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From IBM Consultant to multiple business owner in Costa Rica by 25. Meet Simrat Chhabra!

This month, I had the pleasure of interviewing a former classmate from Schulich, Simrat Chhabra. She was working at IBM in consulting after graduation and recently I saw that she had moved to Costa Rica to start multiple businesses with her then fiancee, now husband! This is definitely a very unusual path for the students who studied at Schulich and I had to know more about her journey and what made her make that BIG LEAP to move to a tropical destination. It is something we have all dreamed about at some point in our lives! So read on to learn more about her and her journey to live the life she has always dreamed about!

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

At the moment, I don’t really know how to answer this question. Six months ago I would have described myself as an emerging consultant working for IBM, travelling the world and living the dream that I had built for myself while I was at Schulich. I would have also told you that I worked long hours, didn’t get much time to spend with (let alone see) my family and vacations meant having my work phone and laptop with me at all times. I would tell you that I had two to three close friends, loved to play sports, a huge Leafs fan and an avid traveller whenever I had the time.

Becoming a consultant was my ideal career, no doubt, and I love being a consultant but I always knew deep down that it was not a sustainable profession. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the ONLY one in the world who was busy. My best friend is an accountant and she works longer hours and even harder than I do. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel I was just merely existing and I wanted to change that.

Now, I would describe myself as a gringo living in Costa Rica, learning Spanish, drinking way too much fresh coconut water, running multiple businesses and I couldn’t be happier. It’s not the standard or recommended path for a Schulich School of Business grad, nor was this in any roadmap I had forseen. This has been the result of spontaneously embracing life and the adventures it has in store for me.

For everyone that knows me, the one thing constantly on my mind is food. Naturally, I decided to open a restaurant  in Costa Rica with the second location on its way. Opening up a restaurant wasn’t just about cooking delicious food for others to enjoy. I cannot tell you how much of a pleasure it is to be able to hire people and make a difference in their lives. My team is made up of talented people looking for someone to give them an opportunity to succeed.

working in costa rica

2. What was the driving force for you to make a change from the corporate world to moving to Costa Rica and starting your own business?

Growing up my dad made me read books like Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Millionaire Next Door which taught a very important concept of financial independency. I thought financial independency meant being the things Ne-Yo sang about in “Miss Independent” – buying my own shoes, house and cars – but it goes far beyond that. Although I was working in my dream job and could afford nice thing, I was not financially independent because as soon as I stopped working, my ability to provide for myself would also eventually end.

To measure how financially independent you are, ask yourself this question: how long would you be able to survive if you stopped working today? In other words, is your money working for you even when you aren’t? I realized after meeting a lot of successful people, that they were never just a lawyer, just a teacher or just a consultant, they often had a business on the side that they invested in and that made them returns on those investments.

A lot of things changed for me in 2015 and 2016. It felt as though I was being broken and tested by God. In fact, the driving force behind my decision to move to Costa Rica is God. I was never a spiritual person growing up, but I would frequent the temple every religious holiday. It was not until I went to a Christian church (I know it’s tempting to envision priests, nuns, endless chanting  and long isle of hardwood pews, but stop and imagine a Maroon 5 concert but everyone is worshipping Jesus – no joke) that I actually started to feel God’s presence. Since then, I have conversations with Him, I constanly see His hand at work in my life and I can confidently say He is as real as the air I breathe. He gave me visions of opening up orphanages, helping at animal shelters, and starting businesses that help others.

Some people want to be successful for the money, fame or power but I want to become financially independent so I can focus less of my time on work and more of my time volunteering and blessing others. Remember: you were not born to just go to work, pay bills and die. You have a legacy to leave here on this earth – start working towards it!

3. A lot of us feel like we want to make a change/take the same kind of risks that you have but we are afraid. How do you overcome that fear and take the leap towards making a lifestyle change?

Historians will probably call our era “the age of anxiety.” Anxiety is the natural result when our hopes are centered in anything short of God and His will for us. —Billy Graham

I love this quote by Billy. The old me would have come up with 1001 reasons why moving to Costa Rica would fail. The way that I see it there are two ways to live your life: by your will where your success is measured by the hard work and sweat you put in or by God’s will where your potential is based on His work in your life. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have the creator of the universe in charge of my success than me.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Phillipians 4:13

By no means is it easy to make the decision to quit your job, leave the only country you have lived in  and embark on something new but it is definitely easier when you learn to put your trust in something greater than yourself. I know for many in our generation it is hard to imagine putting our fate and trust in anything other than ourselves, but it is possible and it is called faith. When you realize that you have the Most High and Most Powerful backing you up, there is nothing to fear, for fear is the absence of faith.

From another point of view, I saw this as a fool-proof opportunity. Being 25, if there was ever a time to put everything on the line to venture into a lifestyle change, it’s now when you have the energy, passion and ability to take risks. I don’t think it would have been so easy to take this leap of faith if I had children, a mortgage (thanks to Toronto’s crazy housing market), etc. For me, the worst thing would be being 50 and looking back on my life with regret for not having the courage to take the opportunity when I had the chance. Most importantly, having a supportive and loving family and husband also makes it super easy and I am blessed to have both.

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4. What has been your biggest challenge while making the move to a different country and how did you overcome it?

There hasn’t been any ONE biggest challenge but I feel that the challenge has come from the fact that EVERY TASK, no matter how big or small, has been a challenge. For example, for something as simple as getting a credit card system to accept payments at your business, you first need to open up a bank account. In order to open up a bank account, you first need to get financial projections done from an accountant. In order to do that you have to go to the ministry to register yourself for taxation purposes. In order to do that, you have to go to the Immigration office and get a special permission. In addition, you need to obtain special documents from the Bank of Costa Rica which expire every 15 days so god forbid your process takes longer than this. Then when you finally have travelled all across the city to the different offices and obtained all your public accountant and lawyer approved document (each which have a hefty price tag), then you can finally return to the bank only to find out they have changed the process and require two more documents. At this point, you feel like pulling your hair out.

These challenges emerge from the fact that 1) This is the first business I have started so it may be just a learning curve as I am sure similar and more stringent processes exist in Canada 2) I am a foreigner who doesn’t understand the processes of Costa Rica and require further documentation explaining what the heck I am doing in their country 3) The language barrier although this is not that big of an obstacle as you will always find that ONE person who speaks English and this will likely get you bumped up to the front of the line (perk alert!) 4) There is a lot of money laundering that happens in Costa Rica (it is the go-to place for wealthy Colombians) so they are adamantly trying to crack down on this.

I would say that the only way to overcome these is to have perseverance, tackle one task at a time and to do a lot of research. Go to each ministry and pick the brains of whomever you speak to.

Even non business-related tasks can be complicated, check out my blog www.416to506.wordpress.com/ to read about how to bring you pet to Costa Rica and how I almost had to pay $2000 to do it.

5. One piece of advice you would want to give to those looking to make a career/lifestyle change?

 

I remember once seeing a picture in some office of a cartoon that showed the progression of a human life. It said “Born, work work, work, work, work, work, work, work, die.” Remember: you were not born to just go to work, pay bills and die. You have a legacy to leave here on this earth – start working towards it and don’t give up.

I can tell you now it will get challenging, it will be tough, you will want to quit some days, but keep going. Did you know that Elon Musk almost went bankrupt trying to start Tesla? Today, Tesla is worth more than Ford Motors. Howard Shultz, founder of Starbucks, was denied 242 times by the bank for a loan. If Howard Schultz gave up after being turned down by banks 242 times, there would be no Starbucks. Those who succeed are not necessarily  smarter, richer or luckier than us, they are just those who are not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer. In fact, my husband always jokes that my persistence is the reason why I got him.

 

6. Why did you choose Costa Rica as a place to start a business?

I based my decision on several criteria, some strategic and some personal:

  • The weather (definitely fed up with the -40 winters in Canada)

  • The health care system (Costa Rica has universal health care like Canada)

  • Cost of Living (average house prices are 80% – 90% less than Toronto and produce is cheap, I’m talking like 3 pineapples for $2, watermelons for 50 cents, and a kg of carrots for $1.

  • Nature and adventure (Costa Rica has everything from beaches, rainforests, volcanoes, zip lining, waterfalls, for the outdoorsmen in you)

These are some things you should consider when choosing a country to live in:

  1. Barriers to Entry
    • Do you need a work visa to start a business?
    • Language Barrier and Perception towards foreigners?
    • Government Interference and Political Stability
  • Market Conditions and Spending Power
  • Cost of Operations – You have to consider how much money you have in savings or in loans to start up a business. Developing nations such as Costa Rica are beneficial in that way because labor is affordable and rent is comparatively low.
  • Taxation: How much will your company be taxed?
  • Affordability: What are your monthly expenses going to look like and will you be able to cover them?

7. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

The goal is to have several different business ventures established, some local to Costa Rica and some international. In five years, the plan is to be living in Spain.
I would say it’s all about creating financial independency so Amrit and I can spend more time doing the things we enjoy. It’s definitely not easy right now, it’s a lot of hours and a lot of hands on work at the moment, but I see this phase as setting the foundation of our lifestyle.

 

8. How has your journey been so far? I’m sure there are days of paranoia and fear as to whether you will succeed or not. What keeps you going during those times? How do you cope with the stress?

There are always ups and downs, so many ups and downs. Days where I feel like I can conquer the world and days where I think to myself ‘my god what have I done, is it too late to go back to Canada?”. I wish I could tell people it’s easy, but no matter if you are opening an online service like Wealthsimple, physical brick and mortar locations or offering e-commerce it takes a lot of blood, sweat and praying to get it up and running. What keeps me going during these times is the fact I keep reminding myself that this is the hardest part. If I can get past the set-up stage, 80% of the battle is won. In fact most businesses shut down in the first year, I bet if they kept going many of them would be extremely successful today. I also try to remind myself that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Worst case scenario, this isn’t for me and I decide to try something else or go back to consulting. NO BIG DEAL.

 

Thank you Simrat for sharing your story with us! I know it definitely inspired me to start making changes so that one day (very soon), I can make that happen as well and I hope it inspired some of you to take a leap of faith! If you have any questions for her, please comment below or email me and I will share her answers with you 🙂

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