Newcomers: Challenging Conventions and Embracing Change

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By Teenaz Javat

You cannot call yourself a professional, as what you do does not count.

This statement changed her life forever, and Salima Syerah Virani, lawyer, editor-in-chief and business woman, has no regrets.

Virani wears many hats, and sometimes she wears them all at the same time. Barrister and Solicitor, Editor-in-Chief of and Founder and CEO of Zentrepreneur Inc., Virani’s career spans 20 years across three continents, finally settling in Burlington, Ontario in an-8,000 square foot home on the north shore of Lake Ontario.

“It all started in a small tenement in an old part of Mumbai, India.” she recalls as she shares vignettes from her past.

The only child to parents with extremely humble means, Virani lived half her life in a 10 ×10 foot room, with a communal washroom at the end of the corridor. “My parents were traditional Muslims, but not orthodox. None of them had more than a high school education, but they knew the only way out of the ‘chawl’ – as we call communal housing in
India – was a good education.”

“In essence they tried to fulfill their unfulfilled ambition through me, for which I am indeed grateful,” recalls Virani.

Sent off as a day scholar to an all-girls convent school for the first 15 years of her life, Virani, a product of an English education, went on to graduate from the University of Bombay with a diploma in Hotel and Restaurant Management.

Getting her married was next on her parent’s list, and a suitor came by who was ten years her senior. At 22 years of age, Virani found herself married – like most women from traditional Indian families – and moving to London, England.

“It was in London while working as a receptionist in a restaurant that I was brushed aside by two lawyers who said what I did for a living didn’t count as a profession.”

This irritated her but also challenged her to be like them. “I knew I could not just quit my job, so I did the next best thing. I enrolled in a law school that offered evening classes. In a few years I was armed with a law degree which I thought was the best in the world,” she adds.

And then, her former husband decided he wanted to move to Canada.

Already the mother of a baby girl, Virani took immigration up as a challenge. Always the optimist, she was sure that with a British law degree under her belt she would simply slide into working for a law firm on arriving in Canada. Canada was after all part of the commonwealth; how different could it be?

The family sold all its equity and moved to Toronto in 1998. They settled into a comfortable house near the High Park area, renting out space to pay down their mortgage. Everything seemed great, until Virani started looking for a job.
Soon it became clear to Virani that her law degree from the U.K. was not recognized here in Canada and that she would have to go back to school if she was to make any use of it.

“I was stumped. When I applied to the position of receptionist at a law firm they told me I was overqualified, but to get a job as a Law Associate my credentials were nada, zero, zilch…”

The equivalency office, on reviewing her UK law degree, suggested she needed three more semesters to bring her credentials up on par with Canadian requirements. Not one to mourn, Virani enrolled as a student at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

“I worked in a temporary typing float in the night to pay off my tuition, while my former husband juggled jobs to be with our infant daughter.”

The challenges and sacrifices have paid off in the long run, as over the years they have been able to bring their families over from India by sponsoring them in Canada. “Now we are all united and independent, something which would not have happened had we remained in the U.K. Moving to Canada was the best decision we made.”

In just over 12 years of having immigrated to Canada Virani has assembled an enviable resume, having acquired and turned it into North America’s premier South Asian website. “It is here where my legal expertise in Mergers and Acquisitions comes into play. I am now on track to offer legal advice, am running a fully monetized website and have just started my own business called Zentrepreneur Inc.”

“I have never felt marginalized or discriminated against in Canada. As a new immigrant woman I have faced my fair share of challenges, made many mistakes, and moved on,” says Virani. “I am not one to look in the rear view mirror, and this positive mantra helps me stay ahead of the game, be it in my business or personal life. I believe in the power of the universe, as each one of us makes our own destiny.”

Her journey has been an incredible one; and just as she has not lost sight of her goals, Virani has not forgotten her humble beginnings.

“My identity is not attached to the home I live in, or the car I drive. It is what I have made of my life, the choices I have made that ultimately matter. I have no r regrets – none whatsoever – and that is what I think keeps me going!”

Virani’s advice to Immigrant women

• Come up with a plan- If this didn’t work, what will?
• Never indulge in self pity
• Create a solution
• Challenge convention
• Stay focused on your goal

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