“From Quebec inc. to Quebec inclusive.” The expression was coined by Luis Cisneros, an HEC Montréal professor and co-Director of the Base entrepreneuriale, a unit dedicated to entrepreneurial support within the renowned business school. Cisneros is very familiar with the difficulties faced by entrepreneurs from an immigrant background, as is Muriel C. Koucoï.
Muriel C. Koucoï is a born fighter. A clinical pathologist by training, in 2015 she founded SIMKHA, a range of natural cosmetics inspired by recipes her mother made in her native Benin. Although her little jars of healthy products are gaining a following both here and abroad, the entrepreneur has struggled to find the funding to scale up her business. However, her time at the EntrePrism incubator could change that.
EntrePrism is one of the prestigious programs offered by HEC Montréal’s Base entrepreneuriale. It aims to support entrepreneurs in the start-up or growth phase of their business, while promoting the inclusion of entrepreneurs from immigrant backgrounds or cultural communities. “The strength of this program is the synergy between academic knowledge, concrete support from experts in a variety of fields and advice from seasoned entrepreneurs,” says Cisneros.
According to the Indice entrepreneurial québécois, a study to which Cisneros contributed, entrepreneurial intention among newcomers is very high: in 2018, it was twice as high among Quebecers from immigrant backgrounds as among native-born Quebecers (39.8% versus 16.1%). “It’s not that surprising,” says Cisneros. “Immigrants have already demonstrated their determination and taken risks by settling in a foreign country with little support and building something there, often from scratch.”
However, the Quebec entrepreneurial ecosystem remains largely closed to these aspiring entrepreneurs. For example, the vast majority of coaching or financial support programs and services for future entrepreneurs require citizenship or permanent residence. This means that newcomers who are in the process of obtaining this status, or who hold a work or student visa, are excluded from the outset.
“Access to financing is still the biggest challenge,” says Koucoï. “And in my case, I have two things going against me: I’m an immigrant and a woman!” Cisneros agrees: women are greatly underrepresented in entrepreneur support programs, especially in highly specialized programs. With women accounting for 65% of participants, EntrePrism can boast of being one of Canada’s most gender-inclusive incubators.
Nonetheless, there is a silver lining. Cisneros applauds the absence of a rigid hierarchy in the Quebec business community as well as the openness of business leaders to the next generation. “Quebec’s entrepreneurial ecosystem still has a long way to go in terms of inclusivity, and the economic recovery should provide an opportunity to rebuild it in a more inclusive way,” he says. “But we can still be proud of what this ecosystem has accomplished so far.”
Off the cuff, the Professor lists several new businesses founded by newcomers that have grown rapidly in recent years, including Potloc, Dataperformers, Airudi and EdLive. “Imagine where they would be if they’d had support!” he says. He himself is of Mexican descent and jokingly calls himself a “maple cactus.” He would like to see more diversity in Quebec inc.’s business success stories.
For her part, Koucoï continues to work hard to make SIMKHA a household name in the natural cosmetics sector. She left the EntrePrism incubator with an improved business model, a loan on trust and support from temporary interns to grow her business. Most importantly, she built a valuable network of entrepreneurs and potential business partners.
She will continue to expand her network of contacts as she reaches the next milestone in her journey by joining the latest cohort of the National Bank–HEC Montréal accelerator program.
Learn more about our entrepreneur support programs (French only)