Mario Escoto Damas arrived in Canada to expand his family’s business. Now the Honduras-born entrepreneur is helping other newcomers develop their own businesses while putting Thunder Bay on the map as a burgeoning innovation hub.
“I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs,” said Escoto Damas. “My parents, who worked in the fields, moved to San Pedro Sula in search of opportunities. There were no jobs, so they started their own company.”
In 2019, Escoto Damas landed in Toronto to participate in an immersion bootcamp offered by LatAm Startups, an accelerator that helps international companies to scale in the Canadian market. LatAm Startups opened the door for him to immigrate under the Startup Visa program, a federal program that aims to attract entrepreneurial talent so that they can build their companies in Canada, creating jobs and generating wealth.
According to official Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada statistics, 1,860 people have been admitted as permanent residents through Startup Visa between 2015 and March 31, 2022. According to Sobirovs Law Firm, the program has a success rate of more than 75 per cent.
In three years, Escoto Damas has built a successful company here and was recently appointed executive director of the Northwestern Ontario Innovation Centre.
“It was a way in which my journey came full circle,” he said. “I mean, I had already been spending considerable amounts of time mentoring and coaching entrepreneurs. But still, my primary job was to run my company and to oversee the operations of our family business, both in Honduras and for our Canadian expansion.”
For Escoto Damas, the visa approval process was full of hurdles. First, the system bogged down in 2020 due to the pandemic. Then he had to overcome his hesitancy about moving to a new country.
“My intention, initially, was not to immigrate to Canada. I saw it as a business opportunity, as a way to expand our operations and access a thriving marketplace,” he said, adding that after much deliberation, and even though he had a comfortable life in Honduras, he chose to take the leap and become the only one of his family to move to the Great White North.
“Even then, I planned to be back and forth between Canada and Honduras.”
Escoto Damas took advantage of the digital transition that was happening in 2020, and launched BeltecHub, a technology-driven manufacturing hub for conveyor belts, timing belts, and other equipment. The technological component has been critical for the company to thrive in Canada, and it has become a success story of the Startup Visa program.
“We already employ five people directly and four people indirectly, all Canadian citizens or residents, so we have accomplished one of the goals of the Startup Visa program, which is to create jobs,” he said.
In addition to running his company, one of Escoto Damas’s passions has always been to mentor new entrepreneurs. It is something he has done since he started working in the family business in Honduras. He is especially interested in helping newcomers because he understands from his own experience how grueling the adaptation process can be.
Still, he never expected his penchant for mentoring would be the key that opened doors to a new stage in his career.
“I feel grateful that we can be an example of how we can contribute and in my case, I’m really fortunate because now I use that experience to help others who are in the same shoes that I once was.
“And I am looking forward to helping more newcomers get settled with their business.”
As he speaks about the potential of Thunder Bay, Escoto Damas perks up. The Northwest Innovation Center already has success stories such as Meaglow, a high-tech manufacturer in the semiconductor industry that counts NASA among its clients and that received the RBC Innovation Award. And BioNorth Solutions, an environmental company that is developing creative ways to absorb contamination spills.
“Thunder Bay offers significant possibilities, for example, in fiber optic, in mining, and many other sectors. And our goal is to match these with the talent that is coming in,” Escoto Damas said.
“Many international students come to Thunder Bay, either to Lakehead or Confederation College. As of now, most of them leave, but our goal is to get them to stay, to show them the opportunities that exist and say, ‘Here’s a place for you to build your future, and to contribute to the community.’”
Javier Ortega-Araiza has multiple global experiences as a storyteller and social entrepreneur having travelled to over 30 countries. Now based in Toronto, he is a published author in both English and Spanish."