He was a like child in a candy shop. For Maroun Aoun, CEO of IFS or the Swedish Association of Ethnic Entrepreneurs, Canada’s largest city presented a sensory overload of things to take back home.
“Toronto is a beautiful picture of diversity. And it is not just confined to the subway. I see it everywhere; in offices, in businesses and in homes with mixed-race families,” said Maroun, not too worried that his quest for diversity and integration ideas was gnawing into holiday time with family while on a private visit. He was busy checking out the various initiatives in the Greater Toronto Area that aim to put the region’s diversity to work.
“Equal opportunity increases growth” is the IFS motto that guided Maroun on his mission. “It is a truism. A lot can be accomplished when the doors are opened for people with initiative and they are given the chance to realize their visions,” he said during an informal chat with members of the Professional Immigrant Networks (PINs), an initiative of TRIEC.
Maroun was impressed by ideas like TRIEC and PINs, and the presence of many ethnic chambers of commerce and associations that are active in pushing the business case for diversity. He was also full of praise for Canada’s structured approach to integration and inclusion that is more grassroots than Sweden’s top-down approach. “Unlike Canada’s multi-cultural approach, many in Sweden want immigrants to assimilate,” he said. “Either way, economic integration and prosperity should come first.”
It is this economic imperative that made him keener to focus on jobs and entrepreneurship rather than on how to “integrate” immigrants. “Let’s talk about the reasons why immigration benefits Sweden in the long run, and that the country needs a rather large number of newcomers to function.”
Maroun pointed out that in 2020 Sweden will have two million seniors. “To meet the consequent labour shortage, we actually need to open our borders even more. And we will have to compete with other countries for attracting people that we today tend to see as a problem.”
Sweden should be learning from North America, he said. “I would say that it’s not that the conditions in North America have been so much better than in Sweden. It is the attitude that has been different, and they have benefitted tremendously thanks to immigration.”
Need to attract immigrants
Hailing Canada’s attempts to attract immigrant workers and entrepreneurs, Maroun said Sweden too needs to do its best to attract immigrants and allow them to flourish, work, innovate and build more enterprises. “Entrepreneurs with a foreign background are often a key to international markets. Knowledge of business culture and language along with networks in other countries removes many barriers to exports. I have personally experienced the power of the mix of Swedish and Iraqi contractors on a trip to Kurdistan.”
Staying with Iraq, a country from which a large number of Sweden’s immigrants originate, Maroun held out the example of Namir Zetali. A successful entrepreneur of Iraqi heritage, Namir arrived in Sweden with his entrepreneurial instinct intact. Today he and his brothers run several businesses that together employ over 100 people and have sales of over 200 million kronor (around $30 million).
But despite the many successes among them, would-be immigrant entrepreneurs face unforeseen hurdles when it comes to contacting financiers and raising capital. This happens mainly because they fail to present their business concept and plan in a convincing manner.
Founded in 1996 to help immigrants overcome these barriers, Maroun’s IFS aims to stimulate and increase entrepreneurship and raise competence among individual business owners. It also initiates projects to create networks between migrant businesses and mainstream businesses and organizations in Sweden.
Ideas from Canada
But what were the ideas he intended to take back from Canada? “I would be taking back at least three ideas that would be of help for newcomer entrepreneurs,” said Maroun. The three ideas are:
- The Connector Program in Halifax, Nova Scotia that helps newcomers to build professional networks by connecting them with established community, business and government leaders.
- The Next 36 project that aims to solve Canada’s deficit of high impact entrepreneurs and nation-building business leaders. It plans to do this by turning the country’s top students into its most successful future business leaders and innovators.
- The Newcomer Centre of Peel, a multi-service agency that assists the entire newcomer family to settle down, including getting them ready for jobs or starting a business.
Maroun was confident these three ideas can be replicated well in a country still coming to terms with immigration. “It is a new phenomenon for many Swedes. They do not understand why people move,” said the first-generation Swede of Lebanese heritage. “It may be because the country has been ethnically homogenous for so long and does not have a significant colonial legacy unlike other immigrant magnets.”