Founder of Big Feet: Shirley Z. Shaw

A Journey of A Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step


“The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Step” is a well-known proverb that emphasizes the importance of taking the first step towards achieving a goal. The Big Feet Health Group franchise, founded by Shirley Zhang Shaw in the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), is a prime example of this proverb in action. What started as a single shop has now grown into a business with over 20 locations and more than 300 employees.

The success of Big Feet Health Group can be attributed to the skilled and multicultural staff that has served over one million customers, as well as the diverse clientele it serves. Shirley Zhang Shaw’s story is one of perseverance and determination.

Early beginnings


Shirley Zhang Shaw graduated from Nankai University with a degree in Mathematics in 1984, during a time when very few young people had the opportunity to attend prestigious universities like Nankai. After graduation, she became one of the 27 individuals selected from over 700 applicants to work for Tianjin Development Zone, founded in 1985. Her work there involved developing the Tanggu District, which was virtually empty land at the time.

Despite facing significant challenges, Shirley rose to the position of mid-level manager at just twenty-four years old. Shirley eventually left Jia Tai Ceramic Co. and moved to Shenzhen, where she and her husband successfully built a thriving ceramic enterprise with multiple branches and plants.

Immigration to Canada


In 1997, Shirley immigrated to Canada with her two young sons, leaving her husband in charge of their business in Shenzhen. For the first three years, Shirley enjoyed a comfortable life as a full-time mother. However, this was soon interrupted by unexpected and unfortunate events. Her once-successful business fell apart without her help, forcing her to return to China with her sons to sort out the mess.

The separation from her children was difficult for Shirley, as her visits were infrequent and too short for their liking. Eventually, as Shirley and her sons had become Canadian citizens, she felt an obligation to bring them back to Canada. However, this posed a significant challenge as their family had lost their fortune in China.

Determined to provide her children with a Canadian-style education, Shirley embarked on a new career path as a foot massage therapist, attending a well-known institute in Yangzhou, China. Despite the challenging living conditions, Shirley found the experience to be valuable and even had the opportunity to study under a highly respected professor in acupuncture. However, she had to decline the professor’s offer and instead returned to Canada with her children.

In addition, due to her business reputation in China and receiving a job offer as a regional general manager for a well-known technology company in Southern China, Shirley remained resolute in her decision to prioritize her children’s lifestyle and returned to Canada with them while her husband stayed behind in China.

Returning to Canada and starting Big Feet


In Canada, Shirley faced numerous challenges when attempting to establish her reflexology practice. Shirley encountered obstacles when trying to obtain the necessary business license due to the absence of a regulatory department for reflexology in Vancouver. After a year and a half of perseverance, Shirley finally obtained the appropriate license and became the first of her kind in the area. Unfortunately, the outbreak of SARS in 2003 had a significant negative impact on her business, causing her clientele to vanish almost overnight. Shirley struggled to pay rent during this period, but was fortunate that the outbreak did not last long.

After the SARS outbreak, Shirley gradually built her business back up, only to face another setback when her landlord sold the property to someone who intended to open a hair salon in her rented space. Shirley was unsure how to handle this situation, but ultimately decided to continue her business by opening a new location nearby. However, she faced yet another hurdle when residents in the area opposed having a massage shop in their neighborhood, leading to difficulty in obtaining a new business license. Fortunately, with the help of an architect named Mr. Yip, Shirley was able to successfully apply for a court hearing, where she was able to explain her situation as a single mother and business owner. Six of the seven jurors supported Shirley, and she felt a sense of pride in Canada’s democratic process. Despite the numerous challenges she faced, Shirley persevered and was able to achieve success in her business.

Shirley’s excellent customer service and skilled reflexology expertise led to an increase in loyal clients. She continued to run her business in this manner for five years until the popularity of Big Feet grew, and clients of all ages began to frequent her shop. At its peak, clients had to wait for three months to secure an appointment.

During this period, Shirley and her two children lived in a rented basement suite. She vividly remembers her 24/7/365 daily schedule, which included getting up at 7:00 am, taking the children to school, sending towels to the Laundromat, and opening the shop by 10:00 am. At 3:00 pm, she would leave the shop to pick up her children from school and take them to their extracurricular activities. As she did not have time to cook dinner at home, she would buy food for her children to eat inside the car. At 7:00 pm, she returned to the shop to work until 11:00 pm. Now, her older son has already graduated from university with a major in arts and started his career, while the younger son graduated from UBC with a major in engineering physics and continued his graduate-level studies in mathematics, following in his mother’s footsteps. Shirley will always be grateful for the support of her university classmate who helped take care of her children at night.

With the success of Big Feet, Shirley’s vision for the future continued to grow. She saw potential in expanding the business to new locations, and began to open more branches throughout the Greater Vancouver Area. She also focused on improving the quality of service provided by Big Feet, and invested in more training for her employees.

Shirley recognized that the massage therapy market had different demographics, and she made a conscious decision to position Big Feet as a provider of low-cost massage services that delivered the same health benefits as licensed traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. This approach proved successful, and Big Feet became known as a place where clients could receive quality massage therapy without breaking the bank.

Over the years, Shirley has remained committed to providing her clients with the best possible service, and never forgot the importance of giving back to the community.

An industry leader in Vancouver 20 years later


Over the course of 18 years, Big Feet has become a prominent player in the Greater Vancouver Area. Despite facing numerous challenges, including a practitioner shortage and competitors, Shirley persevered and offered free training to interested individuals to create a team of multicultural professionals capable of embodying Big Feet’s traditional techniques.

With a focus on providing affordable yet high-quality massage therapy services, Shirley has positioned Big Feet as a leader of low-cost, affordable massages. In 2009, she became a registered Chinese medicine practitioner in BC (acupuncture + herbs) after encountering difficulties managing Chinese medicine contractors/consultants as the scope of services expanded. Shirley has also broken industry norms by hiring male masseurs and investing heavily in their training, achieving a 6:4 female to male masseur ratio.

As the company expanded, Shirley recognized the need to manage the business as a whole rather than as individual branches. She designed a unique franchising mechanism that allowed selected employees to become franchisees, demonstrating her commitment to seeing her employees succeed

Today, Big Feet has grown to over 20 locations and more than 300 employees. Shirley’s dedication to promoting traditional Chinese medicine and health care culture to clients from diverse cultural backgrounds has resulted in over 90% of Big Feet’s clients being non-Chinese. The franchisees are grateful and optimistic about the future, thanks to Shirley’s commitment to developing a strong corporate culture and empowering her employees.