From an interview with Minnie Karanja.
Minnie Karanja is a communications and marketing expert who came to Canada from Kenya. She worked for four years in media, nonprofits and public relations in Rwanda. Minnie got her bachelor’s degree in business computing in Malaysia, a master’s degree in international studies in the UK, and worked in the financial sector in Kenya. She arrived here with a wealth of experience and a very positive attitude in February 2020 – just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Everything changed. On top of learning about a new country, new job market, and new way of doing almost everything, Minnie had to adapt and pivot to find her place in a Canada where things were anything but normal. This is her story of persistence, patience and perseverance.
I would say I was very naive when it came to finding a job in Canada. I thought opportunities were everywhere. I was sure it would be relatively easy for me. With all my experience, the knowledge I had gained and how much I had grown over the course of my career, I felt I was ready to get plugged into an organization where I would make a difference. I thought there would be opportunities quite literally waiting for me.
I pictured myself making applications and getting interviews and hitting the ground running. It would just be a matter of showing up and being able to articulate well what I can do. The experience was very different. I submitted application after application, and I got no response.
I was introduced to ACCES Employment. They were strongly recommended to me as a great place to start to get my grounding. I had the opportunity to visit ACCES in their office in Toronto. I signed up for their bridging program for sales and marketing professionals. We were just getting to know each other, and I was just getting to know their services, and then we went into lockdown.
Newcomer aspirations meet a new Canadian reality: COVID-19
If I had to use one word to describe this period and the whole situation, I would say it was confusing. I felt so confused, and a bit lost because I had been out and about calling into organizations in person. I had in-person appointments set up over the coming weeks, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t leave the house!
All of those appointments were cancelled. I didn’t know when my next appointment would be. Nobody knew what was going to happen. I didn’t know what this would mean for me. Did it mean I couldn’t go to interviews? Did it mean that companies were not recruiting? It was just really confusing.
I realized that I would have to quickly adapt to the situation. I would have to work with what I had. I decided to find out who was still working, and how they were doing it. I knew I couldn’t visit people at their offices, but would I still be able to connect and access services? Thankfully, many organizations quickly pivoted and moved everything online.
As I was figuring out what to do, organizations were also figuring out what to do. So we kind of met each other halfway. They were now providing services online, and I thought, “What have I got to lose?” These programs used to be in person, now they’re going to be online, but they’re still going to be. I had to have faith that things would get better. They would be different, but they would work out for me. I would give it my all to make sure that it worked. I was not ready to just sit down and feel sorry for myself, so I pushed forward.
Adapting your job search to the online world
Once everything switched to online, I became very hungry to get as much support as I could. I quickly realized that I needed help; I could not just go out there and get a job for myself. I was in a new land, and I needed to learn new things because how I approached it back home was not going to work here. I had to admit that I needed help.
I began to understand why I wasn’t getting responses back from my resume. In Kenya and Rwanda, the way you write your resume is very different from here. I needed to change my resume and my approach.
I reformatted my resume – and not just in the layout, but also in the things I was saying and how I was saying them. In a Canadian resume, you talk about your achievements, not just your experience. This was really hard for me. I had never thought about documenting my achievements. You may feel like you’re too proud or like you’re bragging about it. But you have to do it. Although I felt a little uncomfortable, it was also gratifying to look back at my career and think, “I’ve been doing a really good job over the past few years. I can be proud of my accomplishments.”
It was also a time for a reality check after the bridging program ended. I was in a class of about 29 people and suddenly I was alone again. It can be really lonely looking for a job, very discouraging. I mistakenly thought that getting into the bridging program would get me a job when I finished. But the key thing I learned was about networking. I had already gone through the process of sending out resumes and not having anybody respond. So I thought, “You know what, let me try networking!”
From networking to volunteering to working
I got very busy networking! I would go on LinkedIn, look at job titles that I wanted, reach out to people and set up coffee chats. My calendar was booked for weeks ahead of time because I was really eager to know how things worked at a certain company or what it was like working in a particular role. I was really asking people to pour their experiences and knowledge into me.
I met some really amazing people through networking. I also started to inject myself into spaces that I found interesting. Of course, one of the spaces is the nonprofit sector. I remember attending a webinar about nonprofits and the pandemic. The conversation was about who was being affected by COVID-19 and what it was like on the ground.
I thought, “How can I help?” I hadn’t been able to get my foot in the door in terms of a job and felt I could offer my skills. I could help them communicate. I could help them to market. So I reached out to the panellists, and one responded. She was a program manager at Sheena’s Place. I told her that I was very interested in what the organization was doing, and I’d be happy to provide some marketing and communication support or whatever they needed.
She introduced me to the Executive Director. It was my very first virtual face to face meeting, and I got to tell them what I could bring. I had to sell myself like I would in an interview. A couple of weeks later, he got back to me and said, “We’d like you to join the communications and marketing committee.” This really validated my abilities, reminding me that I had useful skills to offer. I have been volunteering on the Sheena’s Place Marketing Committee since July.
One thing leads to another when you’re networking
Around the same time, while networking, I saw a post for a nonprofit event. The keynote speaker was also an immigrant from Africa. I took note of her name, looked her up on LinkedIn and thought, “Maybe I should reach out to her just to talk.” I was thinking that she must be very accomplished to be speaking at this event, and I’d really like to have a conversation with her. Maybe she could provide some advice on how to become a successful newcomer. At this point, I was no longer reaching out and asking someone to give me a job. I had learned that that’s not the strategy. That’s not how you get into positions. Just network with people and get to know people. If something comes up, they’ll let you know about it; they’ll remember you, they’ll remember the conversation and think, “Oh, I know this person and they can help.”
She responded and said she would be happy to speak to me. We scheduled a half-hour coffee chat and ended up talking for an hour. It was a really good conversation, and she shared honestly. She was so helpful and empathetic. During our chat, she asked me about my marketing and communications background and wanted to know more about what I did. Eventually, she said, “I have been thinking about recruiting for a position in a company that I’ve recently started. If you’re interested, I would like to offer you the position.” That blew my mind!
The job is marketing and communications. I have the privilege of setting up marketing strategies, processes and systems to help the organization grow their audiences and stakeholders. And because it’s a growing organization, I’m not just involved in marketing and communication; I’m involved in growing the business.
Working remotely has its advantages
Everything is remote. It’s funny, even though my boss and I have never met face to face, I’m having a wonderful time there. I actually enjoy working remotely – I love it. That could be because I’m an introvert. I’m so grateful for an opportunity to get to the inner place where somehow it’s controlled. I can control the number of people that I interact with. Even though I’m alone, I really don’t feel like I’m alone because we are always in constant communication: If I need something, I’ll jump on a call, we’ll have video meetings, communicate on platforms like WhatsApp and Slack.
If my energy is low, I have the opportunity to re-energize by stepping away and just blocking everything out. It’s also very productive. And then at the end of the day – I usually like to close my computer at five o’clock – I’ll take a walk outside just to create that break, and then I’ll come back in and try to do something completely different.
Realizing your goals in Canada
My aspiration to come to Canada was to come to a welcoming country that would allow me to be my full self, which would allow me to show up, socially, professionally, as who I really am. I came ready to give all that I am. All my experiences, all my knowledge, all my qualifications. I was just ready to step into this space where I thought it was a great place for me to grow and thrive in every manner of my life. That was my headspace when I thought about coming to Canada and what I expected to find here.
Although it has been difficult at times, people really encouraged me. Some people really understood. They were so empathetic, and when they said, “I know it’s hard.” I almost cried because it is so hard. Coming from a place where I was really good at my job, where I was sought after. I came into a space, and it felt like nobody cared how good I was.
But I have met amazing people, I volunteer, and I have started my career doing what I love. I’m grateful for that opportunity.