From an interview with Andreas Souvaliotis.
Andreas Souvaliotis is a highly successful entrepreneur, bestselling author and public speaker. He is a leading advocate for innovative approaches to address issues like public health, climate change, diversity and citizenship and is involved with immigrant-focused charities, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, Windmill Microlending. He also left his home country of Greece at the age of 18 to come to Canada as what he calls an “almost refugee,” fearful that he could not live his life fully and securely in Greece as a gay man.
In their foreword to Andreas’s book, Misfit: Autistic. Gay. Immigrant. Changemaker, Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau highlight an important lesson: “Harness the things that make you different in order to change your world for the better, instead of trying so hard to change yourself. Don’t be afraid of not fitting in. We’re all misfits. We all have physical, emotional, intellectual, sexual edges. And, in our quest to fit in and live “normal”, we so often quash those very things that could make us special, those very edges that we could instead turn into beautiful niches.” This could be a mantra for newcomers from all walks of life. Andreas took time out of his full schedule to talk to us about his newcomer experience, life, entrepreneurship, the world today, and the future, reminding us that we each have what it takes to change our world in some way.
Forty years ago, I was a gay teenager in Greece, which was a very different place than it is today – and certainly, a very different place than Canada. It was a place where discrimination was accepted, and in some respects, it actually made you cool if you discriminated. If you were the smart, rich, educated, white, straight person, you were able to flaunt that status and to talk down to those who were not quite as mainstream as you are.
Growing up gay in Greece was terrifying. I could never discuss it with anybody, because it could have been the end of me. I would never have been able to meet someone or express myself or share who I really was with my friends. I understood that I would have to fake so much of my life; I would never be able to be me in Greece. So, one of my goals for coming to Canada was just to be me: to live, to fall in love, to have a normal life like everybody else.
I essentially escaped to Canada. I just packed up my stuff when I finished high school and moved to Canada the week that I turned 18, literally on my own with nothing. I was completely enamoured, completely magnetized by Canada’s openness; I was so happy to have this opportunity to just become part of it. I felt like, “Oh, now I can be me. Now I can live.” I landed in a small town in Manitoba. I didn’t exactly have a life plan and a project plan in front of me.
When newcomer dreams meet reality
As it turns out, being gay in a very white, very straight farm community on the Canadian prairie wasn’t exactly as cool as I might have fantasized. Back then, when I was in university (in a small university in a small town), the only way you could meet other gay people was by responding to a tiny ad at the very back of the university newspaper. You’d essentially call a hotline staffed only once a week for a couple of hours; the hotline people would screen you and make sure that you weren’t some sort of an abuser or prank and then eventually introduce you to other members of the group. In retrospect, it feels like the dark ages! Today, you just show up in Toronto, open up your app and meet a million people.
While my early journey is of little relevance to people today, what I can tell you is, that when you arrive in an open society like Canada, where you know that you can fundamentally be who you are, that actually gives you a whole bunch of fuel for other things in your life. When you no longer have to hide a significant part of your DNA, when you no longer have to invest the energy to constantly masquerade yourself or hide who you are, that energy can be repurposed so that you can do a lot more. You can be more active; you can learn more, you can do more, you can work more, whatever it is – you can fall more in love! In essence, coming to a society like ours is like a giant energy gain.
“We are social beings. It’s an incredibly natural need for us to belong. Whether that’s to a family or to society or whatever, we can’t exist without belonging.”
The first tribe that I ever felt I really belonged to was this tribe called Canada – Canadians. So, I went out of my way to really belong; I got involved in just about everything you could possibly imagine. Within months of showing up, I was actually running the local Greek community’s weekly television program, just because I could, just because this is the country where you can do as much as you want to do and you can be who you want to be. I just dove in headfirst! The most amazing thing about Canada is that you get out of it as much as you put into it. Canada allows you to put an enormous amount in and get an enormous amount out.
Being an entrepreneur and not really knowing it
From running TV programs, teaching in Greek language schools to teaching music to earn a few extra pennies, my entrepreneurial instincts were beginning to show. During the MBA years, while my classmates were following the traditional path to Bay Street jobs, those instincts reemerged. I was a new Torontonian, and I didn’t know anybody, so I latched on to my former boss, the man who ran the System Staffing agency I had worked out of in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was a very young successful dude – not that much older than me, based in Toronto.
As we became friends, and as I was finishing my international MBA, I had this itch to create a unique international opportunity. I went to him and said, “Hey, you run this beautiful consulting agency, you are making all this money by contracting people like me as computer scientists to various corporate clients in Canada, why are you only doing it in Canada? Why aren’t you in places where you would have a competitive advantage as a Canadian firm, where you would get business easily and start exporting Canadian consultants to those places?”
He looked at me like I had three heads and said, “That’s a crazy idea. Give me an example of those places.” I replied, “The Persian Gulf. They rely almost exclusively on expats for professional talent. People fly in from all over the world to work there, and Canada has such an exceptional image in places like Kuwait and Dubai. I’ll make it even easier for you – The Canadian government wants to promote exports to those places, so they have programs that would pay for my salary to work for you to figure out how to set up a business there. It wouldn’t cost you anything to at least explore this for the first couple of years.” He said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
So, I literally invented my next job, and before you know it, I was jetting around the Middle East. I was 25 doing entrepreneurial things, but I didn’t actually become an entrepreneur, officially – I didn’t actually start my own businesses until I was well into my 40s. I was clueless: I figured that I was just a weird business guy who had weird ideas, but I never thought, “I am an entrepreneur.”
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Become an entrepreneur for the right reasons
These days, being an entrepreneur has become extremely fashionable. You get kids coming out of every business school, whose only ambition is to be an entrepreneur.
Don’t just do it because it’s fashionable; do it because it really feels irresistible, because you’ve got the idea and you have the passion to chase it. You feel that you absolutely have to do it!
Being an entrepreneur is having an idea about a very specific problem you want to fix that somehow, nobody else has addressed. Not everybody has those ideas, and frankly, not everybody has the personality and the drive required.
I remember when I started my first business, about 13 years ago, I had an idea, and the first thing I did was look around the world, and I was like, ” Why hasn’t anybody done this yet?” Once you get to that point, when you realize that your idea is unique in the world and it needs to be executed by somebody, it is almost impossible to come back. It’s impossible to put it back in the box. You feel like, “If I don’t do this, somebody else will.”
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The newcomer journey involves giving back
I was one of those businesspeople who did what businesspeople do, which is, devote some of your money and your energy sitting on charitable boards and helping make the world a better place, helping make Canada a better place. It made me feel good and looked good on my resume. Over time I realized that instead, what I should be doing is devoting my charitable energy to things that really matter to me personally, that tug at my heartstrings – things that are specific to my life. Frankly, that’s how everybody should approach charity: you should get involved with the stuff that truly matters to you.
Two immigrant-focused charities I am involved in represent key aspects of integration: On the one hand, you have economic integration, Windmill Microlending, and on the other, cultural integration, The Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
Windmill Microlending, (supported by RBC), offers microloans to help skilled immigrants and refugees continue their careers in Canada. You may have heard the term, Doctor Cabbie. Doctors, engineers, and other professional immigrants arrive in Canada, and because they struggle to get their Canadian accreditations but have to feed their families right away, they end up taking survival jobs, like driving or working in fast food and sometimes get stuck in that vortex. Windmill provides them with a few months of the runway so they can continue their careers here.
The Institute for Canadian Citizenship, (also supported by RBC), was founded by our former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul. We run a whole bunch of very, very cool programs to help new Canadian citizens feel Canadian and become embedded in this beautiful society. For instance, we help new Canadian citizens celebrate their citizenship by providing free admission to over 1400 museums, science centres, art galleries, parks, and historic sites across Canada. Of course, inclusion is at the heart of ICC.
My words of encouragement for an organization like Arrive is that you’re obviously doing the right thing: welcoming and empowering newcomers with extra knowledge and resources as they’re entering this country. I think that’s really important and valuable.
Newcomer advice: Be who you want to be
One of the things that Adrienne Clarkson, the chair of the ICC, always says when she gives a speech is, “Look, I am the Chinese refugee who showed up here with absolutely nothing and ended up becoming Governor General of Canada.” So, you can be anything. Canada needs you. The country actually admires you from the get-go. Unlike many other societies that would actually treat you as an outsider – maybe for the rest of your life – Canada, for the most part, treats you like you belong from day one.
Keep in mind, Canada is a young country, not fully formed; in essence, the cement is still wet, so every one of us can have a real impact on the shape it takes. Having lived here now for almost 40 years, I feel like a very significant shareholder in what Canada has become. Canada is what we make it, and we’re all shaping it.
Canada is also an extremely open society, in the sense that it wants us to shape it, it doesn’t resist. Once upon a time, Canada did resist. For example, when you think of how difficult it was for Italian immigrants to integrate 50 years ago – or for Jews a hundred years ago. There was a time when the incumbent majority in Canada would make it difficult for you to really become part of society as a newcomer – to have any influence. In the last 50 years, Canada has gone through a transformation from barely tolerating immigrants, to become a society that admires immigrants.
A rosy view of the future grounded in deep-rooted optimism
Sometimes progress can feel a little bit jagged. Sometimes, depending on world events, depending on who’s in power, there are days when it might feel discouraging for people; it might feel like we’re not really moving forward.
The truth, however, is that progress only moves in one direction. And progress is unstoppable. And the reason it’s unstoppable is that human society is constantly becoming wiser. You know, we’re more and more educated. We’re more and more wealthy. We have more and more access to information. And that makes progress possible.
No society in the world has a less jagged trajectory of progress than Canada. Canada actually doesn’t take many steps backwards. We have this very smooth, progressive curve where we are constantly getting better. We’ve always been one of the most progressive, inclusive, cool societies in the world, but we’re also not jumping back and forth. Every day Canada gets a little bit better.
Over the years, through a series of crazy coincidences, some of which had to do with the fact that I was an immigrant, I became friends with Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. I happen to embrace the same values and the same passions that he has for making Canada a truly outstanding society in the world.
We are a leader in human rights. We are a leader in inclusion and immigration; no country accepts as many immigrants as a percentage of its population as we do, and no country integrates immigrants as well as we do. We will always be an immigrant country. That’s what will make us always very special.