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A Sassafras by any other name would smell just as sweet ….

By Aquisha Lewis

Amanda Cheung

Photo by Amanda Cheung

Kathy Charmaz from Sonoma University succinctly captures the power of names: “Names provide ways of knowing- and being. Names construct and reify human bonds and social division. We attach value to some names and dismiss others.”

Until I approached Amina Zeenat Surhrwardy, and asked her to speak to me about her experience as both an immigrant woman and an immigrant entrepreneur, she had never stopped to consider how being named in either category carried with it certain implications. Amina recounts to me an “ah-ha” moment after our first conversation at Hamilton’s Makers Market. Not thinking of herself in those terms, in her mind, immigrant entrepreneurs are immigrants running businesses that specifically cater to the needs of other immigrant individuals like themselves.

Her decision to start making handmade toiletries grew from the necessity of frugality in her student days. Currently 29 years old, Amina has lived in Canada since the age of 18. Arriving from Pakistan to reunite with a very large extended family and circle of friends, Canada became home. Amina thinks of herself as Canadian and as a Pakistani woman, both identities are inseparable.

Given the public’s interest in organic and handmade products, branching her hobby into a business was a natural evolution. White Canadians occasionally ask her if she started her business because it’s a “traditional” thing for her culture, or if she has learned her “craft” from her mom. The qualifier “immigrant” before entrepreneur somehow means that what may be a smart business venture for someone perceived as “born Canadian,” must be a continuation of tradition for someone not fitting into the visibly Canadian category. Amina finds herself troubled by such a differentiation and the regularity of such questions.

“I should mention… the moral tension I have in thinking of myself as an immigrant business owner… the term is useful in helping me identify certain challenges, but I never let those specific challenges define my experience and it’s not a term I have used to leverage myself in any way. I think the term as well doesn’t identify the privilege I might have: being able bodied, English speaking, university educated and having family that supports my decisions. I suppose the way one sees the world and how the world sees it are often not the same thing.”

As a business-woman, Amina is also very socially conscious. She wrestles with how to best run her business, how to make a profit and still help other people. She sources her supplies as ethically and sustainable as possible, occasionally harvesting from her own garden. Amina credits the learning and teaching community in Hamilton with helping her get started. According to her, “so many people were willing to share their knowledge.” In turn, Amina hosts hands-on classes on the usage and benefits of natural oils and plant-based products. Her classes generally run in community spaces, such as the Boys & Girls Club of Hamilton, and the OPIRG office at McMaster. It is important for her that the fees for classes operate on a sliding scale. According to Amina, “I would never want cost to be a barrier to anyone that is attending.”

Amina is a graduate from McMaster with a B.A in Anthropology; she has spent the years since graduation working as a research assistant at the university while getting her fledgling business off the ground. After her last contract ended in December, Amina chose to focus on her business. Admitting that this is risky, Amina reflects that, “Maybe risk taking becomes comfortable for immigrants, given the chances they take in moving their families to new countries and cultures.”

As she concentrates on her business over the coming year, Amina is also preparing to become a certified Aromatherapist. “I highly value self-learning, but I had reached a point where I was finding it challenging to understand technical material on my own and therefore enrolled myself in the programme. It’s been great and I look forward to being a member of the professional group as well, once I receive my license.”

Amina is a representative of the 15.5% of small businesses owned by women in Canada. According to a special report by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, specifically looking at small-business trends with a gendered perspective, female-owned small businesses tend to be concentrated in three industrial sectors:

  1. health care, social assistance, information and cultural industries, and arts, entertainment and recreation;
  2. retail trade; and
  3. accommodation and food services. Currently, Amina is applying for various financing available to small business owners. But, as a female small business owner,

Amina faces a 66.6% likelihood of having her request for financing declined compared to the 35.7% rejection rate for male business owners.

Sassafras…the very sound of her business name conjures up exotic images of flowers, foreign scents and bright colours to my mind. Rather than the exotic that I imagine, Amina relates that she wants her business to be reflective of her home in Hamilton. The sassafras tree that is the inspiration for her business name is local to this region. Sassafras trees are deciduous, with pyramid or mitten shaped leaves. They produce a light lemon scented flower in the spring and turn vibrant red and yellow in the autumn. Amina is a Hamiltonian, Sassafras is Hamilton –sometimes it takes a once outsider to shine light on the hidden jewels in a home.

Sassafras – info@sassafras.co


Aquisha Lewis is a M.A candidate in the program of Gender Studies & Feminist research at McMaster University

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