When Larkin Lin emigrated from Shanghai, China to Prince Edward Island, with his wife Mary and son Apollo, in 2013, he didn’t know much about flowers. He knew less about the flower business. Yet, just a year later, he found himself the proud owner of Paul’s Flower Shop, a long-standing, Charlottetown-based company.
“I knew I was going to start a business when I landed in P.E.I.,” says the former senior manager of an international logistics company. “But to be honest, I didn’t have any idea what kind of business would be appropriate for me.”
Immigration has risen steadily in P.E.I. for more than a decade. From July 2015 to June 2016, more than 2,000 international immigrants came to the province. At a rate of 13.6 per thousand, the province tied Alberta for the highest immigration rate in the country. The immigration rate for Canada that year was 8.9 per thousand.
Like many newcomers (about 60 per cent), Larkin came to P.E.I. through the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). The program, which came under much scrutiny in the early 2000s as a way for foreign nationals to purchase entry into Canada for a ‘fee,’ was revamped in 2012. Through the new Business Impact Category, immigrants like Larkin apply to be nominated by the province to become permanent residents of Canada providing they invest in and actively manage a business in Prince Edward Island.
“Both my wife and I loved flowers and we had purchased many flowers and plants in our home and China,” Larkin says. “When I did the research, I found people here (in Canada) also love flowers and almost everyone sends flowers to friends and family for special occasions.”
Larkin’s entrepreneurial journey is not unique. Statistics show immigrants are nearly twice as likely to become business owners as native-born citizens and Prince Edward Island’s business community is embracing the influx of new entrepreneurs with open arms.
“As a Chamber, we recognize how immigration helps to foster economic growth,” says Pam Williams, president of the Greater Charlottetown Area Chamber of Commerce. “The integration and retention of entrepreneurial and skilled immigrants has been made one of our strategic priorities.”
In 2011, the P.E.I. Connectors program was developed specifically to assist newcomers who had an interest in owning a business. The Chamber initiative offers one-on-one advisory services, education and networking assistance and it is funded by both provincial and federal governments so programs, services and events are available free of charge.
“Starting a new business in a new country comes with its own unique challenges,” says Nicole Bellefleur, the Charlottetown Chamber of Commerce’ director of strategic initiatives. “Language barriers; lack of knowledge about the rules and regulations that govern different sectors, including permits, licensing, etc…; lack of knowledge about business development supports and programs; lack of familiarity with the local business culture; lack of a solid business plan; and lack of social and professional networks, to name just a few,” explains Bellefleur, who heads up the program.
“Our program officers meet with clients to provide assistance at all stages of the business life cycle, from research and exploration to post launch. And our services are available in Mandarin, Persian and English.”
P.E.I. Connectors also offers workshops introducing newcomers to the various business supports available to them and they provide monthly networking meetings where six new immigrant entrepreneurs sit down with six local, established entrepreneurs to ask questions, brainstorm ideas or simply ask advice.
“We also host large-scale business mixers where members of the immigrant and local business community have the opportunity to connect in a more social setting,” Bellefleur says.
If that weren’t enough, the program offers newcomers bus tours throughout the province, to visit businesses that are either for sale or seeking investment.
“These are familiarization-style tours,” explains Bellefleur. “Although each stop is brief, clients enjoy meeting with operators, learning about their businesses and getting behind-the-scenes access to their premises. They also enjoy meeting municipal government officials and representatives from the business community, who welcome them at lunchtime receptions.”
So far the response to the Connectors program has been strong, with more than 180 unique clients per quarter in 2016 and many programs and events running at capacity.
Larkin credits the Connectors program with helping him to not only find his flower shop business but to also getting it off the ground.
“I had no any experience with acquiring a business or the Canadian laws and regulations that should be followed,” he says. “I must express my special thanks to P.E.I. Connectors, who also assisted me in finding my accountant and lawyer and made it become possible. I’m pretty sure it would not be done without their assistance and intervention.”
Technical details aside, Larkin says understanding the culture of his new home was another story. He needed a better understanding of the various holidays celebrated in Canada and the types of flowers used to commemorate such occasions.
“The flower business relates closely to the culture and tradition,” he points out. “Fortunately, I got to learn from many different sources. I joined the Rotary Club and members provided me with great suggestions. And the city (of Charlottetown) has lots of activities and I learned about special events and traditions when I became a volunteer with the City Hall Newcomer Ambassadors’ group.”
The Newcomer Ambassadors’ Group helped plan and execute local events throughout the city in 2016, including: monthly orientation sessions; information fairs about city departments and community partners, such as Island Transit and Island Waste Management Corporation; tours of local points of interest, including the fire station and Confederation Centre of the Arts; and the Mayor’s Newcomer Reception. Larkin was recognized for his contribution with a certificate presented by Charlottetown Mayor Clifford Lee in December.
“It’s encouraging to see such growth and diversity in our business landscape,” says Williams. “I think much of the success in attracting immigrants to the province can be attributed to programs such as P.E.I. Connectors and large-scale networking events like Advancing Island Connections.”
The chamber, in partnership with P.E.I. Connectors and Island Advance (another chamber initiative that has included entrepreneurial immigrants in its mandate) hosted the 3rd Annual Advancing Island Connections in November. The purpose of the forum is to connect members of the local and immigrant business communities to learn more about local and international markets, suppliers and talent; watch live pitches from owners trying to sell businesses and entrepreneurs seeking investors; and learn more about available professional services. The crowd of 550 in attendance included 200 immigrants — the most ever.
Of course putting down roots isn’t all about business. Larkin says P.E.I. also offers a safe, friendly and beautiful setting in which to raise his family.
“A big factor is the people. (P.E.I.) is a really safe and friendly place for living and working. In spite of how difficult starting a business can be for a newcomer, with these people, I do think it’s the right place for me.”