How a Chinese immigrant to Toronto is marking 10 years as an entrepreneur

Restaurant owner at cash
Xuan Ning Li, the owner of Hotopia Restaurant, in Richmond Hill, at the cash register. Vennie Choi/Toronto observer

She started her day at 6:30 a.m., beginning with a shower and the rhythms of soft classical music. When an alarm bell started ringing in her daughters’ room at 7:00 a.m, Xuan Ning Li went into their room, turned on the table lamp, and brushed the teeth.

“Ma-ma, can you braid my hair today?” Li’s daughter asked.

“No, I am running late for work, the hair clip looks good too,” said Li, who is also known as “Bobo”.

After a quick yoga class in Richmond Hill at around 8:30 a.m., she headed to her restaurant ­— Hotopia for noon.

Li, 35, is one of the growing number of women immigrant entrepreneurs in Canada. According to Statistics Canada’s Gender-based Statistical Report, instead of traditional female occupations such as the sales and services industry, 26 per cent of female immigrants are in the “business, finance and administrative” occupational group, while the percentage of the male immigrants in this occupational group is 10 per cent only.

“I am not surprised to hear that there is a growing number of immigrants or especially female immigrants, in small businesses. This is part of immigrant settlement pattern,” said Dr. Sherry S. Yu, a professor from the University of Toronto, in a phone interview.

Li, who is originally from Shenzhen, China, immigrated to Canada 10 years ago because her parents told her to. Before that, she was studying in the United Kingdom, completing an engineering degree, and later continued her study at the University of Hong Kong, for a management degree.

Today, Li is a mother of two, owns an online fashion store and a Chinese restaurant, creates content on Chinese social media platforms, and recently founded a feminist organization for Chinese women living in Canada.

“There is no difficulty in life because everything can be a difficulty, so when you are facing it, just try to find a solution to solve it,” said Li, in an interview in December.

Li never planned on which specific businesses or industry would she work in, but her secret to success is that she makes the best use of the resources available at that moment to make a decision. For her, having a strong execution is essential.

It was not the only key to success, though. So was preparation. The wholesale markets for clothing were growing rapidly 10 years ago in Shenzhen, so Li grabbed the opportunity, built up a team there, and started importing clothes from China and selling them to a few friends in Canada. She also studied in the fashion program at Seneca College, to learn the fashion business. Later, she started her online fashion store on Taobao, which is the largest online shopping platform in China.

More recently, she has spent one and a half years doing research and attending programs related to how to start up a catering business in Canada, learning the legislation, the furnishing and branding of establishing a restaurant. She then decided to be a franchisee of a Sichuan cuisine restaurant named Hotopia. She opened the Richmond Hill store in September. She spends 12 to 13 hours daily in her restaurant.

“I was maintaining an active learning attitude to start up the restaurant, and having a good preparation beforehand is a must,” she said.

With her fruitful life experiences, she has turned to social media and is now an influential blogger on various Chinese social media platforms. She has 80,000 followers on Weibo and 20,000 followers on WeChat. She has shifted from fashion blogging to food blogging. She uses Instagram, Facebook and has a YouTube channel where she loves sharing her life.

“Immigrants are very hard workers and they are contributing to the economy and it’s incredible, so we need to support them growing and scaling their businesses,” said Leigh Mitchell, who is the founder of Women in Biz Network.

Mitchell, 46, established Women in Biz Network in Toronto nine years ago, to offer advice to female entrepreneurs and offer mentorship to them. Mitchell also works as a brand strategist, helping people with their personal and business branding.

“You have to be very transparent about how you are using media, for me, it’s a marketing tool. It’s a faster way to grow your network,” Mitchell said.

According to Dr. Yu from the University of Toronto, whose research specializes in multiculturalism, media, and social integration, Li’s sharing of her general life on Chinese social media platforms may inform audiences who are living in Canada as well as those in China who might be interested in learning more about Canada.

“What she does is similar to what ethnic media can do, helping immigrants in the process of settlement and integration by sharing everyday information,” Yu added.

Li said that she wants to influence more people to benefit from her hard work, so she started a new feminist organization in Toronto called Femme Niche (媛創薈) in November, to give advice to up and coming immigrant women like herself to be entrepreneurs.

There is a traditional Chinese saying, “A woman’s place is in the home,” but Li thinks that this saying does not apply to her family since her husband and daughters fully support her.

“Either husband or wife has to work hard together, and family always comes first,” she added.

She is living in Aurora now with her husband and two daughters, who are three and eight-year-old, respectively. Although Li’s parents are currently in Canada for a visit and to help take care of the kids, she still tries her best to go home early every day, for bedtime and storytelling.

“We are working hard just for the kids and family. I just want my kids to grow up happily, be honest people, and to do what they have to do, step by step,” she said.

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Posted: Dec 10 2019 12:34 pm
Filed under: News