Esfir used university to go from minimum wage to secure & stable employment

Meet Esfir

  • Early 30’s

  • Immigrated to Canada from Iran with her husband when she was 23 years old

  • Education in chemistry & engineering, education and HR

  • Works in the banking sector

  • Student debt of $55,000

  • Income of $45,000 to $65,000

Esfir came to Canada, driven by the desire for a career where, her contributions would be valued based on their merit and as equal to those of her male colleagues. She was frustrated that as a woman, she didn’t get meaningful opportunities at work.  “They didn’t see me as a professional… I didn’t have equity and no matter how good I was, I couldn’t get any higher”.

Esfir grew up in Iran within an upper-middle class family.  Valuing education, Esfir pursued her undergraduate degree in chemistry / engineering and then a second degree in English as a second language.   Upon completing school she ended up working in a bank full time and teaching English part time.  She met Farrokh, an IT professional; they married and bought an apartment back home.  They were financially comfortable. 

In 2010, at the age of 23, Esfir and her Farrokh decided to move to Canada.  Her vision had evolved; she dreamed of being in a leadership position, of transitioning to HR and of starting a family.

They came to Canada with what they thought was enough money to last 6 months.  With the currency exchange and the costs of getting settled, they realized they had significantly less than expected. Esfir also realized how difficult it was to find a job in one’s field.  Worried about the costs of living, she applied for and was able to secure a minimum wage retail job at HBC within 10 days of arriving.  Farrokh had a more difficult time.  His English was not as strong as hers and so it took him 3 months to find a minimum wage job at Future Shop, which he would later lose when they were sold to Best Buy.

Looking back, Esfir’s strategy (in addition to hard work) was to 1) look for ways to move up within her job in order to increase her Canadian experience, 2) secure additional education in HR where she wanted to direct her career and 3) network and engage others in her journey.

She started working at HBC in 2010 and 2 years of minimum wage later, Esfir was promoted to a manager within the cosmetics department, managing 5 people and increasing her wage to $18 per Hour. Esfir and Farrokh both wanted to go back to school but it was expensive and they had to wait for a time when they could afford it.  After losing his job, Farrokh took 6 months to find another job but this time it was in his field. Within another year, Esfir was able to move up again to a store manager for a cosmetic brand.  4 years after arriving in Canada, Esfir was earning $50,000-$60,000 and Farrokh was earning in the $60,000-$70,000 range. 

Given the increased stability, Esfir was able to start a post-graduate degree in HR at York University in 2014.  In addition to the financial cost of another degree, Esfir’s education was not fully recognized here and so she had to invest money and time in taking preliminary courses and exams. 

Esfir continued to work full time while pursuing her post-graduate degree.  This is what enabled them to pay for their living costs and her school costs.  In 2015, through a close friend, Esfir heard about an opportunity as a banking advisor at RBC. 

With her experience in the banking industry back home, her Canadian experience managing a retail store and expertise in customer service, she was able to secure a significantly better role with same salary.  She was delighted with this opportunity because the size of the organization and their commitment to investing in people gave her hope.  She could see a pathway to move into HR and grow into a leadership position.

She has been at the bank now for just over 2 years.  She is not yet in HR but she enjoys her work, feels she is fairly compensated and has had good honest discussions with her manager, mentor and senior leaders in the organization.  They know she is interested in HR and she is actively working on building a pathway forward.  Esfir and Farrokh are also enjoying parenthood - they had a beautiful son in November 2016. 

Looking back, Esfir realizes that her strategy of engaging others in her journey was not something she immediately thought of. Instead, struggling with the stress of immigration, financial difficulties, loneliness, and the loss of her brother in an automobile accident, Esfir realized she needed to start socializing and be a greater part of the community to be healthier. 

As she grew her network of people, Esfir learned she was not the only one going through difficulties.  She realized she wasn’t alone; “there were lots of doctors and engineers like me who weren’t able to find a job in their own field… Farrokh and I weren’t the problem…it was an outside problem”.  This gave Esfir hope and kept her moving towards her goals. 

Esfir’s goals now including, building a bridge from her current role to one in HR, which could some involve internal courses, more networking and figuring out ways to develop HR skills in her current role.  Farrokh and Esfir are also saving to purchase a home, take a vacation together, support their son’s education and eventually retire.

It has been 9 years and Esfir has made significant progress she is proud of.  It turns out that immigration and starting fresh in a new country is significantly harder than expected. It takes exponentially more time and money than it should; Esfir and Farrokh had to find jobs, figure out how to live on minimum wage, figure out how to get jobs that would use their skills, apply, get no response, apply for more jobs, get rejected, re-write their resume, apply for more jobs, learn the culture, work long hours and extra shifts to be able to take on more responsibility. 

They had to spend time managing every bit of their spending, learn the banking system; how it works and the various products that were different from their home country where credit cards are not common, meet new people, invest in making friends, understand the educational system, associated costs and benefits and make critically important decisions.

Despite these challenges, Esfir and Farrokh are very proud of their progress and the foundation they have built.  They see how far they have come and look forward to continuing to work towards their goals. As their citizenship judge said, “you can be anything you want to be in this country, I was an immigrant and now I am a judge”.

In writing Esfir’s story, I can’t help but be impressed by her clear focus on her goals, her hard work, determination and persistence.  I also can’t help but think how much better we could be as a country if we made the immigration process easier, valued immigrant skills and if our minimum wage was a living wage giving individuals space to invest in reaching their goals faster. 


How Esfir and Farrokh make it work day to day

  • Budget & plan expenses both monthly and weekly; they have a fixed monthly plan that may change with life changes.  Weekly they write down all their expenses and they review everything together regularly.

  • Write down all their expenses; Esfir is in charge of the master spreadsheet

  • Work together; they have the same view of finances and have worked out a savings and expense plan that works for them both

  • Have a small budget for unexpected situations

  • Buy ingredients, make lunches and dinners; They realize that eating at home is much cheaper and healthier than dining out so that is how they manage their day to day life.  The purchase food out a maximum of 1-3 times per month for special occasions or if they are working late.

  • Choose low cost entertainment; They love Netflix and instead of expensive vacations or entertainment, they focus on day trips to places like Niagara Falls