ME Week’s Innovator Challenge seeks to empower entrepreneurial asylum-seekers

Mohammed Khattab, a Palestinian/Syrian refugee currently living in the Netherlands, knows what it is like to build something from the ground up. A few years ago, the 35-year-old architect was relaxing in the flat he designed and built for his growing family when it was bombed and destroyed without warning. Khattab, suddenly covered head to toe in the white dust that once made up his home, did not fully comprehend what had happened until he saw his balcony lying in the street.

A “clean slate”
Upon arriving in the Netherlands, he had to start from square one. It’s a “clean slate,” he told the group of students and entrepreneurs gathered at the start of the Innovator Challenge, an all-day event held at Centre Céramique on 11 May during Maastricht Entrepreneurship Week (ME Week). This year’s Innovator Challenge, only the second edition held during ME Week, was much different than the previous one-business case study. This year’s Challenge, a real-life, current issue facing millions of people in Europe, aimed to help “refugees that have an entrepreneurial mind-set,” according to Innovator Challenge organiser Adina Petre. For Khattab, it was a chance to find a way for refugees (himself included) to rebuild in the form of a new business in the Netherlands and perhaps beyond.

13179440_10153750920379472_4098906009497020166_nThe Innovator Challenge invited students and entrepreneurs to join together and solve a problem: how can we foster entrepreneurship in talented, ambitious asylum-seekers? It is a question fraught with “buts”: starting a new business can be difficult, but for asylum-seekers it can be even more so.

Language barriers, complicated legal systems, lack of funding, personal stress, cultural differences—these sometimes subtle but significant obstacles can hinder even the most talented and determined of asylum seekers on their journey of entrepreneurship.

This edition of the Innovator Challenge was supported by representatives of Centraal Orgaan opvang Asielzoekers (COA), which helped bring current asylum seekers to the Challenge to assist the students in understanding the issue, as well as non-profit organisation Enactus Maastricht. Enactus president Simon Scheibe, who also served as a judge, announced that the winning idea would not just be celebrated with a diploma and a prize; the idea would actually be implemented within the academic year, with the possibility of continuing into the long term.

The winning innovators
The day was structured into two brainstorming sessions, preceded by a meeting with the organisers and participants that explained the Challenge and how to approach it. This was led by Sebastien Toupy, entrepreneur and an alumnus of the UM School of Business and Economics (SBE); he guided the students through the design thinking process to help the teams understand how to best formulate a plan in such a short amount of time — the total allotted time for both brainstorming and pitch planning was a mere four hours.

“I was really blown away to see them put a month’s work in in one day,” one judge commented.

Three groups of four students and entrepreneurs competed, but it was Team Octopus, comprising students Andrew Chu, an exchange student from Taiwan studying International Business Marketing at SBE; Miriam Tellez, a graphic design student from Spain on Erasmus; Jonathan Ulrich, an exchange student from Germany studying European Studies; and Dalia Attia, an exchange student from Cairo studying healthcare management innovation, that took home the title. Their idea, presented in three steps, was centred on the idea of a fully immersive programme for asylum seekers. The programme would include training workshops and a mentor program that matches asylum seekers to appropriate, likeminded entrepreneurs. Students that take part in the programme would also receive credit in the form of ECT or other yet undetermined incentive.

The panel of judges included Scheibe, entrepreneur Jan Scheele and Maastricht University’s InnBetween chaplain Petra Kai Kormendy. After announcing the winner, they explained it was the immediacy with which Team Octopus’s idea could be implemented that gave it the winning edge. In fact, just ten minutes after the winning team had been announced, the team members had already scheduled a meeting to discuss the next steps toward the programme’s launch.

As for the other teams’ ideas, they will not be cast aside. Kormendy noted that although she voted in favour of Team Octopus for its turnkey solution, the other teams’ ideas could and should be folded into the programme. Team We, which proposed a local office with mentors experienced in various aspects of entrepreneurship, “needs to be incorporated into the [winning idea].” Team Shihab is also easily implementable into the Team Octopus programme. The plan intended to bring back the hospitality that has been lost in Limburg with the help of the refugees, the group members explained in their presentation; they planned a cultural “village” in which asylum seekers could show off their skills and welcoming nature to locals.

“We had a very structured process,” said Chu of the winning team’s strategy. “We explored what opportunities there were and how we could match the needs of different stakeholders, but at the same time create value and help the refugees.”

All four winning students will be leaving the Netherlands in the coming weeks, but they all plan to remain involved with the programme launch—and bring the idea to countries across Europe. The winning team will see programme implemented within the academic year.

The winning team is pictured above. From left to right: Dalia Attia, Jonathan Ulrich, Andrew Chu, Simon Scheibe (behind woman in the black shirt), Petra Kai Kormendy (woman in black shirt), Adina Petre, Jan Scheele

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