Entrepreneur, Philanthropist Jim Estill Helps Refugees Begin New Lives In Canada
Like many of us, Jim Estill saw the horrors of the Syrian civil war in the media during summer 2015. The shocking images of the small Syrian boy found face-down on a beach in Turkey were broadcast around the world that September. It was a crystallizing moment for Estill. The boy’s family had reportedly been planning to immigrate to Canada when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea.
Estill felt compelled to do something. The Canadian government had already committed to taking in Syrian refugees, but he wanted to speed up the process. As CEO of Danby Appliance, and an investor, adviser and board member of several other companies, Estill thought he could apply his business acumen to the problem.
“I could see the crisis looming,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, I’m impatient with the government not doing things quickly.”
He did a bit of research, crunched the numbers and estimated that a family of five could live on USD20,000 per year in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario. “Canada has a private sponsorship program that allows individuals to sponsor a family, so I said I would bring in 50 families. And like a typical YPO member, I planned to do it at scale,” he explains. He pledged USD1 million of his own money to make that happen.
A coordinated approach
Estill got the ball rolling in October, knowing that meeting the needs of 50 refugee families would require a lot of helping hands. Refugees typically arrive with few possessions or resources. “I designed what I thought the plan should be, I did a PowerPoint, and then I went out to local churches and nonprofits. I said I’m going do this; will you help? They said yes,” he recounts.
Many of the organizations already had some experience sponsoring or working with refugees and had existing volunteers who could act as mentors to refugee families. Over time, Estill’s efforts attracted hundreds of new volunteers.
“Helping refugees is about much more than spending money,” he says. “It’s everything from picking them up at the airport, to moving them into temporary housing, helping them set up a bank account, arranging medical care, testing their English skills, buying bus passes and showing them how to get around.”
Estill used his entrepreneurial skills to set up a system to settle people. “I organized volunteers like I would a management team in a business, with directors of health, education, mentorship, etc.,” he shares. “Every refugee family had several mentor families and we used scorecards to determine how a family was doing and what they might need.”
Program expands and gains wider recognition
Over the next few years, Estill helped sponsor 89 Syrian families — more than 300 people. In 2018, Danby Appliance became a Sponsorship Agreement Holder (SAH) with the government of Canada. Called Danby SAH, the organization has authorization to resettle refugees from abroad through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program.
Eventually, Estill wanted to include refugees from other countries to help boost the diversity of immigrants in Guelph and encourage integration. “We have a small community of Italians who don’t speak English at all. They all came over after WWII and just stayed in their own neighborhoods, shopped in their own stores. That limits people’s options for a lot of things, including careers,” he asserts. “I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Refugees from Eretria, Congo and Venezuela have since settled in Guelph with Estill’s help. He hopes to persuade the Canadian government to allow 10,000 refugees from Venezuela because of the current humanitarian crisis.
Estill is now widely known in Canada — and throughout the world — for his efforts. In March 2019, he was inducted into the Order of Canada, which is one of the country’s highest civilian honors, recognizing individuals who have demonstrated outstanding achievement, dedication to their communities and service to the nation. He previously was named to the Order of Ontario in 2016.
Building businesses prepares Estill for quick pivots
Estill started his first company out of the trunk of his car and grew it to USD350 million in sales before selling to Synnex in 2004. After becoming CEO of Synnex Canada, he grew sales to USD2 billion in five years. He currently serves as chairman of DDE Media in addition to leading Danby Appliance. He recently launched ShipperBee, a parcel delivery service that saves 73.1% of the greenhouse gas per parcel shipped.
As an accomplished entrepreneur — who has advised many other ventures as well — Estill was prepared to iterate on his ideas for the refugee program as it was developing. “It’s all about creating systems and processes and doing micro-pivots as you go along,” he says. “Many aspects of our program had to change as we got into it. For example, we originally secured housing for incoming refugees in advance, but sometimes the intake process by the government would take so long, apartments would sit empty for months. Now we never rent housing until we see people. I also learned it’s better to put housing decisions in the hands of mentor families.”
Estill made a big pivot when he decided to employ some refugees. He initially planned to avoid hiring any because he was concerned about appearing to take advantage of them. However, he saw that many refugees have difficulty getting or keeping jobs. The most common reasons are related to language or cultural barriers.
“I learned that most weren’t job ready,” Estill explains, so he created a three-month program at his Danby Appliance warehouse called Ease Into Canada. Refugees develop English skills, train for factory work, pair up with “lunch buddies,” work on resume writing and receive job coaching for the future. Estill has employed 28 refugees full time since 2015 and many more have participated in Ease Into Canada.
Unintended consequences yield unexpected benefits
Even with decades of executive leadership experience, Estill encountered a few surprises along the way. “One unintended consequence was the amount of press attention I received,” he says. Early on, a local Canadian newspaper ran a story about his goal to sponsor 50 refugees. The story was picked up by large media outlets around the world, resulting in coverage or interviews in USA Today, BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
“I didn’t want to talk to the press initially, but then I quickly realized that gave me clout in recruiting volunteers and approaching other executives for help,” Estill reveals. “I could say to the CEO of Adidas, who I met at a YPO event, ‘by the way, I have 250 refugees. Could I get some shoes?’”
Another unintended consequence was the uptick in employee applications to Danby Appliance. “Everyone talks about how to inspire millennials,” he remarks. “What I learned is they’re inspired to save the world. After all the publicity about the refugee program, I had people calling to say they wanted to work for us instead of us having to entice new applicants. They could see a higher purpose. In a way, it defrayed recruitment costs and that was quite unexpected.”
Leaning on his YPO network
An active member of YPO who has held numerous leadership positions for more that 20 years, Estill’s network of peers runs deep. “Most of my close friends came from YPO because we have common interests,” he says. “I’ve received lots of support on the refugee project from YPO friends. They are my go-to when we need things and a lot of them have financially supported refugee families through our network.”
One of the things this endeavor has taught Estill is to be less shy about asking for help. “I don’t like asking for myself,” he admits, “but when you’re asking for other people, it’s easy. If I know a refugee is coming to your town, I won’t feel shy about saying, ‘Would you mind having coffee with this person? Talking with them? Could you introduce them to someone else?’”
Estill encourages YPO members to make a difference in their own communities: “When I first started sponsoring, I just wanted to help 50 refugee families. Now I hope to inspire more people to do their part. That could be helping the homeless or any other good work in the community. If we all do our own little part, the world will be a better place.”