A study by the Conference Board of Canada found that small (and medium) sized enterprises owned by recent immigrants to Canada, are more likely to export, and they are also among the fastest-growing SMEs. This series highlights some of their stories.
Originally from Mali, Sory Sacko is the executive vice-president of Saint-Boniface Sound & Lights – a provider of audio-visual equipment and services based in Manitoba.
Sacko answered a few of our questions about the immigrant experience with exporting.
Where were you born?
I was born in Mali, 47 years ago.
When and why did you come to Canada?
I came to Canada as an international student 18 years ago and I studied information technology (IT) and started working in the audio-visual field while I was studying. My original goal was to study public health care and take that information back. I had studied medicine in Mali, but couldn’t get in here, so I did IT.
Did you have any specific concerns about starting a business in Canada?
Yes, starting a business in Canada. You don’t know how you’ll get financial support. I didn’t know where to find the resources until Amadou Diop, who is now my business partner, came along. He suggested that he had a lot of contacts here and I had contacts in Mali, so he said we should go into business.
Did you face any challenges or barriers?
The challenge was that we were operating with only our own limited financial resources. It was a lot of trial and error. We didn’t have any formal help. Financing was a big one. In 2012, we took our first trip to Africa with the owner of Advance Pro (for whom we are exclusive distributors). We did an event in Mali that was a very big success. Then, we started to be known as a Canadian company. That’s when things started happening. That was when the Canadian Trade Commissioner’s Service introduced us to Export Development Canada (EDC).
Have you used any resources or supports to help you grow the business?
I’ve used EDC’s accounts receivable insurance when I’m making a big shipment. They are also the ones who introduced me to Encore FX for foreign currency exchange mitigation.
What services were the most useful?
The advice. EDC has given us a lot of good advice over the years.
When and why did you start exporting as part of your business?
Since the very beginning, in 2011. We were founded as a company that would export.
EDC resources to help you export
What has your export journey been like?
It’s been great — it’s essentially the story of our business. Before meeting with EDC, we lost almost $4,000 and $5,000 on currency exchanges. But, with EDC’s advice, we now know how to take advantage of the services of Encore FX.
What is the biggest difference between selling in Canada and selling in another country? How did you adapt to that difference?
Selling in Canada, everything is straight-forward. We know the laws and understand them. In foreign markets, you always have to teach the client what he might need. There are a lot of knock-offs available in developing markets. There’s a lot of education in making them understand the importance of quality in these products.
Reports suggest that immigrant-owned businesses are more likely to develop new / stronger trade links beyond the U.S. Does this reflect your experience exporting and trade? Do you sell and/or have business relationships in the country where you were born?
Yes, I was born in Mali. And we started in Mali, but we targeted French-speaking markets in West Africa. Sometimes, access to good products is challenging for them.
Looking back on your business / export success, what are you most proud of?
I’m from Mali, that’s my home, but to be identified as a Canadian company is an honour.
What advice would you give to new Canadians about starting or growing a business?
If they were studying, I would tell them that living in a different country gives you amazing experience — it’s almost as valuable as the certificate or degree you will get from your studies. It really supplements the formal training.
I also would suggest they learn something here that they can then export or replicate in their country. For me, it is a way to participate in a Canadian business, but also help my developing country move forward. Here, you have access to a lot more than you do at home. Explore all your options.
What is the #1 thing SMEs need to know about exporting and trade?
There are a lot of regulations regarding exports. You need the assistance of an organization like EDC or the Trade Commissioner’s Service. They have the expertise to guide you through it.