The way Hong Phuc Nguyen tells it, she was raised to become an entrepreneur. She was born into a woman-led family business, and recalled her first job was selling fish sauce in plastic bags in a small coastal town in Vietnam from the age of five.
“Naturally, this upbringing sparked my passion for business and has helped me appreciate teamwork, humility, curiosity, and hard work, she said.
“I came at the worst time to immigrate in the world. I didn’t know Canada.”
Certainly, the founder of Kibbi, an online job board for immigrants and accompanying app, would bring all of those attributes to her professional journey. Nguyen recently closed $895,000 CAD in an oversubscribed pre-seed round for Kibbi.
Additional investments from Alberta Innovates, IRAP and other grants pushed the raise up to $1.1 million CAD. The51, Viewpoint Investment Partners, a few angels, and family and friends invested in the round.
The origin story of Kibbi begins in 2019, when Nuguyen fled to Canada amid protests over China’s repression in Hong Kong. Nguyen and her husband — who is from Calgary — had been living in Hong Kong, where they met at the University of Hong Kong while she was pursuing an MBA.
“I came at the worst time to immigrate in the world,” Nguyen recollected. “I didn’t know Canada. The coldest I had been was plus-18 degrees.”
Nguyen and her husband moved to Calgary, where the temperatures often drop to minus 30 degrees in the winter. She struggled with the language.
“When I came here I had to learn [the phrases] Tim Hortons and Safeway, let alone BetaKit,” Nguyen laughed.
More seriously, they landed in Canada during the full lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic. Job interviews were virtually non-existent. According to Nguyen, at the peak of the labour shortage in 2021, many immigrants were still struggling to find work. As for Nguyen herself, she had $30,000 CAD in savings to survive on.
That’s when Nguyen decided to start Kibbi. From the start, she found she faced the barrier typical to newcomers who are also founders: access to capital.
She said many immigrants can’t get a bank loan because they haven’t had a chance to build credit or a credit score in Canada.
“And if we go to look for equity, we don’t know anybody,” Nguyen laughed. To raise her first $150,000, Nguyen said she pitched everybody from her friends to her dentist.
Originally called GetBizzy, Kibbi was founded initially to help Vietnamese newcomers find jobs in Calgary despite the labour shortage during the peak of the pandemic. The Kibbi app gains its name from the Israeli concept of ‘kibbutz’ communities, or intentional agricultural communities. Nguyen describes the app as an entry-level job listing platform with a mission to redefine the job-search experience for newcomers.
At the same time, the app is meant to help small businesses get the support they need to operate, by redesigning how ads for available jobs are listed and shared. The app lists jobs visually on a map. That enables newcomers to avoid, for example, a one-hour bus ride to work and instead apply to businesses in their neighbourhood. Or single moms can see who is hiring near their daycares, or young people can apply for part-time jobs near school and home, Nguyen pointed out.
The Kibbi app lists jobs visually on a map and translates posts into 60 languages.
Nguyen claims that Kibbi is the first multilingual job portal in the market, translating job listings into 60 languages. It rates the English fluency required for each job, giving newcomers—especially basic English speakers—the confidence to apply and enter the workforce.
The startup has partnered with more than 50 employment agencies and nonprofits across the country. They include Mosaic Employment and Settlement Services, and the Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA) of British Columbia. Through the partnerships, Kibbi helps the agencies place their clients and members into jobs through different models. With the ICBA, for instance, Kibbi’s job app is a membership benefit. Currently, Kibbi claims it has 6,000 registered job seekers as users.
Over at The51, Judy Fairburn, a fund managing partner, had praise for Kibbi as she explained why the fund invested in the startup.
“The51 is impressed by Kibbi’s innovative platform and personalized user experience that enables Canadian newcomers to apply for jobs in their own language, while also meeting the needs of employers. It alleviates a barrier for unlocking the drive, skills, and economic potential of individuals that come to this country to make a living and difference.”
Platform Calgary, an independently operated hub for startups and innovation, provided Kibbi with several kinds of assistance, ranging from non-diluted grants from Alberta Innovates, to help setting up a partnership with Manpower Alberta, Mina Demian, a startup advisor with Platform Calgary, said.
Demian said the “brilliance” behind Kibbi was not only does the startup have a great founder, but strong geo-spatial technology that aligns refugees and newcomers with services and jobs they can access in their neighborhoods.
Demian praised Nguyen’s “remarkable traction,” and her ability to meet the needs of both newcomers and the service industry in a way that is “really addressing a huge gap in the market.”
Nguyen calls herself a non-technical founder. She took her idea to her personal Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, and put a call out asking if anyone had app-development experience. One of her friends from high school, who was now working as a full-stack developer, replied, liked the idea, and said he’d help out.
“I just reached out to immigrant groups on Facebook, social media, to see who would jump on the ship,” Nguyen said. She managed to attract several people with tech experience who were working outside of the field. Kibbi’s UX/UI/graphic designer was working at a dollar store in Toronto; its product manager was studying for a master’s degree in Quebec; and the startup’s front-end developer was an Uber driver. Currently, Kibbi has nine employees.
As Nguyen forges ahead with her mission, which she said is to unlock opportunity for cross-sector collaboration to support newcomers and advance the local economy, the newcomer from Vietnam said one thing has become obvious to her since relocating to Canada. “If I can make it here,” Nguyen said, “Anyone can.”