EmPOWERing Newcomer Women through Creative Entrepreneurship

Newcomer women who face barriers to integration, whether social or economic, often experience isolation and a sense of disempowerment. They are often skilled and educated, but they don’t have the know-how nor the connections to develop these further into opportunities, particularly in terms of employment. Many of them yearn for a sense of community – to be seen and heard and to be surrounded by other women who have similar experiences. They also desire better economic security for them and their families, whether through employment or entrepreneurship.

In January 2020, the New Canadians Centre was one of the recipients of a grant from the federal Pilot Fund for Gender Equality administered by the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough. Through this grant and working together with Madderhouse Textile Studios and Watson & Lou, a local retailer of handmade goods, we were able to design and deliver a new project: Creative Entrepreneurship for Newcomer Women – a unique entrepreneurial training experience for newcomer women who have a love of sewing and textiles. 

Over the course of the first 6 weeks, 10 newcomer women received instruction on product development, merchandising, consignment arrangements, and e-commerce by Erin Watson and Anna Eidt of Watson & Lou. This was followed by a field trip to Oshawa to visit Canadian Service Apparel Inc. – a small GTA-base cut and sew facility run by owner Milena Holmes. The field trip resulted in an opportunity to tour the business and meet 4 other women entrepreneurs who are currently at different stages of developing their businesses. They spoke of the challenges and successes of start-ups and shared how proud they were as women entrepreneurs and their desire to help others experience similar successes.  

“We were involved in the whole process – from starting with an idea to selling the final product. The “loop” was completed. It was great to hear first-hand from business owners. We were inspired to hear about how they started; that they’re just like us with families and responsibilities.” – Olga Zelenskaya, participant

During the second phase of the project, Madderhouse owner Leslie Menagh facilitated the design, assembly, and professional finish of a product line of tea towels customized and exclusive to Watson & Lou under the theme: Peterborough, Ontario – Oatmeal Capital of the World. The final product, available in 3 “flavours,” was officially launched during a reception and community First Friday Art Crawl event at Watson & Lou on March 6, 2020. Within two hours, the tea towels were sold out and more were placed on order. It was an evening of immense pride and celebration.

“We found out through this project how supportive the community is of our work. I now know how much faster and more fun it is to work in a group than to work alone. Simple ideas can be turned into a business.” – Bahara Akbari, participant

As we worked through the project, new themes and connections also emerged presenting further opportunities for the participants. Maximizing on these opportunities, we were able to expand the scope of the project and allow for increased learning and networking for the participants. Some of these examples included a tour of the Venture North building, facilitated by Peterborough and the Kawarthas Economic Development (PKED); a visit to Community Futures Peterborough; a New Ventures workshop delivered by PKED; tickets to attend the inspiring talk by Manjit Minhas (from Dragons Den) at Showplace; and an introduction to microloans by Peterborough Community Savings.

This project was driven by the goal of emPOWERing newcomer women with opportunities to learn about creative entrepreneurship and work in collectives as a pathway to overcome barriers in a supportive setting that was inspired by women mentors.

“We all came with individual ideas, and when we put those ideas together it ended up being better for everyone. When we work together, we end up wanting to produce something better. We now have a good group that could make high quality products that can sell anywhere.” – Amina Toloh, participant

As an extension of the work of the NCC’s Sewing Collective, we hope that it was an integral place for newcomer women to find their way in a new language and culture, heal from the trauma of war and displacement, and provide a supplemental income. Given the positive results shared by the participants, the project could further lead into the establishment of a new iteration of the Sewing Collective in the Peterborough community driven solely by newcomer women.

This project, in all of its components, allowed the participating women to feel “whole” once again. It gave them the hope that anything is possible; that their knowledge, ideas, and experiences are valued; that learning and networking opportunities are locally available to them; that they belong here.

Together, they felt empowered to do more. They were not alone in feeling isolated, disconnected and overwhelmed with a feeling of responsibility; other newcomers were feeling the same way too. They were able to see and experience first-hand how their collective work was valued, and as a result, dared to dream of something bigger that’s yet to come.

“I am convinced that knowledge will open doors to new opportunities.” Myriam, participant

A big thank you to all of our funders, partners, collaborators, and the Peterborough community, and in particular to the women mentors and entrepreneurs who inspired and continue to inspire all of us to do more.

Facilitated in partnership with:

Watson & Lou

Madderhouse Textile Studios

Funding for this project was made possible through a grant from:

Community Foundations Canada

Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough

The Equality Fund

Women and Gender Equality Canada


Canadian Service Apparel Inc.

Peterborough and the Kawarthas Economic Development

Peterborough Community Savings

This story is part of the New Canadians Centre’s #WeBelong Campaign – Celebrating 40 Years of Inspiring and Encouraging Newcomers.

The #WeBelong Campaign shares powerful stories of Belonging, Home, Hope, and Community from our 40 Years. Follow along with the stories and opportunities on our page: www.nccpeterborough.ca/webelong