Immigrant Women Find “Sewmates” in New VCC Business Program
Shiva Kharajiani immigrated to Vancouver from Iran in January 2017. Even though the city was beset by ice and snow, she was thrilled to be here. “It felt good. Very good,” she says.
Within a month, Shiva had enrolled in English as an Additional Language classes but her only social connections were still her husband and teenage daughter. In Iran, Shiva ran her own dressmaking business. She was eager to continue her profession but didn’t know where to begin.
It was through her daughter’s school that Shiva learned about the Make It! Sewing Business Program, a new, no-cost opportunity delivered jointly by Vancouver Community College (VCC) and DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society with funding by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). Set up via VCC’s Partnership Development Office and offered at the Downtown campus, the Make It! program is designed to help immigrant and refugee women create and operate a sewing business collective.
In October 2018, the Make It! program’s first 12-member cohort started daily, part-time courses in communication, business, and sewing skills. Childminding and transportation were available. By Christmas, the women had produced an original collection of handmade bags and hosted their first public craft sale.
“In my country, I established my business but I didn’t know about the Canadian market,” says Shiva. “Now I know how to find customers and what they need. This is a big opportunity for me.”
Their first phase complete, the collective, under the brand Sewmates Craft, continues to produce and sell bags and accessories while meeting regularly at VCC for business, production, and marketing planning.
A pattern for success
Make It! program facilitator and DIVERSEcity employment specialist Florence Kao draws on both her professional experience and hobby sewing skills to lead the group. “I would be sewing at home anyway. It’s what I love to do,” she says.
Florence, who has worked with newcomers for over nine years, sees great potential in business programs that are intentionally designed for women. While community sewing circles or cooking groups offer valuable social connections, there is little to no business training. Likewise, typical small business programs expect participants to come with refined, professional skills, such as cooking or landscaping. According to Florence, even immigrant women with past work experience often lack the confidence needed for entrepreneurship in Canada. “They don’t realize what they’re capable of,” says Florence.
By combining skills training and business management in a safe and supportive space, Make It! offers the best of both worlds. “We help women connect, communicate, and get their confidence back,” says Florence.