Our monthly Immigrant Entrepreneurship Newsletter features some of the incredible immigrant entrepreneurs in Alberta that we support, like Marlyse Kouembi and her businesses Kem’s Fashion Manufacturing and Pasque Flower. We spoke with Marlyse about her journey and experience as an immigrant entrepreneur in Alberta.
Q. What is your background?
My husband, Thierry, and I are originally from Cameroon. I moved to Italy in 2004 where I continued to study fashion after receiving a Bachelor of Professional Industry Degree that I had started in Cameroon. I then worked at Dolce & Gabbana for 7 years as a pattern designer. We moved to Montreal, in June 2015, and then we moved to Calgary in September 2015. We are brand new Canadians! We had our citizenship ceremony on July 14, 2020, via Zoom. Our original citizenship ceremony on March 20, 2020, was canceled due to COVID-19, so we were quite anxious to have the official ceremony because we are so excited to live in Canada.
I became interested in the fashion industry at age 12 and started to study it at the age of 15 thanks to my father who discovered this talent in me and decided to enroll me in a fashion school in Douala. That is where all began.
I have studied in fashion clothing Industry and accessories since the age of 15
2007 – 2008: Specialization Diploma Pattern Maker/computer. Using software systems Lectra (Modaris, Diamino, Vigiprint) at Institute Superior Mode CARLO SECOLI in Bologna – Italy.
2004 – 2006: Diploma of Fashion Design and Pattern Maker / Grading for Men -Women – Children
at ACCADEMIA DELLA MODA of Naples – ITALY.
2001 – 2002: Bachelor of Professional Industry of Clothing at COLLEGE SAINT ESPRIT of Douala – Cameroon
Q. Tell us about your business and what it does.
Established in 2016, Kem’s Fashion is a growing Calgary based custom fashion design and garment manufacturing company. The team at Kem’s Fashion provides end-to-end services, ranging from design consultation to delivery while working closely with our clients throughout the process. Our high-quality products are proudly made in Alberta and distributed globally.
Kem’s Fashion has made it our mission to play a leading role in expanding the apparel industry in Alberta by streamlining production for local businesses. Many locally-owned fashion companies struggle with the production of their garments and home goods, so I have partnered with fashion designers, boutiques, agencies, and private businesses to manufacture their products. This collaborative approach helps to elevate the profile of locally owned small businesses in Calgary’s growing fashion industry.
Q. What motivated you to start your own business?
I have had the dream to start my own business since I was living and working in Italy, but it was not an easy task. I was determined to make a name for myself in the fashion industry for many years in Italy, but I was willing to give up what I had established and change countries, due to blatant racism within the industry and in the country, in order to make it happen. We wanted to give our children a safer and better future with lots of opportunities, so we chose Canada. It is incredibly difficult for a Black woman to have a workshop and start her own business in the fashion trade in Italy, especially in Milan. Coincidently, there is an online article on The Guardian Newspaper website entitled, “Italian Fashion Brands Urged to Tackle Racism” on July 30, 2020, about the exact issue I faced. It was important for me to show my talents and what I was capable of doing, so the desire to share my knowledge and skills with others motivated me to come to Canada and start my own business. Canada is a country with more opportunities than barriers.
Q. What are you most proud of? What is your biggest success?
I am very proud that my husband, sons, and I join our daughter in becoming Canadians while I was also able to get my designed and made in Alberta products online with Pasque Flower (www.pasqueflower.ca) at the beginning of this year.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge as an immigrant entrepreneur in Alberta?
My journey as an entrepreneur was not easy, but over the years I also learned from the challenges I faced. Through many organizations such as CCIS, CDEA, AWE, Futurpreneur, Toronto Fashion Incubator, I connected with other entrepreneurs in the clothing and accessories fashion industry.
Although my journey has had its difficulties, I always believed that my skills provided me an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to Alberta’s increasingly diversifying economy. I wanted to provide opportunities to people who are looking for a brighter future, so I chose to hire newcomers, immigrants like me, to Canada. We are proud that today 90% of our employees came to Canada as refugees and we hired them through our connections with the various settlement services agencies in Calgary. So, our biggest challenge was to find talented workers for this trade.
Q. What has been your biggest challenge in light of COVID-19? How have you had to pivot your business?
This pandemic has thrown us for a loop, like everyone else, so we were really worried about how we would survive, not only for our children but for our employees who we also consider to be our family.
Our biggest challenge during this time was to adapt our business as the demand for what we were manufacturing completely changed. We now have many clients requesting custom reusable face masks, neck gaiters and medical gowns. It was not easy to redefine our business model so quickly, but we persevered in order to survive. It has been a stressful juggling act as no one knows what to expect next….we do not know what the future holds, so we must keep going in order to survive. We had to create two shifts with our employees in order to fulfill new orders while continuing to supply our established clients. One of our teams continued to work as usual with our regular products (collections of clothing lines and textiles for local fashion designers and businesses). The second team was set up to work on new projects related to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). To say it hasn’t been easy is an understatement, but we are always ready for a challenge.
Q. What has the pandemic taught you about you and/or your business?
The pandemic has taught us not to take our family, our life, and our business for granted as they are all very precious to us. We need to remember to be grateful for what we have and also to stay current, connected, and proactive at all times because if we get complacent we will get left behind. The pandemic also taught us we can get by on very little sleep while under a lot of stress!
Q. What advice would you share with other immigrant entrepreneurs in Alberta who want to start or grow their own business?
Persevere. Always believe in what you are doing and don’t give up! Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We have met many kind, generous and helpful people that were willing to go out of their way to make us feel welcome while we navigated our new life. There will always be struggles and roadblocks, but follow your dream. Here in Alberta there are a lot of possibilities and opportunities, so the time is right to diversify our current economy with new innovations.
Q. How has Business Link/our Immigrant Entrepreneur Program helped you?
I’m still waiting for the best to happen. However, at the beginning of this adventure, we approached Business Link to know who can help us in Alberta and get some information. We wanted at this time to have a good network. Thanks to one of their Strategists, we discovered our environment and what kind of organizations to approach. I understood the different steps to make in order to get my business operative.
Q. What’s coming up next for you?
We are excited to continue to promote our online business Pasque Flower (www.pasqueflower.ca) where we sell our own products that I have designed and are made in Calgary, Alberta. We now have a rotating selection of Pasque Flower reusable masks for adults and children on our website in various patterns and sizes. They are quite comfortable and unique in the fit, especially around the ears. We are proud and excited that some of our masks have African cultural accents on them, so that we may share our African heritage with our new country. More, we would like to start Making Reusable Medical Gowns Levels 1 and 2. Working closely with local companies, especially because we do have experience in that. In the next weeks we will make some samples in order to attract new buyers.
Q. Anything else you would like to share?
We are very grateful and feel blessed to have been able to establish a life, home, friends, and business in Canada. We do not yet have a lot of business contacts here, especially in Alberta, so we are excited to partner with local businesses to help make their dreams come true by providing them with customized products they design and we proudly manufacture locally. We think it is important to keep everyone’s hard-earned dollars in the community and country by providing jobs while providing a reliable service; therefore we very much look forward to making new business contacts and acquaintances to help further my dream because we are always better when we work together.