Success Story

Iranian-born laleh Bighash mixes up the right solution for foreign-trained pharmaceutical professionals

Iranian-born Laleh Bighash worked on a simple and straightforward strategy — or so she thought — to reach her ultimate goal of having a prosperous future in Canada. Her first steps were to go to India for professional education in pharmacology and toxicology before heading here to plunge into her chosen industry.

But her strategy didn’t quite work the way she expected when she arrived in Canada in the late 1980s. “In those days, we rarely had any settlement help from the government and private agencies. We, as immigrants, did not have a support system,” Bighash remembers. “I quickly realized that my degree from India was not worth much and to have a chance at a professional career I had to go to university again and repeat the same program.”

A determined young woman, Bighash joined the University of Toronto to repeat all her coursework to be well-equipped to enter the local job market. “I spent four gruelling years at the U of T — during that time, I also became a wife and mother. At that point everything looked very difficult … raise a child, go to work, put food on the table and study. It was really, really tough. But that is what made me a very strong person.”The struggles that she went through during her first years in Canada also helped her to learn that patience and perseverance can carry you a long way. Bighash eventually reached her goal in establishing a successful career, though not directly in the industry. She became an instructor at Seneca College in Toronto, and also served as editor-in-chief of Pharmaceutical Canada magazine.Observing the Canadian higher education system as both a student and as an educator, Bighash identified several gaps in the system, particularly as a newcomer to the country. “I realized why many colleges and universities miss the mark in preparing graduates for future careers,” she explains. “Their mandate is academic — not training or teaching professional skills.”

So she decided to help the many people who were in the same position she was a few years earlier. “Seeing the struggles and frustration of immigrants and new graduates, I had to think of practical ways and build a career bridge for these professional immigrants and university graduates.”

To better equip herself, she went to the Schulich School of Business at York University and gained an MBA. “Armed with degrees in pharmaceutics and business administration, work experience in the industry and, most importantly, empathy and understanding of the challenges that newcomers and new graduates face when looking for jobs, I decided to start an academy on my own to fill those gaps.”

Thus, a little more than a decade after coming to Canada, the motivated entrepreneur started the Academy of Applied Pharmaceutical Sciences (AAPS) in Toronto. She founded it in partnership with a friend and colleague, Mehrdad Barghian, who understood her vision for a better future for foreign-trained professionals and new graduates in the pharmaceutical field.

According to Bighash, the goal was never to create just another career college, but to address the gaps in education and training systems in Canada, and to make an impact. To that end, she and Barghian developed programs consulting with employers and experts in the industry. “We decided to set up the college when I found that I had theoretical training, but didn’t know how to apply it in my work. Employers still value university and college degrees, but they also want you to be job ready with both technical skills and practical skills, including understanding of the Canadian work environment,” Bighash says.

She also hopes to influence a change in conventional hiring methods and the approach in viewing foreign credentials within the pharmaceutical, food and health care industries.

Bighash proudly notes that the college’s curriculum is a big hit with students primarily because it is tailored to help foreign-trained pharmaceutical professionals, from assisting them with the certification process — since the industry is regulated in Canada — to teaching business language and interview skills, to offering practicum and job placement help. “We also have classes at various times of the day and also on weekends because many newcomers study and work to put food on the table …we want to accommodate their needs.”

It is this type of attention to detail that has made the college — and Bighash — successful.

Having a genuine interest in helping people realize their full potential has been a major success factor in this endeavour, she says. “When our students get a job after 10 months, I see the direct impact on them. Yes, we do charge them fees, but when I see the smile on their face, I know their life has changed for the better.”

As a successful entrepreneur, Bighash has a few tips for newcomers, including on how to juggle the life of an immigrant — balancing a family life, surviving in a new country and continuing to pursue your goals. “I find many immigrants come with high hopes and lots of expectations, but when reality hits, they lose confidence and they are quite frustrated — thinking their foreign education and qualification are not good … As immigrants, we have a unique challenge of working on all of this, simultaneously.”

Bighash, learning from her own experience, advises newcomers to expand their network, starting with creating a like-minded friends’ circle. “It is important because we leave behind all our friends back home and when we come here, we are starting all over again,” she notes. “I made a friend at Seneca who was able to help me get recruited to teaching. You never know where help can come from … networking is so important.”

And it was someone in her professional network, Barghian, who was a fellow research scientist in a pharmaceutical lab, who joined forces with her to start AAPS.

While private career colleges are often criticized for poor quality of education, Bighash says AAPS has a good track record in its 11 years of operation. The college also offers corporate training for people who are already in the industry.

According to the research scientist-turned-entrepreneur, the compound of “an unwavering commitment to my goal, strong ability to constantly manage and build relationships, staying focused through positive and negative periods, hard work and flexibility” is the formula for her success.

And that’s what she hopes to instil in her students so that they may have an equally promising future.