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Photo: Phoenix Toomath (IG: @phoenixtoomath)

CityMakers: Karla Briones’s social enterprise supports newcomers as entrepreneurs

By Nickie Shobeiry on October 1, 2018


Karla Briones is a Mexican-Canadian ‘serial entrepreneur’ with retail, restaurant and distribution enterprises across Ottawa. As the founder of New Canadian Entrepreneur, Karla provides Canadian business environment education, resources and mentorships for newcomers in various stages of their immigrant journey.

Below, Nickie speaks to Karla about her own journey.

How did your life as an entrepreneur start?

I grew up in Mexico with an entrepreneurial family. My dad finally retired at the beginning of the year. He’s a veterinarian, and had his hospitals back in Mexico. I grew up in the family business, helping him in the operation room.

I was six years old when my parents said if we got Straight A’s, they’d take us to Disneyland. We ended up getting straight A’s, so my dad said they’d drive us to Disneyland and pay for everything, but we had to come up with our own spending money. He then said, “Karla, we’ll go to the market, I’ll lend you the money to buy candy and then you can sell it.” I went to my school yard and I started reselling it. Not only did I get my spending money, but my school principal called my parents for a meeting. She demanded that I shut down my operations because the cafeteria was complaining that I was taking too much business away from them.

What was it like moving from Mexico to Canada?

We drove from Mexico with a U-Haul in ‘97, with our pets and our furniture. When we crossed it felt like: “Welcome to Canada. Now what?” There was nobody to tell us what we needed to do. As an 18 year old, it was an awesome adventure, but my parents were in their late 40’s, re-rooting themselves to a really new environment. They had their life established in Mexico, but they wanted to provide us with a better future. I will forever be thankful for them taking that chance and that risk.

I started university right away. It was hard trying to improve my English; the difference between the English that I learned in high school in Mexico versus varsity-level English in Journalism was very tough. My parents couldn’t find jobs, they realized their licenses were not equivalent here and they needed to start either from scratch or figure out how to put food on the table.

The first three years were really tough. I was able to get a job right away as a bartender and waitress. For a while, I was helping support my family. Through my own loans, I would help out at home as well as pitching in for rent.

Fast forward a few years – Montreal Road Animal Hospital was opened by your father?

My dad says that he’s a horrible employee, which most entrepreneurs are. We don’t know how to follow orders. Eventually he wanted to continue what he started in Mexico. It was tough trying to open up a business when we didn’t know the business environment in Canada. In 2004, at the age of 52, he ended up opening his hospital with $8,000 and a whole bunch of elbow grease. When people are starting to think about retiring, he was just starting up.

And this year you started New Canadian Entrepreneur.

Last year, my dad decided to put up his business for sale. I hired a person to help me with the paperwork, and this person looked at the papers and said, “Karla, your dad set up the corporation completely wrong.” He set up a federal corporation as opposed to a provincial corporation, because he didn’t know. My dad ended up selling the business in January, which is fine, but he lost a lot of money trying to fix all the mistakes made back in 2004. That’s when I said, “That’s it. How many newcomers have opened a business not knowing how to set up properly in the community, and not knowing how to set up their accounting system from the beginning? Not knowing how taxes work?”

It’s hard as an entrepreneur in general, but as an immigrant entrepreneur, it’s even harder because you’re trying to adjust not only to the culture, but to the business environment as well.

You’ve mentioned that 30% of of SME businesses are run by immigrants. What do you think it is about immigrants that gives them that impressive percentage?

We’ve already taken a risk of coming to a new country, learning a new language, fitting into a different culture; going after a crazy dream of opening a business is not as risky.

Can you tell me about your current clients?

One is a super smart lady with a really neat idea for a restaurant. I told her about a business plan and initially she asked me to write the plan for her. I said absolutely not. Sure, I could write it and charge $3000 – but you need to write your own business plan, because you need to know if your own business is viable or not. I wouldn’t be setting you up for success if I wrote it.

I connected her to the Ottawa Community Loan Fund, who are amazing because they co-sign on behalf of the borrower as long as the borrower has never been bankrupt. They approved a loan, and now instead of building out from scratch the restaurant, [the client] is actually purchasing an existing restaurant.

Did you foresee yourself being in this teaching role?

Not at all. I used to be a ballet dancer when I was in Mexico. As part of your career, you end up teaching little kids. I had no patience whatsoever, but I was really good with the senior dancers that wanted to work on their technique. Then, I opened my businesses and I started coaching my staff. I really took to it.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a newcomer entrepreneur?

People are going to doubt and question you. Depending on which country you’re coming from, or what your family history is, people will potentially make fun of you. There’s always gonna be a lot of rejection. But so long as you’ve done your research, and trust in your gut that you’re gonna make it, keep going.

As a woman entrepreneur, you’re in a male dominated industry. You’re taught to get your feelings under control, and trust your brain and your numbers – but the more I have experience in business, the more I claim that women have a competitive advantage over a male dominated industry because of our soft skills. Don’t base all your business decisions on that, but do listen to it. Being able to establish a relationship, being able to read people, helps a lot.

And how are you a CityMaker?

I’m hoping that I’m helping give back to the economy of the place that gave me so much when I started, and to my parents when they started; being able to give back to a city that has given me so much.