From an interview with Margaret Adu
Arrive celebrates newcomer entrepreneurs in Canada is a series, highlighting some of the winners from the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards. Those who are featured will share stories of leaving home, becoming an entrepreneur and finally feeling you’ve arrived.
First up is Margaret Adu, Honorary Consul Ghana; Former President, Ghanaian Canadian Association of Calgary; Managing Director, Aomega Lodges; and Operations Manager, More T’a Life Homes. Margaret shares her amazing story, including her first impressions of Canada, how an idea becomes a business, what she brought from home to help her succeed, and what it means to be a newcomer entrepreneur.
Reflections on my newcomer journey
I really didn’t want to come to Canada. I was joining my husband, who was studying in Edmonton at the time. But to be honest, I was dragging my feet. I was doing very well as a young architect in Ghana, where it was always hot and sunny, but my dad said, “You have to go because you’re married.”
When I got here, my husband was late to pick me up at the airport. When he finally came, it was in a dirty old car (in Ghana the cars are always clean). It was March in Edmonton, so the snow was still melting, it was slushy, everything was muddy outside, and all the cars were filthy! That was my first impression of Canada.
My husband lived in a student residence, and his room was above a food court, near a smoking lounge, so the smoke came into the room. It was horrible! I was so upset. I missed home so much. I called my mom and said, “Mom, I can’t live here. I’ve got to go back to Ghana! My mom said, “You can do this. Just stick to it.” Looking back, it was really tough. I’ve come a long way to call Canada home.
When newcomer goals meet reality
My singular goal was to work as an architect. I didn’t have any other professional training. I thought, “I’m an architect, and I’m going to work as an architect.” I soon realized that it didn’t come that easy. So, I called every architect in Edmonton. I would say, “My name is Margaret Adu, I am a qualified Architect from Ghana, and I want to work as an architect.” And every one of them turned me down.
At the time, my husband was a student, and he didn’t have a job, so I got a job through a home care agency. I had no experience, but they trained me, and I assisted seniors or anybody who needed home care. I was now making some money. That was how we were able to move to our own place – our one-bedroom apartment. I remember the first thing we purchased was a good mattress.
During that time, I was still making phone calls to architectural firms, and they continued to say no. One of the last ones I called was located very near to where we were living. I realized I could walk in there and make my case in person – so I did.
I took my portfolio, my CV, and I barged into their offices. I said, “I know I don’t have the Canadian education and Canadian experience, but I want a job – and I’m not going anywhere – in fact, I’ll work for free. One of the partners said, “Let me see your portfolio.” He was impressed with my work and knew the university I attended, the renowned Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.
He closed my portfolio, looked at me and said, “Okay. Take that table. That’s your table.” I was excited just to be in an office of architects! I was still working in home care every night too. After about a month working at the architectural firm, one day I decided to sleep in. I got a frantic phone call saying, “Margaret, why are you not here? We have to get this project out!” and I replied. “Okay. Write a contract, and I’ll be there.” That’s how I got my first paying job as an architect.
How my business came to be: The light bulb moment
One home care client changed everything for me. Her name was Dorothy. She weighed 70 pounds: she loved her drink, but didn’t really eat. But when I took over her care, she quit smoking, she quit drinking, she started to eat again – we were making her nutritious meals – and she put on 20 pounds. She became like my grandma. She said, “Where did you come from – did you fall from heaven?” I said, “No. Africa.”
Her family told the agency that they wanted me to take charge of their aunt’s care – so I did. Then I realized I was going to have to hire people! Dorothy needed round the clock, 24-hour care. Since I worked as an architect in the daytime, I could take the evening shift and hire for morning and overnight shifts. That’s when I opened my company: Alpha Omega (AOmega).
Read more about how to start a business in Canada
How my business came to be what it is today
Whenever we would take Dorothy for a walk, she made us promise that we’d bring her back home: she was so afraid of ending up in a nursing home. But in 1996, the government said that she had to go to a long-term facility.
It was the toughest day. I was pregnant with my first child, and I told Dorothy that we were going out. When she asked if I’d be bringing her home, I couldn’t answer her. Dorothy died two weeks after entering the nursing home. It was heartbreaking.
That was when I knew I had to open homes that are not like long-term facilities, homes that are not just bed after bed with long hallways, I would use my architecture to design them. I’d buy them and renovate them so I could take care of seniors.
My husband got a job in Calgary, so we had to move. I told him that I was going to buy houses and make them as beautiful as Dorothy’s house, and that’s where the seniors are going to live. They’re not going to long term facilities. It will be a family space for seniors. I worked at warehouse jobs at night to save money.
All the while, I was making phone calls to see how I could make this happen. Finally, one of my calls led to a meeting with a very resourceful individual whose name was Ralph. I told him about my vision and my dream for seniors who didn’t need medical assistance but couldn’t stay in their own homes. He said his clients sometimes needed respite, and he took my number.
The question was, how could I get a house? I didn’t have any savings. One day as I dropped my daughter off at the preschool, I saw a house for sale. It was a bungalow. It would be perfect for my vision.
So, I called the realtor and said, “My name is Margaret Adu, and I am sitting in front of this bungalow, and I want to buy it.” I knew I didn’t have the money required, so I asked the realtor to talk to the owner. In those days, you could assume a mortgage. I said call the owner and tell him there is a crazy black lady here who is insistent that she wants this house! On my honour, the owner said he would lend me the money. It was a miracle.
Then the architecture came in. I put in my touch. It was so beautiful. I made flyers on my computer. I printed them – little booklets about what I wanted to do. I went to all the hospitals. It was tough. I got my first client from my church. She was a 93-year-old lady, but it was tough to get clients. Because private care is expensive, even back then.
Then Ralph called me and said, “Margaret, Calgary Health Region (Now Alberta Health Services) is looking into opening personal care homes. It’s exactly what you’re doing. It sounds like your model! They want to do it.”
I went to the information session. I was pregnant with my son, so I waddled in there, among over 200 health professionals. I answered the questions and submitted my proposal: I’m Margaret Adu. I’m an architect with a vision and a passion for seniors and people who need care.
While I was in labour at the hospital, I received a phone call saying, “Margaret, we love your package. We want to come and see your house!” I said, “Right now, I’m having a baby, but the house is open. There is a caregiver there because I have one client.” I stipulated that if I got the contract, they could not evict the client who was living there. They agreed.
A month into that first contract, I received a phone call from the manager of personal care homes for the Calgary health region. She said, “Margaret, I need a second home.” I didn’t have a second home, but I wasn’t going to say no. I never say I can’t. Now, AOmega has 12 homes!
Read more about how to fund your business in Canada
What I brought from home that helped me succeed
I think it’s in my DNA – my core being. Back home, kids didn’t communicate with their parents the way kids do today. Being the only girl and the firstborn, I was expected to listen and obey, regardless of whether or not I wanted to. Today, children can argue their way out, but if my mum said this is the high school you’re going to, there was no question, that was where I was going.
I had an inner strength and resilience. My kids look at me today and wonder how mum can run a business, do all the cooking, clean the house. And I’m like, “I grew up that way!” Because before going to school I had to do my chores: clean the house, clean the compound, get ready for school. And after school I had to do my homework and cook for my grandma, all from the age of 10. But it made me strong; it made me resilient – it made me who I am.
I was also an athlete, and that competitiveness in me, the strength would show when I was on the field running or playing volleyball or whatever. It showed when I went to university too: I strove to be an A student, to get the awards. I have always been at the top of the class because I had the drive to do well.
Coming to this land, and leaving the control I experienced back home, I was sort of freed. I could fly. I could do it because this is a land of opportunities.
On the world we live in today
When I came to Canada in 1993, it was different; Edmonton was not as diverse as it is now. I would say, “I know I’m black, and I’m a woman, and I don’t speak exactly like you. But I speak the queen’s English!”
I have also always known that I am not beneath anybody, and I am not less than anybody.
One thing I regret to this day, was when I opened my business, I was uncomfortable having my big voice and heavy accent on our recording; I feared I wouldn’t get jobs. So, I called my Canadian friend and had her record our answering machine message instead.
On the situation in the world today, my advice to people of colour is, remain resilient. You can’t be broken when you embrace “your you”. We tend to want to fit in, right? But my advice to my black children, and to my friends and colleagues, is “Don’t fit in and pretend to be somebody else. Embrace your ethnicity, embrace who you are and be proud of your uniqueness.”
In Canada, we are blessed in a way. There is such diversity and inclusivity. So, I’m telling all newcomers, embrace who you are and go for it. Canadians are trying, our leaders are trying. My cousin in the US says that the difference is that black people came to Canada willingly, while in the United States, they were brought forcibly and enslaved. There is a deep history, and it will take a long time to resolve.
I had a client who was racist. I learned that she had called a black caregiver by a racist slur. I went in there, and I gave it to her. I said, “I do not condone racism in any way. This is my home, and I will evict you if you don’t respect and love every ethnicity who works in these homes!” She called the staff member and apologized. We’ve got to teach each other; we’ve got to educate each other.
Looking to the future
In the future, I would love to build a village: a community for seniors, to come and feel at home and not be institutionalized. My son tells me, “Mom, I’m going to take AOmega to the next level.” My children have been very supportive of continuing my legacy.
What it means to be an entrepreneur
For me, being an entrepreneur means being in control of who I am – being able to call the shots, my way. It meant I could be a career woman, have my own business, make my dream come true, and still be able to be a mom to my family – to my children. It took courage and assertiveness, and this country that let me be the entrepreneur I am today.
Newcomer advice: Never say never
The advice I’d give newcomers is that they should never be discouraged because in life you are going to fall. You have to fall. But you will get up. Being a newcomer is honestly easier now, but it’s still tough. Don’t give up. Whoever you talk to, whoever you meet, be yourself, speak your mind, embrace who you are, and believe you can do it. Because if you don’t believe that you can do it, nobody else will.
Remember, the difference between doing something and not doing something is to do something! If you do something, it can make a difference in your life and, most importantly, in someone else’s life. This is the ultimate success.
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