In partnership with The U.S. Embassy in Canada, Startup Canada is celebrating and spotlighting women’s entrepreneurship across the border – speaking to leading founders to learn more about their journeys, and the vital role of cross-border collaboration on their entrepreneurial successes. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Christina Gwira, Canadian founder and CEO, to learn more about their journey.
Christina is the Founder and CEO of NOYADESIGNS, a Toronto, Ontario based web design firm for nonprofits and solopreneurs who have social good baked into their offerings. Christina and her team offer Canadian organisations web and print design services in addition to videography and social media training. At its heart, NOYADESIGNS promises to create beautiful, quality digital assets to promote your cause.
SC: Tell us about you and your businesses! Who are you and why did you start your business?
I am a WordPress web designer, but I didn’t start out that way. I initially started my career in systems administration, specifically surrounding Linux in the telecommunications field. So that’s where I learned a lot of my coding skills – a lot of working hands on with servers, and essentially learning about the back end of how phone systems for larger corporations work. That is where I got my start in tech. I know the conversation surrounding women in tech, and specifically Black women in tech, is very much gaining momentum right now. It’s funny, I didn’t really acknowledge that I had started out in tech until maybe a few years ago when these types of conversations were happening all across social media. I had a sudden realisation of “oh, you know, I actually started out in tech, and I’ve been in tech this whole entire time”. So that’s where I started.
I was initially running a business with my father back in 2009. It was a telecommunications company and specifically was servicing the immigrant population in Southwestern Ontario. We were providing them with telephony services to connect to their international destinations. At the time, I had just finished high school and I wanted to take a few years off to kind of figure out what I wanted to do in school. What I ended up doing was working alongside my father. At some point there was a big shift in my life and I ended up becoming the CEO of this company that, just a few years ago, I was doing customer service for. That was how I officially got my start in entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately, the business really didn’t do well during the 2008 financial crash and those difficulties prolonged themselves into the years that followed. I found myself really struggling to be able to keep the business afloat. Sales weren’t coming in, people were going to other vendors, competition was getting very very high in the marketplace (thank you Whatsapp!). As a result I fell back on the design skills that I picked up here and there to try, as some would say, to start a side hustle. That side hustle was surrounding graphic design mainly and a little bit of web design. As time went on, I was doing more and more of these small side projects but the business my dad had given to me was still doing poorly. Eventually it came to a point in time where the side hustle that I was running was making way more money than the business that I had been gifted. It was very hard for me, but in 2019 it really came to a head where I thought “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t run two businesses – one that is doing really well and one that is literally draining the revenue and my life from me”. So in 2019 I officially closed down that business I had started in telecommunications, and I focused 100 per cent of my time on NOYADESIGNS.
NOYADESIGNS itself as a brand started in 2011. There was a shift in the design space and a lot of the customers I was working with at the time didn’t want to work with freelancers. So I accommodated that and simply turned my website into an agency website. As opposed to “I”, I would say “We”. As opposed to “Christina”, I would say “NOYADESIGNS”. When I was coming up with a name for my business I really wanted to do something extremely basic – let’s find out what the word beautiful means in multiple languages. I found out that in Hebrew, noya loosely translates back into beautiful. When I was working as a freelancer, clients would often say “I absolutely love what you did, the work you did is beautiful”. That was a word that was used to describe all my work as a freelancer across the years. So I kept it super simple – “beautiful designs”. The problem was you don’t want to just say Beautiful Designs – it’s not only very bad for SEO, but there’s no character to it. So that is how the name NOYADESIGNS came about. It actually wasn’t until 2020 that I discovered that the word noya also means beautiful in Japanese.
In 2016, I officially legally registered NOYADESIGNS. It was at that time when I decided to bring on board my brother and sister to assist me on some of the projects that were going on. At that time my sister was finishing her last year of high school, so she was barely 17. But I knew she was always on social media so I asked her if she thought she could handle social media projects for my small business. She said sure. My brother loves to take photographs so I asked him if he could work on some video as well. He also said sure. So 2015 or 2016 is when we worked on our very first large scale full-service project together as a team. That is how NOYADESIGNS was born. We are so blessed that we can call the University of Toronto, Ryerson University [now Toronto Metropolitan University], CIBC and a lot of local charities like FoodShare, Eva’s Homes for the Homeless, and other organisations our clients. We definitely had a grassroots upbringing – from telecommunications to freelancing, to working with small businesses to now being able to work with some of the largest nonprofits in the Toronto area and across Canada.
SC: What’s been your greatest success so far?
That is a very easy question – it’s actually the turning point that helped us transition from being a full service digital design firm to a web design firm. It was a project that we worked on in 2018 for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. We were tasked with basically branding and creating branding collateral for the first of its kind symposium to support Black youth and young people who live within the child welfare system in Ontario. The project was called Power Up and that was its inaugural year of being founded. NOYA was hired to build the brand, create the strategy, and design all the projects and pieces that the team at OACAS would use, as well as the young people who were a part of the symposium. This symposium brought about 300 young people from all across Ontario together to learn more about their culture and heritage.
It was such a momentous and touching project for us because for me, as a designer, this was actually the first time I got to see the results of the work I had done in the hands of the consumer. In the past when I would design a business card or website, I would hear the client say “it’s beautiful, we love it” but I’d never hear what their clients would tell them if that makes sense. On the OACAS project we were able to go a step further and hear what the young people had to say about the designs. What really touched me was a piece that I designed which surrounded a poem called Still I Rise, which is a very popular poem. I designed this art piece which one day I will blow up and put in my home, because it was such a beautiful piece. Seeing the impact of that art piece and other pieces that we had created on the young people was really a turning point for us as an organisation. That was definitely one of the high points of my entire career as a designer.
SC: What does Canada’s startup ecosystem need in order to better empower founders?
I’m not sure if this can be applied to every business across the ecosystem, but I think the biggest thing that I have experienced is not having the ecosystem be open to all people and industries. I’ll give a very easy example – the same faces are appearing in the same places all the time. There are other founders in other sectors that are in the startup space, but because they aren’t in tech or design centric industries, they aren’t given a voice. I’m speaking as someone who is in tech and in design, and I still see the same faces. The exact same voices are being projected all the time. After a while, it just gets boring. There are other people who are still doing really amazing things, but the light may never shine on them. I think that’s really a big issue with the startup space. It focuses on certain voices and the same groups of people all the time. As a result I’ve seen, especially in the creative space here in Toronto, people saying “I give up, I’m going to America. I’m just not going to do business here”.
There was a year – 2017 I believe – that at NOYADESIGNS 95 per cent of our revenue came from the United States. 95 per cent. Canadian business owners were not giving us the time of day and the startup community was not providing us with enough resources. We would promote ourselves in the United States and we were inundated with leads and referrals. After those experiences, you start to think “why should I fight to try and build my business here when I can take a $200 flight, go to New York, and establish myself there?”. Let’s be honest, the US dollar is stronger than the Canadian dollar. In parts of America, you can have a better quality of life at a low cost than living here in Toronto. I’ve definitely seen a mass exodus of people within my network who are entrepreneurs or in the corporate space. They have just given up, they don’t want to be here. It’s too hard to try to break through in the Canadian marketplace.
I think the biggest thing I’d love to see in the Canadian ecosystem is being more open to all people, not just those who are doing “big things”. We need to support those who need extra assistance getting to the next level. I really do feel that committed Canadian entrepreneurs are special. I feel like we are really blessed to be able to live in Canada – it’s an amazing country as a whole. It is sad that I’ve seen so many founders give up on their dream of building a business in Canada just because the ecosystem doesn’t support them.
SC: What does being a woman entrepreneur mean to you?
I would say being a woman entrepreneur means having to prove yourself and having to, by force, enter the room with confidence. You don’t have the opportunity to have a bad day. You have to be “on” as they say.
I will even use this conversation as an example. I emailed you before this conversation and asked “hey is this a makeup and hair kind of thing, or a joggers in the kitchen type thing?”. I think that, in its entirety, is what it means to be a woman entrepreneur. You don’t have the luxury of just coming in a T-shirt and some shorts. It’s the same when actually building your business. You don’t have the luxury of going to a bank and being taken seriously. And if you’re in an industry that’s male dominated… oh my goodness. When I was in telecommunications I had to be, for lack of a better phrase, in my masculine all the time. I could not be in my feminine at all. I would go to a conference or a panel discussion and be the youngest person there, the only person of colour there, and the only woman there. So all eyes are on you all the time.
I think as a woman entrepreneur, you have to be perfect to be taken seriously. It’s not fair, but that’s what it is. There are some people who are definitely playing that game really well, but I think there’s a huge amount of people who just don’t have the strength to be able to do that. They just want to be taken seriously – this is who I am, this is how I operate. I have a great idea, I have a great business, so give me the same opportunities that you would give to a man. Just because I’m a woman, doesn’t mean that I’m not an entrepreneur. This can really weigh down on a woman founder – to have to bear being an entrepreneur and the hardness that comes with that on top of the hardness that comes with being a woman.
SC: How has the pandemic impacted your business?
The pandemic was a great time for my business, but we are now actually feeling the effects of the pandemic on our business in the sense that I am extremely burnt out. I am so burnt out. The reason I’m burnt out is because from that March period when the pandemic started, there were no days off for NOYADESIGNS. Everybody was working all the time. It was one of the most prosperous seasons in our business. But, on the flip side, it was two years of working nonstop. What ended up happening was that a lot of side hustles became full time small businesses, so we had a lot of opportunities there.
I don’t mean to sound cold in any way, because I do know that the pandemic caused a lot of damage and trauma to small businesses. I am thankful, there was just no break for us. We were working the hardest we’ve ever worked during those two years. We also grew as an organisation – we made a few hires and got office space. Whereas for the past five years, we were working out of my home and another incubator space that we had with the City of Brampton. Now we are tired after nonstop work for two years. We never had a break. So while the pandemic did bring growth and new assets, we’re tired now and want to put this thing on ice for a while and just chill. I think I’m saying that from a place of privilege, but at the same time it’s important to recognize those limits. We were blessed enough to be able to keep on running and not have to stop operations. The downside to that is that now that other businesses and the world is “back to normal”, we are slowing down and need a break. So that’s one issue we have had to face – we are all burnt out all the time.
SC: What has been your biggest struggle in navigating cross-border sales and operations?
I think the biggest issue that I’ve consistently had with working across the border is dealing with taxation and dealing with forms. I hate forms from America – there’s so many forms, there’s so many things to fill out. I remember one time we were signing up to work with the University of Arizona and the paperwork was so confusing. They didn’t have someone on their team to walk us through what fields we needed to fill in as a Canadian organisation. At the same time, we didn’t really know who we could ask for help in Canada. Now we know we could have gone to Startup Canada, but at the time we didn’t know that. I think getting the forms right is definitely one of the biggest issues we face with cross-border trade.
The second and third issues are dealing with tax and currency conversions. It’s wonderful to be able to work in America because, like I said earlier in this conversation, the American dollar right now is higher than the Canadian dollar. You can definitely do a little bit of currency hacking to help with profits and revenue. The flip side to that is “okay, how do we tax all of this? How do we do this properly? How do we do this legally? How do we make sure that we’re filling out the right forms? Are we making sure that we are giving the correct information to the government of Canada?”. I think those are the three main issues that I have had: forms, taxes, and currency conversions.
SC: On the other hand, what are the biggest benefits you see in cross-border sales and operations?
Everything. I think working with Americans and working in America is amazing. I think the mentality of American entrepreneurs, compared to Canadian entrepreneurs, is very different. Their mindset is so different from that of Canadian entrepreneurs. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how to explain it. The only thing I have chalked it up to is – and this is my personal opinion – is that the stakes are higher being a business owner in America versus in Canada. I think Canada has amazing supports, even on a social level, that America just doesn’t have. I think that life in America is very different from life in Canada. There is more drive to “make it” in America than there is in Canada.
Every single client that I work with in America always has this heavy passion that I just did not see with Canadian entrepreneurs. Now, at this time, I have not worked with any American nonprofit organisations. I really don’t think it’s something we want to venture out into… because of those forms. However, I do feel like when we were working with small and medium sized businesses, the passion and the drive that American entrepreneurs had made it such a joy to be able to work with them. They are also definitely more ingenious in certain ways. For example, there were some design aspects that I learned from Americans that two years later finally popped up on the scene in Canada. That’s something that a lot of people have said about Canada – everything hits America first, then it might hit the United Kingdom, and then Canada much later. When it comes to entrepreneurship and startup culture, Canada is slightly behind. As such, it’s very easy to learn and glean from what American entrepreneurs are doing, what their ecosystem is doing, and then bring it back to Canada. It’s amazing to see.
SC: Has going global given you an advantage in bouncing back better and faster amid the pandemic?
That’s a good question. For NOYA right now that is not the case because our client base currently is 100 per cent Canadian. However, from the years 2015 to 2018 having a diverse client base saved our business. From 2016 into 2017, we lost our main source of promoting our business. There were weeks where we had not made any revenue at all because we couldn’t market the way we used to market. That’s when we started diversifying our marketing strategy and that marketing strategy put us right in front of the American entrepreneur space. It saved our business.
The entire 2017 year our business was held afloat by American entrepreneurs, period. Over time that did slowly wane, but that slowly waned because as I mentioned we had that project with OACAS in 2018. We completely changed the direction of our business – we were no longer working with small or medium businesses, we were only working with nonprofit organisations and solopreneurs who had social good baked into their service offerings. That’s when we really stopped venturing out into the American market to promote our services, but if we needed to again we could.
So I would say for right now with NOYA in 2022, it isn’t the case. However in the past, that has certainly been the case. Having a customer base in America as well as having a good brand name here in Canada saved our business. It definitely helped us build back better.
SC: Many women founders have cited mentorship as the biggest support in growing successful businesses. Have you found value in mentorship, either as a mentor or as a mentee?
Long story short, when I had mentors they were great and they did help me. However, none of my mentors up until last year were women. They were all men. Most of them were white men. They all helped me out immensely but that is something that, for quite some time, was painful. Painful because of who I am, but also painful because I came into entrepreneurship in an untraditional way so mentors were often few and far between. Most of my mentors didn’t look like me until I actually completed the YLAI Program, which was the foreign exchange program that I did in 2020. That was when I got my first female Black mentor. She’s amazing. I absolutely love her. She and I have very similar stories even though we were randomly put together. The mentorship that I received through the YLAI Program was life changing. I made two really amazing friends from both of my mentors.
I have been a mentor through WE Hub, which I think is a division of Ryerson University [Toronto Metropolitan University]. When I first started mentoring I absolutely loved it, but it’s hard to juggle being an effective mentor and running a growing business. You’re pouring time and energy into someone, but you are also expending a lot of energy trying to grow your business and you’re not necessarily getting poured into, if that makes sense. So I was a mentor for a few cohorts and then I had to gracefully bow out because NOYA was growing. I had to focus on my business and my clients, and I really couldn’t pour out into someone else. So long story short, I think mentorship is something that can be beneficial. It’s always great to be able to, you know, send someone a text and get some input. However, mentorship was not the cornerstone nor the foundation on my entrepreneurship journey. It really truly wasn’t, but I do feel happy for those people who found their foundation from mentorship.
SC: Have you ever experienced running into a problem where seeking mentorship or advisory support has helped guide or empower you to find a solution?
No, I have to be honest. When I had mentors in the earlier years of my entrepreneurial journey, I don’t think I had the tools to be able to utilize those people well as mentors. I think what it really was was older people giving me all this advice, but I just didn’t have the tools or the maturity at that time to ask them questions. I just kind of figured it out myself and it worked out well.. luckily.
Now, however, I don’t take that route. If I do feel myself and NOYA coming up against a wall, I will immediately ask my mentor for help. I’ll pitch them on a new idea and they are very honest – yes do that, no don’t, sure but maybe consider these different methods or resources, things like that. So for the most part of my entrepreneurship journey, I did not rely on my mentors mostly because I didn’t take advantage of their mentorship. Now in 2022, I use my three mentors a lot.
SC: What does being part of this partnership mean to you? What do you hope to achieve?
I think, ultimately, my goal is for there to be more resources available across the ecosystem. More resources that are viable for business owners, more resources that business owners will actually use, and more resources that will be highlighted and communicated clearly so that some of the stuff that I went through as a business owner other women don’t have to go through.
Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on you for that, but that’s what I really hope. I really hope that by lending my voice, my time, and even doing things like this interview, that Startup Canada will be able to learn from myself and from the other people who have participated and invested their time and energy. I hope we can use this information to create resources that small business owners genuinely need. We don’t need another directory. We don’t need another round of lightning mentorship. It’s old and it’s not working. We need new ideas and more impactful resources.
SC: How can we learn more about your journey and organisation?
We would love to have a conversation with you. If you want to talk with us, you can reach out on our website which is noyadesigns.com. You can learn a bit more about us and if you’d like to work with us, we will be more than happy to do that – you can book a discovery call by clicking any of the “Book a Consultation” buttons on our website. We would love to hear what you have to say!
I would also love it if you guys could follow the behind the scenes of what it takes to actually run this business by subscribing to my YouTube channel at youtube.com/christinagwira. You’ll be getting the full, raw, unfiltered look at what it takes to actually build a web design firm here in Canada.
SC: What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs who are looking to go global and take their first step in exporting?
The best thing that I’ve ever done for my business was to join and to be partnered with my city’s local business development centre. I joined the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre in 2019 and their incubator program. That’s where I found my mentor that I love the most. I think most cities in Canada have a business centre and they have resources that make it easy to understand and find the resource that you’re looking for. So for example, if I send my mentor Dan an email, he will respond with an email that’s twenty times longer than the email I sent him with like 13 different resources and worksheets. I learned about Starter Company and the YLAI Program through them, both of which we actually ended up winning. I also learned about Startup Canada through Melloney Campbell, who is the community leader of Startup Peel, a Startup Canada Community.
It all started out with me going into my local business development centre in my city and building relationships with them. I really feel this is one of those situations where you can’t learn it from Google. I really think you do need to have somebody to walk you through it or guide you in the right direction. Joining the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre was really the turning point of NOYADESIGNS’ direction as a business and me myself as an entrepreneur. I would have never met any of my mentors if I didn’t click on that Instagram ad and apply to join the incubator. So if you want to learn more about exporting, I recommend connecting with your city’s business development centre. More than likely, they already have some form of connection to Startup Canada, but join them and ask them your questions. More than likely one of their advisors will be able to help you on your journey to exporting. Look local to go global.
SC: Do you have any recommendations on how women founders can expand and capitalize on their network to help them on their journey?
You know what, this is something I’m trying to get myself to do. So maybe if I share it with you guys, we can hold each other accountable. Essentially what I’m trying to do is reach out to my network and let them know what we’re doing at NOYA. “Hey! I am working on this right now or I’ve just launched this right now. What are you working on?”. You’ll be surprised how much it can help you to just have regular conversations without trying to sell anyone anything.
With expanding your network, many people have asked me how they can help or what they can do. My number one thing I tell everyone is anytime you enter a room, bring my name with you. The chances of me walking into, for example, the Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Canada is very low – but your chances are much better if multiple people carry your name with them. So I always ask people to carry my name and tell any potential partners or clients about myself and NOYA. “Hey, Christina does ABC that would fix your problem.”. Or maybe “NOYADESIGNS works with charities, maybe they could help yours!”. I have found that that is the best thing to do.
Another example of when I’ve done this was with a potential client. We applied for a contract with her but it didn’t pan out – there was someone else. But instead of letting that go completely, I told her to bring NOYA with her wherever she goes whether that’s to a new organisation or another potential contract. Just this week, she sent me a tweet from another organisation that is looking for someone to work on their website. She had also done that last year with an organisation who is a current client – FoodShare. We submitted an RFP and we ended up winning it. So to build your network, take every opportunity. Even if the project doesn’t go smoothly or you don’t get the gig, always ask them that – “if you got value from this, if you liked us, even if we fell a little bit short, I’d really appreciate it if you’d bring my name into the room with you”.
This is something I am currently working on and something I’ll always work on because the few times that I have done it, it has definitely paid off.
SC: Thanks so much for talking with us today, Christina!
No worries, glad to be here!
This piece is part of Startup Canada’s wider campaign in part with the U.S. Embassy in Canada to celebrate and honour incredible women entrepreneurs from both sides of the border. If you are a woman-identifying founder in Canada or the United States looking for free one-on-one advisory support from expert mentors, private sector partners, or startup support organisations, head over to startupcan.ca/explore/startup-women to learn more and get started today.