'My hard work is paying off': Immigrant woman in N.S. wins entrepreneurship award

·4 min read

An immigrant woman who persevered after being unable to find work in her field and losing her restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic has come out on top — and she’s won an award to show for it.

On Wednesday, Shivani Dhamija was presented with the Immigrant Women Entrepreneurship Network Entrepreneur of the Year award during the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia’s Small Business Week event.

“I (couldn’t) believe it for one whole day, because I was always working and never expected that I’ll get an award,” said Dhamija inside Shivani’s Kitchen’s production plant in Windsor.

“But it’s great.”

The journey to get here, however, did not come without its challenges, she noted.

Dhamija and her husband Abhishek Asthana immigrated to Canada from India in 2012.

After arriving in Nova Scotia, Dhamija was on the hunt for a job in her field: communications.

But for two years, she had no luck.

During that time, she took on multiple jobs, slinging french fries at McDonalds, working as a dishwasher and eventually landed a gig at the Canada Games Centre in Halifax.

While at the Canada Games Centre, Dhamija said her friend approached her one day and asked if she wanted to “make some extra bucks” working for a meal delivery service.

“I started with one person, then that became five and then those became 20,” she recalled.

From delivering meals to people’s doorsteps, Dhamija was inspired to start hosting Indian cooking classes and soon realized people in Halifax “want really good spice blends,” she said.

Following her mother’s recipes, she began making spice blends “from scratch, with no salt and always fresh.”

That gave rise to Shivani’s Kitchen.

Setting up a “small table” at the Spryfield Farmers’ Market, Dhamija began to sell her authentic and ready-to-use Indian spice blends including curry and butter chicken masalas. She later opened up a Shivani’s Kitchen restaurant at the Seaport Farmers’ Market.

“That’s where we got more popular with the spice blends and people started understanding what our spices are and what are the benefits of our spices and then we got into our sauces,” she said.

“So (every time) we understood there was an opportunity, we grabbed the opportunity.”

Eventually Dhamija’s spice blends and sauces made it into retailers including Sobeys as well as Nova Scotia’s Springhouse Market and Pete’s Frootique.

Then, COVID-19 hit, forcing the Seaport Farmers’ Market to close and the Shivani’s Kitchen restaurant along with it.

“There was one whole week I did not know (how I would) feed our family,” she said, adding she slipped into “complete depression.”

But after a push from her husband, Dhamija said she decided to “figure out some solution” and began shifting her focus to selling spice blends and sauces online.

And her spices and sauces were being picked up “off the shelves” at Sobeys — despite the economic fallout of COVID-19. Dhamija said she also recently got a call that the grocery store chain wanted to start selling her products throughout the Maritimes.

“I cried. That was the best feeling, the best day of my life. It was like my hard work is paying off,” she said.

“So even though the COVID came, … we keep selling our spices and sauces online and then there’s Sobeys who has supported us.”

Dhamija said her plan now is to continue expanding her business, with plans to sell her products across Canada by the end of 2021 and eventually go international.

To have come this far six years after launching Shivani’s Kitchen and be recognized for her hard work with the award from ISANS has made her immigration to Canada all worth it, said Dhamija.

“Yesterday, my father-in-law sent a message to all his relatives (in India) that our daughter-in-law has made us proud in Canada and they were so proud of me and they are really happy about it,” she said.

And her advice for other immigrant entrepreneurs?

"Listen to consumers and understand what they want," she said.

"I know it's a new culture, but try to understand what this culture is, try to adapt to this new culture and show them your culture, give them your culture. Just be bold and don't give up."

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald