#ImmigrationMatters in Victoria, British Columbia – Lighting the path for aspiring entrepreneurs

Lighting the path for aspiring entrepreneurs

June 3, 2021


Yamila Franco, co-founder of Nyoka Design Labs

Glow sticks have long been a festive addition to summer events, but they have a major downside: they end up as toxic litter.

Yamila Franco, a previous international student at the University of Victoria, is passionate about the environment. When she met fellow student Paige Whitehead, who was exploring bioluminescence, there was an instant spark between them. She knew they’d have great potential as a team.

In 2018, the pair launched Nyoka Design Labs to develop a biodegradable glow stick that could be used for events, but also outdoor activities like hiking and camping, emergency lighting and disaster relief, and even in space.

The company’s mission is to heal the earth with innovative solutions to social and environmental challenges. Nyoka now has seven employees and has attracted half a million dollars in investments from across North America. Yamila partners with researchers, manufacturers, and Indigenous communities to reduce plastic waste.

“We’re trying to do things right,” says Yamila, describing the company as a social enterprise with the potential to do good in the world.

Yamila moved to Vancouver Island from the Dominican Republic at the age of 18 to study. There she welcomed the mild weather of the West Coast.

“I was really happy to be in a place where it felt like spring most of the time,” she says. “It struck me as a very magical, multicultural place. After being in Victoria for a little while, I saw the opportunities in terms of business, economic growth and safety.” She decided to stay as a permanent resident.

Not only is she the co-founder of Nyoka, but she also mentors other young aspiring entrepreneurs. She volunteers with Startup Canada, where she supports female founders, and with the League of Innovators, a national accelerator program for youth. She also partners with the Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour.

From her personal work in financial literacy, to her mentorship of other young entrepreneurs, to her company’s focus on the environment — everything she does speaks to giving back, giving to community, giving to the world—and in many ways, looking after our Earth.
Karima Ramji, University of Victoria

Yamila has also started a separate social enterprise focusing on women’s financial literacy, working frequently with Black, Indigenous and other racialized women.

Karima Ramji is the Associate Director of International, Indigenous and Strategic Initiatives with the University of Victoria’s Co-op & Career Services. She got to know Yamila as a co-op student who was thoroughly engaged in the university community.

“I’ve followed Yamila’s career since she graduated,” says Karima. “She’s a great role model for youth, women and women of colour who want to engage in STEM and entrepreneurship.”

Monica Khaper, now Operations Manager and Sustainability Lead at Nyoka Design Labs, has experienced Yamila’s leadership and mentoring skills first-hand. She met Yamila through the Venture for Canada Fellowship Program in 2020 and joined the company later that year.

“Yamila is truly an agent of change and a values-aligned person,” Monica says. “You can tell that her drive comes from community, and she gives more than she takes. She genuinely believes in what she stands for and is an amazing extrovert with an aptitude for getting people to come together.”

Like her glow sticks, Yamila lights the way for others. She aims to keep expanding Nyoka—her vision is to evolve it into a circular economy design hub—and will eventually hire more employees.

 “I believe in paying it forward,” she says. “For me, it’s all about supporting others.”

Immigration profile: Victoria, British Columbia (Census Metropolitan Area)

Quick facts:

  • Immigrants in Victoria make up about 14% of the population.
  • Between 1980 and 2016, 53% of all immigrants who came to Victoria were economic immigrants, while 38% were sponsored by family and nearly 8% were refugees.
  • Of all the people working in scientific research and development services across Canada, 34% are foreign-born.
  • A third of all business owners with paid staff in Canada are immigrants.

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