, best known as an investor on ABC’s Shark Tank and prior to that on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Born in Eastern Europe, he arrived to North America on a boat with his parents after escaping communism, dreaming of success and a better life. From delivering newspapers and waiting tables, to launching a computer company from his basement, his drive to achieve has led him to the fulfillment of a better life for himself and his family.

A dynamic entrepreneur, Herjavec has built and sold several IT companies. In 2003, he founded Herjavec Group, and it quickly became one of North America’s fastest-growing technology companies. Today, Herjavec Group is a global leader in information security, ranked number 1 on the Cybersecurity 500 as the world’s most innovative cyber firm.

How did Herjavec go from the proverbial rags to riches? When asked, he’s quite modest about his achievements, attributing his success to simply being driven to succeed and getting the job done.

“I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And while I thought that would be my biggest challenge, it ended up being my biggest asset when starting my business. I was blissfully unaware of the huge hurdles ahead of me, and it worked in my favour. All first-time entrepreneurs should be a little naïve — if they were truly aware of all the dangers and setbacks facing them, they might forget the whole idea! You simply cannot anticipate every hidden trap between here and whatever goal you set for yourself when launching a business. The best thing you can do is believe in yourself, be resilient and remain convinced that you can handle anything this opportunity throws at you.”

“Know your strengths, and find a customer. You can’t build a successful business out of thin air. It must be built on tangible differences and draw the attention of the people you want to sell to. You’ve got to solve a problem that someone has, so, number 1 make sure you are able to deliver and, number 2, find yourself a customer! There’s a saying — burn the ships! It means go all in and risk it all, no turning back! Surprisingly, I don’t recommend that in business. I recommend entrepreneurs test the waters, find a customer and build their businesses practically.”


Dimitrios “Jimmy” Antonopoulos.

Dimitrios “Jimmy” Antonopoulos
Owner, Jimmy the Greek

Everyone’s favourite go-to lunch spot at the mall food court, Jimmy the Greek was founded by Dimitrios “Jimmy” Antonopoulos, nearly 20 years after he first immigrated from Nafplio, Greece, in 1963. Arriving in Montreal, Antonopoulos learned the ins and outs of the fast-paced restaurant industry, before he relocated to Toronto. In 1985, he opened the first of many Jimmy the Greek locations. Previously, he already had opened two restaurants — Epikourion and Penelope — but when a food court space opened up at First Canadian Place, the restaurateur decided to transpose his Greek cuisine to the fast-food market.

Rooted in family and tradition, Antonopoulos, along with his two daughters, Tina and Toula, oversee all areas of the business, which has grown from a single location into a thriving enterprise with more than 55 locations nationwide. His advice is as authentic as his cuisine.

“As an immigrant entrepreneur, my biggest challenge was finding enough capital to fund my culinary vision. I worked hard at multiple jobs to provide for my family and save enough money to invest in my business, and after establishing some roots and friendships which provided some assistance, I was able to realize my dream of owning my own restaurant.”

“Always strive to provide the best-quality product and exemplary customer service.”


Shahrzad Rafati.

Shahrzad Rafati
CEO, BroadbandTV (BBTV)

Shahrzad Rafati story began in Tehran, Iran, growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, but she had no idea that one day she’d start and lead one of the world’s most innovative technology companies. Back home, she didn’t even own a computer or have an email account! But after studying computer science at UBC in Vancouver, she founded BroadbandTV (BBTV) in 2005, a multi-channel network for online video creators. For the last 12 years, Rafati has built her business into the third-largest video property in the world in terms of unique viewers, and is continually looking for new ways to advance and redefine entertainment, from how content is produced to how it’s distributed and monetized. Is there any surprise then that she has established herself as a sought-after technology thought leader in the process?

“Our space is rapidly evolving and as a pioneer in the market we need to make sure we stay ahead of the curve, and continuously innovate. [But] that’s one of the reasons why I love what I do, it’s always exciting!”

“Although this may sound easier said than done, you should fully immerse yourself into new cultures and be completely open to new experiences. It can be truly enlightening, and you’ll likely learn more about yourself in the process. It’s really important to try to learn and adopt quickly by being proactive in your approach.”


V. Prem Watsa.

V. Prem Watsa
Chairman and CEO, Fairfax Financial Holdings

V. Prem Watsa, founder, chairman and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings in Toronto, is known as the “Canadian Warren Buffet.” An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras where he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, Watsa moved to Ontario and went to the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario where he earned an MBA.

Little known fact? Watsa left Indian with only 8 rupees in his pocket; he sold furnaces and air conditioners to financially support his university education. After graduating, Watsa worked for an insurance company and, in 1984, he co-founded an investment firm called Hamblin Watsa Investment Counsel. In 1985, Watsa took over Markel Financial, a small Canadian trucking insurance company that was verging on bankruptcy, and renamed it Fairfax Financial Holdings. Watsa helped grow the company, where it reached annual revenues of $8 billion a year in 2012. From 8 rupees to $8 billion, Watsa most certainly has business wisdom to share.

“I was a poor immigrant in Canada with very little money for even basic expenses. I used to spend only 50 cents or so on lunch, and felt that people around me, who spent $3-4, were extremely rich in comparison. Also, I was a new immigrant, while everyone else around me were well established Canadians. I sold air conditioners and furnaces door to door to pay for my MBA. It is under these circumstances that I discovered opportunity — you tend to discover skills you never knew you had before. You tend to work harder, because you’re at the bottom and the only way to go is up.” — As told to Chennai 36

“The phrase ‘what the mind can conceive, the mind can achieve’ convinced me that if you really want to be successful — in any field you might choose — then you surely will be.”

Karim Hakimi.

Karim Hakimi
Founder, Hakim Optical

Having lost his father as a child, Karim Hakimi became the man of the house, helping to support his mother and his siblings in Iran. At 10 years old, he started grinding magnifying glass out of discarded windows. He developed a professional talent in lens crafting and, after immigrating to Canada in 1967, he decided to open his own business. Setting up operations on Elm Street in Toronto with old equipment from a closed-down lab, he launched the first Hakim Optical. Now, 50 years later, Hakim Optical has more than 160 showrooms and 120 factory outlets in Canada. Today, Hakimi continues to run his privately held optical operation almost full time, though he is past the traditional retirement age. He devotes legendary work hours to his still-growing 40-year-old enterprise, one of Canada’s best-known corporate brands.

“The biggest challenge I faced as an immigrant entrepreneur was finding my way and gaining recognition.”

“My best tip for other newcomers who want to start a business in Canada is to not get discouraged and to stay focused. Don’t let obstacles in your way discourage you. Mistakes are a source of education.”



Serge Bohec

Serge Bohec
Co-founder, La Petite Bretonne

Serge Bohec’s first job after immigrating to Laval, Quebec, from France was as a dishwasher in a pastry shop. Eventually, his talent for making madeleines spurred him to start his own pastry business, La Petite Bretonne. In 1970, the company created its first industrial micro croissant, which quickly became the star product. Bohec moved his company to Blainville, also in Quebec, and, in 2001, expanded operations first into Ontario, then the U.S.A, the Caribbean and Mexico. Now with more than 180 employees, La Petite Bretonne creates 1.2 million micro croissants daily, for distribution throughout North America! Bon appétit!
— Noa Glouberman

To try to forget that I was an immigrant and to blend as much as I could with the Canadian population to gain credibility with consumers. This was an enormous challenge in terms of product supply. For example, in France, madeleines were very popular, and not here. It was more than 50 years ago, a different product that Quebec consumers were not used to. I had to take time to analyze the society and the culture, to offer products that consumers knew. It is only after nearly 50 years, with a strong notoriety, that madeleines are now recognized. Basically, it is important to know the population in which we are doing business and, while trying to offer a new product that consumers will love, still keep its origins.

“Find a partner — a retired businessperson or a young, ambitious professional — who has  great knowledge of the laws of the province or the country you plan on building your company in, and treat him or her like a shareholder, with or without shares.”


Tobias Lutke.

Tobias Lütke
CEO, Shopify

It’s no surprise that the German-born CEO of e-commerce company Shopify was a programming prodigy. Tobias Lütke moved to Canada at age 22 and is now one of the most well-known CEOs in the world. Lütke became a programmer straight after Grade 10 completing an innovative apprenticeship program designed to produce Germany’s next generation of computer programmers. In 2004, Lütke launched Snowdevil, an online snowboard shop from his garage with his partners, Daniel Weinand and Scott Lake. Soon after, the Snowdevil founders decided to shift their focus from snowboards to e-commerce and, Shopify was officially launched in 2006. The Globe and Mail named Lütke CEO of the Year in November 2014. By September 2016, more than 300,000 merchants were using Shopify and there’s been more than $20 billion worth of gross merchandise on the company’s platforms since 2006.
— Files from Toronto Star

When asked what his biggest challenge was in building Shopify to where it is today, Lütke admits it was actually knowing what Shopify was, and what he wanted it to be. For a time, it was a solution to sell a stockpile of snowboards lined up in his garage. But at a point Lütke asked himself, was it going to be a lifestyle business with 20 employees? Or could this be a growth company that could really shake up the world of e-commerce?

“All of us in Canada have to be better at making a dollar count, because we have fewer dollars … You have to be a little bit more frugal, and that’s just being smart. You have to put more of a well-rounded company together to make it in Canada.”