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Nikta Boroumand with her dog Tuffy. Photo courtesy of Yuuko Konagai

Nikta Boroumand moved to the Kootenays in her early twenties from Toronto where she was working as a graphic designer. She moved due to the high cost of living in the city, and she was looking for a different kind of life. She found it in the West Kootenays.

Nitka has lived in New Denver, British Columbia for 19 years. When she moved to the area, she held a series of jobs unrelated to her field.

“I ended up working in all kinds of different industries just so I could survive here for some years. It was when high speed internet came to New Denver in 2006 that I saw an opportunity to be able to do digital design work,” she says.

Nikta works from her home office in New Denver doing digital design, including graphic and web design. When she first started her business, other local businesses were her clients. Now she serves fewer small companies and more organizations like Community Futures, multiple BC school districts, and employment agencies.

“I still do have small business clients, but they’re on a little bit of a bigger scale. I do more e-commerce websites because they have bigger budgets for their marketing.” Many of her current clients are regional, some within the Kootenays, some throughout British Columbia. She also has a couple of international clients.

Nikta sincerely enjoys working with regional clients. She believes that even in the age of multinational corporations, a local perspective offers a big advantage. 

“That’s one of the biggest benefits for the type of clients that I serve right now. The proximity to their geography and culture and understanding of the community structures and their needs. A lot of them are serving rural communities. It helps them to have someone to work with who has an understanding. And same thing for me; it works both ways.”

For all her clients, Nikta does a lot of research. She advises, “Whether it’s print publishing or web publishing, you really want to be able to capture the audience’s attention. So, you need to speak to their needs and in their language. It does make it easier for me working with regional and BC clients because I have a better comprehension of their needs.”

She works mostly alone; occasionally, she gets a large project and will subcontract out and manage the contractors. 

Nikta in Silverton. Photo courtesy of Isaac Carter

When she started out, Nikta went through the Community Futures Self-Employment Program, a program she highly recommends to others interested in starting their own business. She had industry skills and training but had never run a business. Community Futures was constructive.

“They will walk you through the business end of it. They help you write a business plan. They give you a bunch of funding and they give you coaching.” The most significant benefit was the financial support they offered her for the first year of her business, allowing her to meet her basic needs while quitting her host of part-time jobs.

“It was scary for me to have no job for a year and try to build a business.” It is commonly understood that starting a business is a risk. This program lessened that risk.

Nikta was required to do market research and show a record of that research. She contacted thirty people and told them about her business and services and asked these potential customers if they would use her services and how much they would be willing to pay. She says, “80% of my clientele for the first two years of my business, easily came from that exercise.”

Small town challenges

Some challenges are common to business owners in this area. For Nikta, her ability to access professional services like information technology is one that affects her occasionally. A few times, her internet has been out of service for several days, presenting a huge problem. If she has a technological malfunction, she has to make the trek to Nelson to get it fixed. But these challenges are “not often enough to make me want to change my setup,” she says.

In small Kootenay towns such as New Denver and nearby Silverton, each with only a few hundred residents, it can be challenging to find workers. Nikta’s partner of 15 years, Chris, owns a chimney and wood stove servicing business. At one point, the pair considered hiring an administrative assistant to work for both of them. It was challenging to find someone to take on that role, and they eventually gave up.

Nikta currently teaches web design classes for small business owners through Community Futures. With Covid-19, these courses have moved online. She says the demand for her services increased with Covid-19. 

Nikta is very encouraging to people hoping to start their own home-based business. However, she advises that a person consider if this is a good fit before jumping on board.

“It’s not for every personality. You need to really be able to be self-disciplined. I love what I do, for the most part, so that helps to get me to do it. Around these parts, your business will have a really good chance of thriving if you just take real pride and do what you do really, really well.”

She recommends that every new or potential business owner, whether they are enrolling with Community Futures or not, get creative and undertake market research.

“Making those personal contacts, especially in these small rural communities, goes a long way.” Nikta’s story shows the power of connections in running a business in a rural area. 

Small town solutions

Two other women living rurally share a connectedness to the digital world and to each other that has resulted in incredible advancements for them in the greater Trail and Rossland area. Ona Stanton, a newer business owner, lives and works in Rossland, minutes up the hill from Trail. Her connection with another business owner, Mary Austin, has helped make Ona’s company the growing success that it is today.

Ona’s company, Business Reach Marketing & Social Media, assists clients with online marketing and managing their social media. In her own words, she assists people to have “efficiencies in their content, whether it be scheduling, coming up with patterns or digital marketing strategies.” Flexibility was one of the primary motivations for Ona to start her own business. As a mother of three and an active volunteer, she needed a job that she could work around the rest of her life. Her business has been in operation for just over two years, since April 2018.

Ona Stanton. Photo courtesy of Reid Stanton.

Ona’s family moved to Rossland when she was 13, and she considers it her hometown. After high school, she went away for a decade to Calgary, but her Kootenays roots are deep. Her husband is fourth generation from this area.

“We had roots here, our parents were here. It became very apparent that trying to have a career and raise a child in a big city was not ideal for us.”

In 2009, her husband got a job in Trail allowing the family, with a new baby, to move back.

She is very connected to the Rossland, Trail and area business community, mainly through her involvement with the Lower Columbia Women’s Business Club. The club’s founder, Mary Austin, is the chief executive officer of Austin Engineering, a family owned and operated business in Trail. The company is very connected to the local community and committed to building clean technological innovations.

Ona has known Mary since high school and even worked at her firm for two years when Austin Engineering was starting up.

The club started in 2011 as a platform for networking and professional development. “I wanted to connect with other women as I was working from home and it was great to get together once a month and share best practices,” Mary says. The club has over a hundred members in the Greater Trail and Rossland area. Over 20 of them met monthly before COVID-19. 

“At their core, all businesses have many of the same challenges and opportunities no matter the customer service, professional or industrial focus of the product or service,” Mary explains. It has been inspiring for her to witness the cross-mentoring between newer and more seasoned business owners, and businesses have been expanded, purchased and sold through connections made at the club. 

Flash back to 2018: Mary invited brand new business owner Ona to present at the club’s lunch and networking meeting. So Ona shared with local business women about online platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. For her, it was “both scary and exciting to present to this group of women that are all established business owners in the region who I know and respect. I made so many great connections to start out into the rural business world,” Ona says.

After that introduction, she started to attend the women’s business lunches regularly. With the onset of Covid-19, the group moved online via a private group on Facebook. For Ona, “Everybody was trying to figure out what was going on and how their businesses were going to succeed. So it was a nice time to be able to connect.” 

According to the club’s founder, Mary, “It was great to see some of the relationships build, supporting, encouraging and more deeply mentoring during the start of Covid when everything was in such flux. Without those long term relationships you can feel quite isolated in business, and this is such a positive way to overcome that.” 

Ona took part in polling women business owners at the start of Covid-19, data later shared with South Okanagan-West Kootenay MP Richard Cannings. The intention of the survey was to assess needs so that local businesses could support each other.

“That was great to be able to have a voice during a time when there was just so much unknown,” Ona says.

The survey asked business owners anonymously how they were doing and if they required government supports. It also gave them a platform to make suggestions about community support they required. The survey showed that many businesses were forced to quickly change to operate 100% online. It was, Mary says, a great sounding board and the results were brought to community discussions.

Ona cares about her clients, who are all local, and knowing them personally has been key to her ability to support their success, and hence her success.

“It’s so nice to be able to help clients that I know. There’s a value to being able to give really timely comments. Or knowing some big event just happened and being able to comment on it, whether the business was involved in that event or not, it affects the region and their audience. So at the moment I’ve really enjoyed the local client base and being able to have that personalized content experience.” 

She finds it gratifying to connect her clients with a broader network. “That keeps me inspired to keep moving on and growing and adapting.”

Covid brings new ways of doing business

 Ona has faced some hiccups along the way. With the start of Covid-19, she lost some clients but was grateful to have some new ones enlist her services. The leaner budgets of small businesses are a challenge.

“Trying to offer a comprehensive service to a small client is part of my passion for doing this. But finding a way to do this where it’s affordable to the client and cost-effective for me to survive. That’s been one of the things, is finding that balance in pricing.” For Ona, her values in supporting her community outweigh her desire to maximize her income.

The digital field has its own challenges. “In this industry, things change so fast. So a strategy that is working wonderfully can change overnight. The value I bring to people is keeping up on that.” She finds it helpful to stick to a handful of online platforms and know them well instead of “staying optimal” in every medium. She always needs to re-evaluate whether to grow her business or stick to what’s working well. She is considering going online with her services and expanding her audience base. For now, though, keeping it entirely local is working for her.  

Beyond her business, Ona makes a difference by addressing issues that come up in her community. Three years ago, she got involved with planning and fundraising efforts to revamp the arena in Rossland that was at risk of closure due to a malfunctioning chiller, the machine that keeps the rink frozen. She and a group of community members formed the Rossland Arena Society. Ona is the president of that society.

“The chiller is being installed as we speak which is a really big win.”

Ona and son Zack at the Moms vs Kids hockey game at the Trail Memorial Centre.

Ona cares about climate change. One of the benefits of having an arena in Rossland is that residents don’t need to drive elsewhere for their recreational activities. The new chiller that is being installed is going to increase the arena’s efficiency and improve the heating of the facility.

Their association has applied to the Columbia Basin Trust’s energy sustainability grant program to have energy saving windows and doors installed in the arena. They have also sourced many local products for the arena’s concession. For her, it comes down to a circular concept of community wherein people assist each other and come together.

Ona recommends rural women looking to start their own business reach out to the Women’s Business Club.

“This group was ahead of its time,” she says. “Having a place for people to meet, whether it’s online or in person, I think it helps with those days when you know, you might have doubts, when you’re trying to figure out which direction to go, sometimes just hearing from somebody else, just hearing somebody else’s story, can just make or break the difference in that day.”

Local trends reflect national trends

The Society for Canadian Women in Science & Technology is a Vancouver organization that specializes in improving the presence and influence of women and girls in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) nationwide. According to an article the society posted in August, while there are overwhelming negative trends regarding women in STEM professions, there are also recent positive trends. While it is true that many women struggle in these fields, it is not because men are more naturally skilled in these areas. Instead, studies have shown it is due to the gender pay gap, lack of female mentors, and low self-esteem.

Yet things are changing. In a 2019 poll funded by Microsoft, 52% of girls aged 12 to 17 reported that they would consider a job in technology or a science-related field.

For Ona, Nikta, and other women working in technology from their homes in the Kootenays, these barriers are not slowing them down. 

Like Ona and Mary, Nikta is very involved in her community, and currently sits on the New Denver Friday Market board and volunteers with the North Valley mountain film festival. She was involved with the Slocan District Chamber of Commerce when she started her business. She sat as chair for eight years.

On a personal note for Nikta, living in the Kootenays has a lot of meaning. At 12 years old, she left Iran with her family in the wake of the 1979 revolution that brought to power an Islamic regime. Violence followed in its wake. Having lived through displacement, the peace and tranquility Nikta has found in the Kootenays means the world to her.

Other things she loves about living here include the “Connection with nature, freedom from the city’s busyness is very freeing. Community connections, absolutely. Those are things that make the Kootenays feel very homelike for me. That makes me feel so at home here.”

Nikta is passionate about preserving the culture and nature of our area. She hopes to attract people to live here who truly value this place for what it is and appreciate the beauty and sense of community here.

“I think that’s something that sets this area apart. We want our communities to be healthy communities, connected communities, and affordable communities. The only reason why I was able to have all those opportunities when I came to the Kootenays was because of the sense of community and the values here. Let’s preserve that.”

Nikta Boroumand