As you might have noticed lately, the onset of a worldwide pandemic has literally changed the world and the way of doing things for everyone. Businesses of all stripes have had to pivot and recast their delivery models. Employees and job seekers have had to adapt too and manage their employment expectations.

Nobody knows what may happen post-COVID, but many of the changes are expected to stick beyond the crisis, leading to a new normal for the working world. There is very strong indication of a leaner labour market landscape emerging, offering shorter-term contract employment. In their recent webinar, “Thriving Franchises in Our New Normal”, FranNet shared that while 61% of Canadians had been concerned about job security anyway before the crisis, since about March 15, the beginning of the shutdown and the advent of social distancing measures, there has been a 743% increase in Internet searches in Canada on “self-employment”.

This is where one CCS program, in particular, is well positioned to support this aspiration.

The Small Business Support Project assists newcomers, immigrants and refugees with basic English skills to access services to overcome barriers to self-employment. One-on-one coaching supplements a workshop series. Sessions are also arranged with business owners, newcomers at one point, to share their stories.

“Our goal is to provide an overall concept of what is involved with starting a business in Ontario. While not expecting people to become experts after attending these workshops, we hope to equip them with an understanding of self-employment. They should now be able to ask themselves questions such as “Am I ready to start a business?” If the answer is yes, “Where do I start?”, and if it’s no, “What else do I need to know or get?” said Sandra Wong, Project Worker of the Small Business Support Project.

While there is no shortage of business resources for budding entrepreneurs in Toronto, it is challenging for newcomers who are struggling with English to fully access them. The Small Business Support Project is unique in that the Immigration Refugee Citizenship Canada-funded program is designed to serve permanent residents, convention refugees and live-in caregivers who have a lower level language proficiency. This way, the program offers knowledge and individual support to bridge the gap for this particular demographic in a way in which they are comfortable and can understand.

Attendees who complete the full workshop series of business workshops (“Business Café”, “Business 101”, “Marketing Basics” and “Business Registration”) receive a certificate upon completion. In addition, two new workshops were developed for these unprecedented times. “Thriving Through Challenges – A Small Business Guide” helps business owners navigate through the crisis and position their business for a speedy reopening and the popular and opportune “Alternative Sources of Income” is also offered.

“Business 101” aims to prompt people to determine their readiness for self-employment and goes through the basic steps of starting a business in Ontario. “Marketing Basics” follows on to present an overall view of the potential of marketing as a driver and how to promote a business on a small budget. The power of networking and how social media can help spread the word are also highlighted in the workshop.

“Clients are eager for information that leads to, for example, opportunities for additional income and ways to capitalize on it during this crisis. Our new workshops “Thriving Through Challenges” and “Alternative Sources of Income” were developed to inspire clients to shift their mindsets and increase exposure to a multitude of business ideas” said Tej Parmar, Project Lead for the Small Business Support Project. Clients are invited to capitalize on spikes in certain industry sectors due to the exigencies of the pandemic, in particular cleaning and sanitization, delivery services, digital marketing and other online services in education, entertainment and fitness.

With social distancing rendering an in-person delivery model prohibitive so far this year, necessity has become the mother of invention and driven the program online through videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The virtual model has opened up tremendous opportunities for service providers and clients alike, in terms of reach and timing flexibility. Now, clients can join a workshop, and attend an intake assessment or meeting in the comfort of their own home through the click of a mouse – no more commuting and other logistics to consider. Even for those with childcare issues, it might be easier to carve out an hour or two for professional development, if they don’t have to leave the house.

On the flipside, technology brings unique challenges too. Initially, training was required on these online platforms and there was a learning curve for some clients as well, who needed to be nudged to interact virtually during the sessions. Moreover, the pre and post workshop paperwork (surveys, analyses, etc.) is time-consuming and necessitates high-volume email exchanges with clients.

Whether clients choose to attend workshops before, during or after the intake assessment, Sandra always follows up with them one-on-one to develop an individual action plan to explore their business concepts further.

“For those who have no ideas of what business to engage in, I encourage them to give thoughts to their interests and skills to develop more clarity about a potential business concept. Every client is different and the beauty of the Small Business Support Project is that we meet clients wherever they are, and then go from there to hopefully guide them where they want to get to regarding starting a business, or find out more about it.” Sandra said.

Last year, 27 workshop sessions were offered to over 220 attendees. So far this year, the program has offered virtually six workshops to 40 participants.

Sandra and Tej make up the Small Business Support Project and are led by Tanya Lauder. They are a small, yet fierce and dedicated team. If you’ve liked what you’ve read here, please consider a donation to support their work.