2023-02-24T15:21:40-05:00Mar 26, 2021|

Making friends in Canada: Building a social network that matters

From an interview with Neha Khandelwal, Senior Manager, QE Strategy, RBC.

Before coming to Canada, Neha worked as an IT professional in India and the U.K. She has fifteen years of  experience in Quality Engineering (QE) and Enterprise Consulting and has worked across various industries including insurance and banking. Neha and her husband started their new life together here in 2011. She is passionate about what she does and quickly set out to start her career and build a life in Canada. Neha shares her story of how her search for new friends led her to create a vibrant community for newcomer Indian women in Canada.

I’m a go-getter. I’m happy to say that I get it from my father: I take action; I get things done. When I came to Canada, I wanted to continue with my career. I started my search by learning about the Canadian job market, understanding how hiring works, how to network, and how to make a Canadian-style resume. I wanted to get it right. I created a list of the top five companies where I wanted to work and the top ten hiring agencies.

I did my research and my due diligence, met more than thirty recruiters and gave multiple interviews. I was determined and had confidence in my skills and capabilities. Three months later I landed my first  job. It was a six-month contract with an insurance company, and from there, I moved on to a full-time role as Portfolio QA (Quality Assurance) lead with another company in the same industry. 

We moved from Toronto to Mississauga when I was expecting my first child. My parents came over to help with the baby for a couple of months but I didn’t have any family here. It was just my husband and me. We were settling into our new life in a new country, I was on maternity leave and I had no female friends to lean on. I felt that I was lacking good friendships and real connections.

Making connections socially is one of the biggest challenges for newcomers to Canada 

As a first time mom, I was really overwhelmed. I was longing for a woman-to-woman connection. I wanted someone with whom I could just hang out, maybe get some advice, but above all, spend some time away from my day-to-day schedule and retain my sanity. I looked for existing groups but there wasn’t a platform where women could meet in person. So one day I decided to create one.  

“I wasn’t able to just find a place where I could go and meet people. I could see a lot of people, but it was very hard to talk to strangers on the street or even in the mall, it just seemed so fishy.”

In August, 2015, I started an Indian women community group and called it Indian Mommies in Mississauga and Toronto. I posted that I was a first time mom and looking to connect with like-minded Indian women with the same cultural background. As soon as I created the group, four or five women joined. Two of them actually lived in the same building as me, and I’d had no clue.

We became such good friends and we’re still friends today. A couple of them are like family to me; we meet with our families, and our kids are friends. The first meetup was a life changing moment for me. I had just found my own friends in a new country. It was an accomplishment.

As a newcomer mom, you have so many questions like, “How do I enroll my kids in school?”, “How can I get a tutor for my child?”, “Can you suggest a good area with good schools?”, “How do I find a family doctor?” or “ Where can I get Indian spices and vegetables?” all the way to, “Do you know where there’s an Indian hair salon?”

Of course anyone can Google these queries, but if you post this question on the group, 10 people will quickly answer from their own experience. Women are so happy to share their experiences: someone might post something about their child and we’ll all jump in, because we’ve all been in the same situation.

After almost four years, we realized that the conversations we were having went way beyond just  motherhood. We were talking about literally anything and everything from staying healthy to finding a home or settling in Canada.

So we changed the name to Indian Women’s Circle (GTA) to be more inclusive for women in all stages of their lives, whether they’re mothers are not. If you’re a woman and new to Canada, coming from the U.S. or from India or wherever, you can connect and talk to like-minded women, ask questions and get answers.

I envisioned this group to be a trusted and close-knit community of Indian women, where they can come together, connect in-person – and of course, virtually at the moment due to pandemic restrictions – and make meaningful connections. Indian Women Circle has been active for five years and has grown from four Mississauga Mommies to over 3,200 women in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and beyond. We have organized fifty meet-ups, three large social gatherings, three career mentorship events and even partnered with a global organization to spread awareness for maternal mental health.

Just a couple of days ago in my group a woman said, “I am due any day and I am freaking out.” She got so many responses saying, “Everything will be fine. Trust the doctor. All the doctors are good, all the nurses are good. Tell us what you need. We can drop it at your home. Don’t worry.” 

She delivered her baby and posted on the group that everything went well. This is exactly what I want my group to be, a safe space where women can get first hand information and support from women who have lived what they’re going through – a place where people can have real heart-to-heart conversations without any judgment or nervousness about asking  questions.

The Indian Circle

In India, if guests come to your house on any occasion, there is a common occurrence: when the guests are leaving, you end up standing at the door and talking again for another five or ten minutes. It’s known as an Indian circle. People joke about it, “Oh, here you are, still doing the Indian circle.”

Those conversations always stand out because these are heart to heart conversations stemming from your interests or your happiness or how much you like the other people. Instead of leaving you stay talking! The Indian circle was on my mind because it used to happen in our meetups too; when it was time to say goodbye we would stand at the door and talk for another five to ten minutes. We just didn’t want to leave.

Since most of us really have no family here. I thought, “It’s an Indian women’s group, we’ll call it Indian Women Circle.” That’s how the name came to be. It is truly a circle of friends and family away from family.

How a new job and working from home transformed an idea

RBC was on my list of top companies that I really wanted to join because of its rich history, community initiatives and innovation. I also opened my first newcomer bank account with RBC when I arrived in Canada. I joined the Technology & Operations Team at RBC as an Enterprise QA consultant in 2017, and last year, I took part in RBCx (Special Women In Tech edition), an intensive nine-week innovation program that brings top talent from across the organization together to explore disruptive ideas to solve real business challenges.

It was a  transformative experience for me because in addition to the entrepreneurial learning, it made me realize my own strengths and how much more I could do in spite of the circumstances – we were all working from home due to COVID restrictions. It was hard, but gave me the opportunity to try new ways of working.

It made me think more about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to have in my life, the meaningful work that I want to do both at work and outside work. I decided to make a business directory website for Indian Women Circle as a platform for Indian women business owners to market and promote their small businesses. It’s a digitally advanced website that would not likely have happened had I not been working from home. I wasn’t commuting, so I had more time for my passion project and my husband, who is also in IT was there to discuss and bounce ideas off. 

Making a meaningful difference

Nowadays I get queries from people moving to Canada from India or the U.S. who ask to join the group so they can ask people questions who have already gone through the journey. Some friends recently moved to Canada and have been in a 14-day quarantine: I told them not to worry, that they were not alone. “You have a circle of friends here – you might not know them personally, but they are here for you. If you have any question in your mind, you can ask.”

We were able to answer all their questions about insurance, suggest neighbourhoods and schools, and provide referrals to realtors, we even helped them get groceries. Because they were quarantined in a hotel they had groceries delivered every other day.

Their daughter was turning three during their quarantine and my friend asked, “can I get a cake?” I was able to help her find a bakery that would deliver and they celebrated their daughter’s birthday. It felt so great to be able to help. 

These things really matter to me, and I think I get it from my father. I lost my dad three years ago and I never got a chance to tell him much about my community initiative. He was a people person and wherever he would go, he would just lighten up the whole mood and would always go an extra mile to help someone. I have seen him his entire life working really hard, not giving up and trying different things.

Sometimes people ask me, why I do this? What do I get out of it, and what drives me? I think making a difference and solving problems is something that drives me, both at my work as well as in this initiative of mine. I am my father’s daughter, and I get that thing from him that I will always try to do something that can make a positive impact and if I can help someone – even in a small way, it’s really meaningful and worth doing.