[Interview] Nomz CEO Jana Al Zaibak on Hiring a Refugee Workforce

Employment is key to the successful settlement of all newcomers, including refugees. More often than not, employers find that hiring newcomers is a solid return on their human resources investment.

Nomz founder and CEO Jana Al Zaibak credits her refugee employees with her business success.

Jana Al Zaibak, founder and CEO of Nomz

Jana Al Zaibak, founder and CEO of Nomz

Based in Toronto, Canada, Nomz is a rapidly expanding business, selling nutritious and delicious snacks. Hire Immigrants spoke to Al Zaibak about her experience leveraging refugee talent.

Hire Immigrants: Why does Nomz actively recruit refugees?

Jana Al Zaibak: We believe in being the change we hope to see in the world. From our ingredients, to our electric delivery vehicles, to the wonderful people we hire. Soon after launching our business, we reached out to see how we could help refugees find work.

Currently, all our employees are originally from Afghanistan. They fled from the Taliban a few years ago. We worked with an organization called Reh’ma Community Services. They help women refugees develop kitchen skills to help them find jobs after they’ve come to Canada. They were our first employees when we first started, and they’re still with us today. I know a lot of other food manufacturing businesses who have trouble retaining their employees, so we feel very grateful and blessed that they have all stayed with us, and we hope they will continue to stay with us throughout our journey. At this point, our team feels more like a family.

Everyone on the team brings love and passion to the production facility everyday. Our team members are down-to-earth women who I enjoy talking to every day and they have become some of my closest friends. I truly believe our work culture has contributed to our success. Our team brought with them rich experiences, unique knowledge, interesting stories and different perspectives. Our business is more diverse now and it has only made a positive impact. We’re excited to grow, and have them grow with us.

We started employing refugees before the Syrian refugees began landing in Canada, but as we grow and more positions become available at our company, we’d like to extend opportunities to Syrian newcomers. We have already registered our company with the Refugee Career Jumpstart Project (RCJP), an organization that facilities the entry of Syrian newcomers into the job market. We would definitely love to continue to diversify our employee base.

Why is it important to you, as an employer, to show leadership at this time when it comes to hiring refugees? What do you think the role of the private sector can be in helping newcomers and refugees settle in our cities?

Refugees from all over the world have something in common: They’ve unwillingly had to leave their homes and their lives because of a situation out of their control. If we can play a small role in helping them adjust to their lives in Canada, then it’s the very least we can do – as humans, or employers.

Employment is the best way to set up newcomers for success. Often, they just need that first Canadian job to get started in the right direction. Any one of us, going through the same difficult situation, desperate for work in a new country with enormous barriers, would feel more comfortable if we could secure a job. A job isn’t just about making money, it’s also about feeling a sense of purpose, making new social connections at work, learning a new skill set, and integrating better in society and day-to-day life.

All businesses should be open to hiring newcomers and refugees – if even only for the benefit of diversity in the workplace. Only good can arise from that. Both the employer and the employee learn from each other. My goal is to grow my business to provide more job opportunities for more people in need, and set an example for other businesses.

Canada is a country built by immigrants and refugees. It speaks to our Canadian values to open our doors and our hearts. Compassion is what makes us human.

You offer your employees flexible hours (for childcare, for medical appointments, etc.). Why is flexibility important for former refugee employees?

Freedom and flexibility are two important elements for me, so it was only natural to provide that for our employees. We are so lucky to be working with our team members, and their well-being and happiness is one of my top concerns. All our employees have children, so we run our production hours during school hours, when the mothers do not need to be with their children. For whatever reason, if an employee has to be with their child during work hours, or has another commitment, we will close down production during those hours – no questions asked. Family is a priority before any job, and I would never want any of our staff members to feel like their job is at risk if they attend to a personal emergency. Our employees help us tremendously. Being accommodating is only one of the ways we can say “thank you.”

You’re also helping to support their language training. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Our business will be scaling quite rapidly this year. Canada’s largest national health food distributor, UNFI, has just listed us, and Whole Foods will be launching our product in August. We’re currently in over 100 locations, including select Loblaws and Longos locations, but we’ll soon be in over 1,000 locations across Canada. To meet demand, we will have to gradually automate the process, and we’ll be shifting our employees manual labour efforts to higher up positions.

It will require further training and a lot of communication. We’ll be supporting our employees’ continuing English language education so they can help us with more administrative roles. They’ve been with us since the beginning, and know more about the business than anyone else at this point, so it only makes sense for us to want to invest in them further.

You own background is Syrian Canadian, and your family has been involved with community building, multifaith and cultural dialogue, and refugee sponsorship. How have your personal experiences impacted your business strategy?

My Mom and Dad both taught me the value of helping others. They learned the importance of this value when they were new to Canada and were embraced so warmly by Canadians. And we cannot forget that Canadians had inherited the same value from the First Nations people. Ultimately, the First Nations values are ingrained in the Canadian social fabric. When the Europeans first started coming to Canada, the First Nations people shared with them their resources and knowledge about the land. It’s important to remember that although we are all Canadians, this was not originally our land. The First Nations people graciously welcomed us, and shared with us. It is only natural to pass that kindness forward and welcome today’s newcomers. All humans are connected to each other – we share the same beautiful earth. I feel so lucky to be in a position where I can offer a newcomer in Canada a job opportunity.

Why should other businesses open employment opportunities to refugees?

Canada’s future is a bright one, especially now that we have so many newcomers who will be helping contribute to our society and beautiful country. In the past, Syrians have welcomed many refugees from around the world to Syria – it’s beautiful to now see doors being opened to welcome them, especially here in Canada. They just need to get their foot in the door, and then in time, these Syrian newcomers will soon create job opportunities for others.

We have been truly blessed to have our employees on board as we grow and thrive in our business, but even luckier just to learn from their strength and spirit. We could not have come this far without them and we couldn’t imagine continuing without them either.

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