Who doesn’t aspire to be successful? We all want to make a mark. But it takes a lot of effort to be successful. Immigrant Muse brings you the story of an immigrant businesswoman who never gave up on her business idea. Suppose you are an immigrant with a business idea or already have something in the pipeline but are afraid to take that first step; Lola Adeyemi’s story might pump you up with the motivation to start your business.
Immigrant Muse had a tete-a-tete with Lola Adeyemi – the founder of It’s Souper, who recently sealed a $180,000 deal on the CBC’s Dragon’s Den, to learn about her journey as an entrepreneur. Lola arrived in Canada in 2005 from Lagos, Nigeria as an international student. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she worked in investment, banking, and IT.
Lola established It’s Souper in 2018 to help African immigrants access their food culture. Talking about her journey from IT to entrepreneurship, Lola says, “my journey as an immigrant business owner has been tough but rewarding. As a first-generation immigrant, it was a huge risk for me to start a business. I did not have a proper network nor enough financial stability, but the journey has been rewarding with great feedback and love. The joy that I can give other Africans access to their kind of taste in food is indescribable. Being an African immigrant woman bridging the gap in the food industry from my culture has made my struggles more bearable.”
Lola stresses the importance of having “good mentors and mentorship for aspiring immigrant business owners. I had a tough time finding mentors and finding people who have faced struggles like me in the industry.”
After walking on both sides as a professional and a business owner, Lola advises immigrants, “if you have an idea, go for it. Someone from IT had zero ideas about the food industry, and the only idea about food that I had was cooking in my kitchen. Running a food business is a whole different monster.”
Lola said she has noticed that “immigrants are afraid to speak up or even ask for help. If you keep quiet, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Several organizations support women or immigrants. Immigrants should reach out to such organizations, approach mentors and people on LinkedIn, and ask if someone is willing to help. If you keep waiting and sitting on that idea, somebody else might pick it up and run with it.”
Lola further advises immigrants not to quit their jobs for their business idea. She encourages them to take two jobs if they can to save towards the business. Starting a business requires a lot of money before making a profit.
Lola emphasized the importance of starting small. “Start small. We all have big goals but do them strategically in small steps. Have a big goal, big vision, but don’t start big. Always test your idea, test your market and then go for it,” she recommends.
For Lola, her main reason for starting It’s Souper was to share her culture from Africa within Canada. “I always found opportunities to share my culture with my colleagues when working in IT, and I would play our music and share Nigerian food during potlucks. Visiting retail stores made me realize something was missing, and I always had to go to an African or ethnic store to avail myself of food items from my country. I wanted people to have access to at least some flavors from Africa; sharing something from my culture was my motivating factor.”
On the business environment in Canada, Lola believes, “immigrants need more mentorship opportunities. One of the things that have helped me start my business is finding the right mentor. I found a British immigrant mentor who believed in me. He loved my idea, brand name, and branding. Because he believed in me, I decided to go for it. Before meeting him, I was on the verge of giving up on my idea, but that one-hour meeting with the mentor changed everything. That motivation was all I needed. It will be great if the government can find and invest in good mentors and find ways to ensure that every immigrant is helped and guided correctly.”
For Lola, the most challenging part of starting a business is funding. In her words, “it is tough to get funding. The way I have gotten funding has been a blessing from two sad incidents – the George Floyd murder, which focused more on Black Lives Matter, and COVID. If it had not been for COVID, I would never have gotten a zero-interest loan.”
Lola strongly advocates for grants more than loans; she stressed that “the best way to support immigrant businesses is by giving grants rather than loans. Grants encourage business owners to take calculated business risks to start and scale their businesses.”
“New businesses need more funding, and I don’t mean loans because it’s hard for us to get loans. Funding through grants where you qualify based on proven traction and financial projections. Grants would come as a boon to budding business owners,” Lola added.
There are altogether different kinds of struggles that Lola faced being in the male-dominated food industry. “Even though the major buyers of food are women, the makers in the food industry are predominantly men. Sometimes you feel unheard and intimidated. The major issue was dealing with people who did not have the same background as me and were not familiar with my idea or concept.”
Talking about her brand and its expansion, Lola said, “We have soups and sauces right now, and we are launching more sauces by next year. We have West African pepper sauce and launching two more sauces, a peri-peri sauce and a green pepper sauce, which will first launch online, and then by early next year, we will launch in retail stores. We are also launching a line of African spices, and we are looking forward and excited about that.”
On a final note, Lola encourages immigrants to “put yourself out there. If you don’t make yourself get noticed, you won’t be promoted nor seen. And sometimes, as immigrants, we are afraid to be seen because of various reasons. Perhaps we are afraid that people might not understand us because of our accent. We are new, we are shy, our culture is different, we don’t speak out much. These factors limit you. I speak out, I talk to people, and that has really helped me, so I would say that raise your hands even when you go unnoticed, try as much as possible to be seen so that opportunities can come your way.”
Updated: November 26, 2021 to include Lola’s participation in CBC’s Dragon’s Den.