Kithio Mwanzia sees important role for immigrants in the local economy
July 14, 2015
Kithio Mwanzia seems to have been destined to lead the Guelph Chamber of Commerce.
“Chambers of commerce have been part of my life for a long, long time,” he says. “I’ve always been around them.” Indeed, his grandfather was the first president of the Chamber of Commerce in Kenya.
Kithio’s emphasis on the need for us to globalize our local economy in order to grow isn’t surprising given his globally-oriented early life. His parents were in the diplomatic core, so he was born in New York and also lived in Khartoum, Sudan, and Brussels, Belgium before moving with his parents back to Kenya. He then came to Canada in 2003 as an international student. Drawn to St. Catharines by its sense of community, he attended Brock University, where he studied political science and focussed on economics and public policy (he was, incidentally, the first international student to be elected president of the students’ union).
After graduating, Kithio’s deep interest in community development spurred him to get involved with the St. Catharines – Thorold Chamber of Commerce, at a time when communities like St. Catharines and the Niagara region were already being affected by the economic crisis that hit in 2008. Following the successful merger of the St. Catharines – Thorold and Greater Niagara Chambers of Commerce in 2011, he moved to the new organization, which became the third largest chamber in Ontario.
In January 2015 he became the President and CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce after leaving his long-time role as director of policy and interim CEO of the GNCC. “The opportunity to be part of another great community came up here in Guelph, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity,” he says. “It had all the characteristics that drew me from oceans away to Canada.”
His golden, solid advice to other newcomers: “Immerse yourself. Everyone will be welcoming. You have a story, they have a story. Take an interest in their story and they’ll take an interest in your story.”
The rest of this article presents Kithio’s answers to a series of questions presented to him by the Guelph-Wellington Local Immigration Partnership during an in-person interview…
GWLIP: What is your vision for Guelph, and how do immigrants and newcomers fit into that vision?
KM: My vision for Guelph is to focus on expanding our existing capacity. We have great economic capacity right now. We have a diverse business community, and what’s great about that is that it allows us to absorb global shocks, because we have strength in so many different areas that we’re able to spread that shock across many industries and be able to support ourselves. That’s really important. But how do we take that to the next level? One of the big things associated with that is going global and getting into international markets. We have massive expertise in food technology, food safety and agribusiness. As we start to think about going global, newcomers will play an important role within the business community. We’ll see a lot of businesses engaging newcomers in a new way because they’ll be seeking global markets and they’ll be seeking individuals that have experience, not so much with global trade and markets, but with business culture outside of Guelph.
One of the great opportunities will be that newcomers to Guelph will support the net total growth that Guelph and more specifically the business community is going to face, whether it’s entering export markets or expanding manufacturing capacity. Small businesses also have an opportunity to engage in the global market space, but limited human resources to do so. You might see newcomers to Guelph being leaders in those organizations because they will have market intelligence related to understanding the business culture in a meaningful way in the country that the company is trying to expand to.
GWLIP: Canada will soon experience major demographic shifts, including an aging population, that will lead to workforce challenges. How do you see immigrants and newcomers being part of the solution?
KM: There will be more newcomers in the workforce as a result. There are few experts that I have seen that cite a different solution to future workforce challenges vis a vis the aging population, and this is in all job fields.
I became a citizen a year ago (a few of my friends came with me to the swearing in and reaffirmed their own citizenship). I remember taking the oath and seeing the promise that the newcomers in the room had. The same promise existed in the eyes of the Canadians that were in the room about this cohort of new Canadians that was going to be part of the community, part of the society. That to me was quite promising in terms of seeing our workforce change in the future. Ultimately, a decade from now we’re going to see a more diverse workforce.
GWLIP: What do you see as the benefits and challenges of hiring immigrants, and how can businesses/society address the challenges?
KM: In terms of benefits, I’ve already talked about how newcomers bring an international perspective to the business world. The cost to small- and medium-sized businesses of research, for instance for company X to go on a fact-finding mission to Hong Kong, the Philippines, or Nigeria, is quite significant, including time away and up-front costs. You eliminate that cost by hiring a newcomer. It’s a way of doing business, a way of thinking that for your current team to acquire would cost you a lot of money. So there’s an immense benefit to businesses of all sizes and to the entire business community. But one of the biggest challenges is being able to convey that dynamic value proposition to the business community as a whole.
The other high cost that businesses have is training. It’s very expensive to train any employee; costs include time and lost sales. That’s why people work so hard on retention. There might be a perception that it’s more challenging to train someone who doesn’t have the same understanding of the business culture than someone who does. I don’t think that’s the case. A lot of existing services prepare newcomers to Canada in a meaningful way, so many of them are exceedingly job-ready. It’s an analogous training cost, whether newcomer or not newcomer, and I think one of the big challenges is offering that as a myth-buster. We need to convey that it’s an existing myth in terms of the talent acquisition search, and why it’s a myth.
GWLIP: What specific skills and qualities do immigrants/newcomers have that can help them to be effective entrepreneurs?
KM: They bring brand new ideas from other parts of the world. While there are many things that happen extremely well in the Canadian marketplace, there is continuous space for improvement. For instance in the telecommunications space, there’s been a telecommunications leap in the rest of the world. A lot of countries are now all mobile. In Nairobi, you get 100 minutes of talk-time and a hand-held unit for $20, and you can buy that at the airport as you’re catching a cab. No ID, no three-year contract. Mobile banking is huge in Africa. I’m not saying that newcomers are going to revolutionize the telecommunications industry in Canada. But the mindset that there’s been this technology leap may prepare them to be able to apply that to other parts of the business process.
So in terms of entrepreneurship, newcomers bring a unique value offering, whether they’re designing a new ERP system (ERP refers to business software designed to automate and integrate core business processes) or opening a restaurant and offering an authentic cuisine that community members haven’t tried before while also using locally sourced products.
GWLIP: Do you see any connections between immigrants and innovation?
KM: Yes, absolutely. Not only do I see a connection between immigrants and innovation, but I also see that there are sound resources available in Guelph to help immigrants through the innovation continuum, taking them from idea to marketplace.
The biggest challenge is the myth or view that newcomers hold that they don’t have access to the suite of services that can take them through the continuum. They very much do.
GWLIP: So how do we change that perception?
KM: Everything is told through stories; people want to relate. I know that there are newcomer entrepreneurs who have drawn on the services at Innovation Guelph and the Chamber. I think it would be meaningful to profile them, talk about how these individuals have used the ecosystem.
How do we involve people who have typically been excluded? How do we make sure that we’ve really filled out the economic picture? Marquee events where there is business-related subject matter, such as the Economic Summit that the Chamber is involved with, or your event The Immigration Connection, are important avenues with a captivated crowd. If we’re right about workforce trends in the future, we need to consistently have involvement at that level. We could connect international students from Conestoga College who are studying international business with companies at the Economic Summit. They can shake hands, see what networking is like, meet company leaders and small-business people. This is not going to be on the fringe of our strategy, it’s going to be central to it.
GWLIP: Do you feel that your experience as an immigrant is going to impact your presidency?
KM: Anybody sitting in this seat would know that it’s meaningful for us to interact with newcomers to Canada because of the workforce issues. Where my personal experience comes into play is being on the other side, knowing the fears and anxieties of someone that does not know a new culture, someone that has great ideas but is terrified of expressing them out of fear that the ideas are not good enough.
GWLIP: And how do you push past that?
KM: Just show warmth. Demonstrate that the community is open and welcoming to hearing the ideas in a meaningful way.
We need to embed this into every conversation that we have, continuously talking about our going global strategy. For us to go global, we need every good idea that comes from far away and from close by. If we keep ensuring that this is central to the conversation, then someone will feel that it’s worth making the leap.