Canada is a country sought out by many people hoping to achieve a better life. Our country is filled with successful stories that give us encouragement and allow us to dream further. However, the reality around the world is that the separation between rich and poor is growing deeper. In a world where the middle class is disappearing, what will society look like?
This week, on Here’s The Thing (Camões TV), Manuel DaCosta had the opportunity to interview Sean Sherzady, a very successful entrepreneur who specializes in watches and jewellery. Sherzady founded Watchfinder in 1999, and with over 20 years of experience, he is recognized as an expert in contemporary watches and vintage timepieces, and is one of the few gold experts in Toronto. Being an immigrant and experiencing many challenges growing up, Sean Sherzady made sure that when he could, he would give back to the community. He is the founder of Flemingdon Food Bank, located at 10 Gateway Blvd. Toronto, with a mission not only to feed families but also to help underprivileges youth to thrive in the job market.
Manuel DaCosta: Tell us a little bit more about who you are.
Sean Sherzady: Long story. We actually started this conversation an hour ago. I wish the cameras were there [laughs]. I was born in Iran. To me that was poverty, but I’m sure somebody else was poorer than me. We got smuggled to Canada between 1985 and 1987. We lived in poverty in Turkey. Which I loved; I’m not putting it down. I think, in life, everybody should go through a little bit of hardship.
At 9 years old, I sold liquor on the streets; translated for people; sold cigarettes; whatever we had to do because we were getting smuggled. My dad never came, I haven’t seen him in 35 years. We ended up in Canada, in Burlington, we had some family there that helped us come to Canada. At the time, we used the food bank, we were on government housing at 2400 New Street; I love that building, it was a big part of me growing up. We resorted to Salvation Army, they put us in judo. I used to be picked up in school, as we talked about. That’s why I used to ride the bus to Hamilton to do boxing. I’m still a big supporter of boxing, even though it doesn’t make any money for me, it’s just about the kids. Years ago, I opened a martial arts gym to give back to the community.
Going back to the food bank with my mom, I always did charity. I had a life that was very up and down. My mom wasn’t around, and I got kicked out when I was 14/15 years old. I became a street kid, but I changed my life and that’s where I am today in my life, at 45 years old. So, I wanted to give back. I’m always doing charity. I put an ad on kijiji “If you need help, call me”.
Remember Honest Ed’s? This guy would give away one thousand turkeys. One year after he died, his kid cancelled it, sold the property. I always wondered what happened to those people. I go home, Toronto Star had an article on the front page that says, ‘Food Bank closing because they owe money’. I called them up and ask when I could see them… I have some mentors in my life that do very well and I always ask them for advice. We sat down with the Board at the Food Bank. My friend that runs a very successful company says, ‘these guys are not businessmen. They are workers, they are running the food bank to the ground’. We took over the food bank about five years ago. I got rid of the old board, I brought some guys in and we do some charity. We paid all the debt off, we run it like a perfect business now. The number of people that use the facility has gone up. I rather see less people there than more. We always have programs and partnerships with job agencies. Mental health is a big issue now, sometimes people can’t hold on to a job; they have babies; or parents that are sick. We don’t know the background story to a lot of these people.
MDC: While, I admire you as an entrepreneur and we will talk about it later, but what I admire more is the fact that you have chosen to give back. Is it because of your background and the sacrifices that you have made to get here?
SS: One hundred percent! As you said, I’m in the jewellery business, so I deal with the 1% of society that can afford things like that. They say ‘oh I give you money’; I don’t want your money, come there, talk to the people. I always say to people, don’t forget that one thing can set you off in that lineup. Mental illness – which I’m now a big believer as I just went through it this past year. I have a crazy life and I had never had anxiety and I had it this year because of some family issues. I always tell people don’t forget where you came from. You can go to sleep rich and wake up poor. Always give back, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can end up on that lineup.
MDC: Do you think that those people that are part of the 1% can really understand what brings someone to a Food Bank?
SS: We know the one percenters, right? They are in their fast cars, always driving, until God goes ‘hey, one second… all those years you went to work, you bought the big house and the fancy cars, you weren’t at home, your kid needs you’. Now the guy says, ‘I’m 50 years old, I have all these things, I’m money rich but I’m not successful.’ Success is having wealth and having balance between your family. Now God says ‘wait a minute, your kid is addicted to fentanyl’. And the guy says, ‘What? That wasn’t in my life plan. I’m successful, I have fancy cars, I know the mayor. I can’t tell those people that my kid is addicted to drugs’. But they don’t know that mayor has the same issue. Every person you see on the street has some kind of hardship and problem that they don’t tell you.
MDC: You are a successful entrepreneur, how do you take out that hat off and insert yourself in a food bank where you have to talk with a totally different type of people?
SS: Actually, my mind is at the food bank. I’m dressed like this because this is my uniform, I have to go buy suits, but that is not me. It’s a suit I have to put on to go work to feed my kids, to kind of take from the rich and give to the poor. I’m really that kid that used the food bank. When I go there, I love it. I’m there on Mondays if anybody wants to join me. You have to go through the back. It’s not the best place but it is the only place we can afford. When you go there and you talk to those people, and you see they have nothing, so when they go home, they think ‘Sean, what a nice guy, he provided this food for me.’ People come and drop money at my business like it’s nothing and I’m thinking, just 10 blocks away there’s people that… I’ll give you an example, when I first took it over and did the turkey drive with Rabba Foods, there was a lady crying and I asked what the matter was, she told me she didn’t have cooking oil. So, I took out 20 bucks, I know people will say that was easy to do. But don’t do it at a food bank because eventually it will get out of hand. Coming from a place where you buy 1000-dollar shoes and then you have a lady crying because of 20 dollars. I can see how that happened. The rich guy that came from a wealthy beginning may not but if he came from nothing… but he is driving so fast that he may miss it, but he will get there. At 55 or 65, they realize ‘Oh I have money, but my kids aren’t talking to me’. You understand? That is not success. Chances are that most people that are in our circle missed the message.
MDC: There is a bit of a stigma attached to being poor and using a food bank. Do you feel that people are ashamed of not having enough and having to ask for help?
SS: I always try to make them feel comfortable. I understand what you are saying. When someone says, ‘Oh that guy in Pakistan or Iran is poor’, I say ‘You are poor’. That kid with the sandals, that has no money, that kid is happy. He got his grandmother across the street; he will never starve. You are poor; you have money but call your kids and see if they answer the phone. Before, when we were living in Portugal or Pakistan, being poor was the normal. If you didn’t know there are Lamborghinis, you don’t want one. Those who have money but nothing else are the ones that are poor.
MDC: Do you think Canada really understands the crises that is out there with people needing help?
SS: That’s not true. The food bank usage went up by a little. Why? Before the pandemic people used the food bank anyway. People that are on the poverty line, those people already got welfare checks, they were already using the food banks. Nothing changed in their lives. They may get more money. It wasn’t them that got hurt, it was the person that worked 9 to 5, it was the middle class that got hurt. The rich got richer; their investments have been on fire.
MDC: Every week we have a different topic in our newspaper Milénio Stadium. This week we will be covering the disparity between rich and poor. As you know, most of the middle class is disappearing. For you, what has been the recipe for success in business?
SS: I was talking with my mother-in-law about that; everyone says hard work, but if it is hard work then why is everyone that works hard not a millionaire? Hard work is part of the recipe, but timing and luck play a big role. How many guys started in construction in the 80’s and lost it all? Now, a lot of kids go build in Forest Hill, around the corner, and they are multimillionaires. I have a lot of examples like that.
MDC: Right now, we have 2,755 billionaires that, during the pandemic, saw their fortunes rise about 8%. Looking at the pandemic from a business perspective, many rode the wave of necessity of the common citizen. Do you think they should give back to society as many claim that they don’t pay enough taxes?
SS: When you see Bill Gates and everybody talks poorly about him… this guy is not out to get people, he’s doing things to better society and people’s lives. I think he is in the half-billion club, which consists of a group of people that every time they hit one billion, they give away half a billion. Some people consider that to be a write-off for their taxes, even if it is, there are thousands of people that could do the same but don’t. So, kudos to this guy that does it and gives back to society. Everybody talks about other people, and I always say, trust me, if you were in that guy’s position you would do the exact same thing. You would have lawyers and accountants that can minimize your taxes. Everybody does at, just at different ranges.
MDC: A recent report said that mega corporations want to keep the minimal wage low because they want to ensure that people remain at the bottom with meaningless types of jobs at 15 dollars/hour.
SS: Ok, let’s go back to another example. Let’s say you own the country. How much are you going to pay to all the people that live in your country? 100 dollars/hour? They work 8h per day; 4,000 a week. At the end of the year, they would have half a million dollars. After ten years, they have five million dollars. Do you think people in your country are going to work?
MDC: How are we going to bring up the lower class into another middle class?
SS: Through education.
MDC: A recent study showed that a lot of billionaires have no education or just the basic and they became successful. Why does everybody talk about education?
SS: That’s true. But I mean, as parents, do you want your kid to have an education or not?
MDC: I want my kid to be able to be literate and understand how the world is.
SS: That’s different. That’s life. That is up to you. If you baby him in a box, he is not going to learn.
MDC: Education is the foundation, but if society pushes kids to all go into certain areas of work, what is going to happen to the country?
SS: That is what is happening now. That’s why we need immigration. They are not stealing our jobs. Next time you go to an hospital, look at your doctor, he may be Pakistani or Indian. His parents came to this country, worked in dishwashing, saved their money, so their kid could become an engineer or a doctor.
MDC: If I want to go to your place of business, what can I expect to find?
SS: At Watchfinder, we specialize in pre-owned watches. We work with all the high-end brands, like Rolex. I have connections with all dealerships, which took me years to build. If you want to trade-in your watch, or a lot of the pawnshops in Canada, or online stores, they end up at my store. We have a huge variety; we go from 50$ watches up to 100,000$ watches. We have something for everybody. I especially like when it’s your first watch, because your first-time piece will stay with you forever. You will give it to your kids, your kids to their kids, and so on. We sell happiness. We sell diamonds when you get engaged. We are very social people. When you come in there, we are not pushy. We are not there to take money from you. I’m there most days, call me if you like.
MDC: I want to congratulate you for being an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. I think both balance well and most people that can, should do it. Thank you for being with us.