When Milena Moraes finished meeting with a male representative of a college she was doing business with, she gave him a hug and a quick peck on both cheeks to seal the deal.
The representative pulled back, a startled expression on his face. Moraes, who at the time had just arrived to take up a position in the Toronto company she co-founded from Brazil, was mystified.
“The guy was like, ‘what are you doing?’” Moraes laughs as she recalls the incident that occurred four years ago. “And then (my business partner) Luiz says, ‘don’t do that here.’ I said I was sorry; this is such a normal thing in Brazil.”
The encounter, “super awkward” as it was, sparked a business idea that, in 2021, brought Moraes and her business co-founder Luiz Gustavo Almeida to Associate Professor of Organizational Behaviour Barry Wright in Brock University’s Goodman School of Business.
Moraes and Almeida’s St. Catharines-based company, Loonie AK, originates from another company Almeida created after coming to Canada 20 years ago as a student from Brazil. That business involves recruiting international students — mostly from Brazil — for Canadian high schools, colleges and universities.
Loonie AK helps immigrants, refugees, international students and other newcomers adapt to the labour market by teaching them about workplace culture in Canada, including behaviours that are acceptable — and unacceptable — on the job.
Moraes wanted the company’s services to include training on the so-called “soft skills” found in workplaces. These skills include effective listening, conversing with colleagues and clients to form relationships, leading a team and delivering effective business presentations, among others.
She sought research that would provide guidance on choosing the specific, most-desired soft skills Canadian businesses are looking for. They turned to Innovate Niagara, which supports the growth of start-up companies and has Brock University as one of its partners.
Last year, the business incubator connected the duo with Wright, who immediately resonated with Moraes’ request for a research partnership.
“I teach many international students through our MBA program,” says Wright. “I see through my classes how they land into Canada with an international lens that needs to be refocused on doing business in Canada.
“So, when Milena and Luiz presented their ideas on providing soft skills training, I thought, ‘yeah, this would benefit these students.’ It was wonderful timing,” he says.
Wright, Moraes and Almeida put together a proposal for their project, “Soft skills learning as a key resource for faster job placement.”
With funding from the non-profit national research organization Mitacs, the trio hired master’s student Polina Onadchaya, who conducted an extensive literature review on the most important soft skills being sought by the Canadian labour market.
Using Onadchaya’s research, Loonie AK narrowed down the soft skills the company wants to focus on, defining these skills and how to measure their successful implementation.
With this information, the company is in the process of developing an online teaching platform using big data and artificial intelligence, which will track clients’ performance over time.
“The objective is to match the local market needs and the Canadian culture with future professionals and newcomers,” Wright says, adding that such technology will reduce the time people spend adapting to the Canadian culture and labour market.
Wright and his team are writing their final report along with a research paper they plan on presenting at a conference later this year.
For more information on how Mitacs programs can support research goals, visit mitacs.ca/en/programs