“The thing that I valued most about Futurpreneur was how human they were in their contact. They were always so kind to me. With them, it’s more than just money. It’s a relationship.”
Only a few months after her graduation from Concordia University in 2015 with a degree in mathematics and computer science, Zoya de Frias Lakhany realized that working for a large company was not the path for her.
While she had secured a position in her field with a well-regarded employer, she felt confined by what she perceived as the rigidity of corporate life. Sociable and outgoing by nature, Zoya missed the relaxed and easy interactions that she had experienced at school, in her Montréal neighbourhood, and in her part-time positions while a student. As she describes it, “I just knew that I needed to do something different. Something that involved more contact with people in different situations. Something that let me express who I was.” While she had not considered herself an entrepreneur at that early stage in her career, Zoya knew that she, like both her entrepreneurial parents, craved an opportunity to try something on her own. She wanted to build a career that connected with her innate creativity, her natural ebullience, and her willingness to take a risk on a different career path.
Zoya was no stranger to making changes and adjustments in her life. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to an African-Portuguese mother and an East Indian father, a vacation to Belgium with her mother and elder sister when Zoya was still an infant unexpectedly turned into a long-term move when it became clear that the Congo had become too dangerous a place to return to. Establishing the family in Belgium, Zoya’s mother, an experienced business manager, turned to her own entrepreneurial instincts and created a position for herself as a fashion stylist. By the time Zoya was a teenager, her family had made the decision to relocate to Montréal, a city that they now cherish as their permanent home. Once in Montréal, Zoya’s mother decided to pursue her long-held interest in cooking – an interest that was heightened by her vivid recollection of the flavours and aromas of her African heritage – and to enter culinary college to become a chef.
Once Zoya had completed her university studies and was re-thinking her career options, a conversation with her mother led her to the conclusion that a restaurant business fit her criteria for the kind of career she wanted to pursue. Zoya, too, had indelible memories of the African foods she had loved when on vacation in the Congo and other parts of central Africa. Using pop-up locations and, eventually, a former fast-food site to test the possibilities of creating a restaurant around the rich heritage of sub-Saharan cooking, Zoya was convinced that a business based on food in cosmopolitan and ethnically-diverse Montréal would provide the perfect means to indulge her need for social interaction, to create a viable career, and to start a business that she could nurture. As she recalls, “I knew it was a direction I wanted to go in. It just suddenly made sense to me.”
Having left her analyst position, Zoya began exploring options to realize her new-found ambition for restaurant ownership. Initially working with a community-based business organization to identify financing, she eventually heard about Futurpreneur. The initial contact proved invaluable. As Zoya recounts, “The people I talked to were so helpful and so willing to speak with me right away.” Once she had outlined her needs for financing, she says “Futurpreneur came to the rescue.” Within a few short months, she was approved for financing to convert the former hamburger café she had used as a testing site into a vibrant and colourful eatery, replete with African artefacts, an array of African wines, and Zoya’s inventive signature cocktails. With her indomitable mother, Maria-José de Frias, as chef of the pan-African and sub-Saharan cuisine, the restaurant was named “Le Virunga” (the Volcano), a tribute to the volcanoes of her homeland. Its location in Montréal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood has made it a local mainstay for the past five years with its ever-changing menu and bustling, highly social atmosphere.
In recalling her startup, Zoya returns to the importance of her engagement with Futurpreneur. Not only does she see her early relationship with Futurpreneur as essential to her launch, she points out how important it was in her first months and early years of operation. As she notes, “It was the support that they gave in so many ways – not just the money – that made me comfortable.” Matched with a mentor, Zoya points out that the mentor relationship provided emotional support that was crucial: “We would meet for coffee. It wasn’t just the advice; it was the exchange of ideas that helped me.” Zoya also notes that Futurpreneur, unlike other organizations and lending institutions she had contacted, was entirely open to a young, biracial woman who had a dream. As she says, “The other organizations hold too many stereotypes. If it wasn’t for Futurpreneur, I wouldn’t be here today.”
After five years of hard work and the enduring commitment to embrace what she recognized as her need to break away from a conventional career, Zoya has established herself securely in Montréal’s energetic gastronomic scene. With strong restaurant reviews, several media features, and strong word-of-mouth about Le Virunga, Zoya received a highly-coveted invitation to participate in the Montréal en Lumière festival as one of only 50 featured restaurants. Not content to simply enjoy the success, Zoya continues to look for ways to develop her business, making her restaurant space available as a private event venue, offering winetasting occasions, and obtaining new food and beverage certifications that burnish her reputation as a formidable restaurateur. In reflecting on Futurpreneur’s part in her success and the milestone of its 25th anniversary, Zoya says, “It’s changed so many lives. It changed mine. Keep going.
Photography: Adil Boukind