New land, new lives, new businesses: refugee entrepreneurs look to the future

All entrepreneurs are inspired by the dream of creating something new. For refugee entrepreneurs, however, the challenges of building a business go hand in hand with the challenge of building new lives in a new land. How do they establish viable enterprises and find meaningful work for themselves and others? Tracy Brown Hamilton talks to Jarrod Ormiston, assistant professor in social entrepreneurship at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, about his research into these questions.

“The notion that keeps coming through,” says Ormiston, “is that of embracing the diversity, embracing the difference in the knowledge and skills that refugees come with, as opposed to just trying to conform to a new society. We should really celebrate the traditions, craft and skill that such people have that they’ve honed elsewhere.”

Ormiston’s research into refugee entrepreneurs has recently been given a vote of confidence by the Limburg University Fund/SWOL via its Alumni Fund Grant, worth €9,800, which will be used to set up refugee entrepreneurship education in Maastricht.

The first stage of the initiative, Ormiston says, “will focus on best practices in the Netherlands and in Europe on supporting refugee entrepreneurs and how that links to refugees finding meaningful work in that integration process.

“We want to first try and understand what the impact of entrepreneurship education for refugees has been in the Netherlands, and use that to inform the design of a programme based on educating refugee entrepreneurs here in Maastricht.”

Local knowledge

“The starting point is really the idea of meaningful work,” Ormiston explains. For refugees, “it’s very challenging, full stop, to find work, and it’s incredibly challenging to find work that’s connected to your prior work experience of education”.

There are other hurdles for these aspiring businesspeople to overcome, too.

“A big part is viewing entrepreneurship as one way of doing work that is related to your passion, education and experience,” Ormiston says, “but there are other challenges for refugees. Doing business in a different country requires an understanding of context. So mentoring is a core element of what we are trying to do here – to team up refugee entrepreneurs with locals who have the experience in those different industries that they’re looking to get into, to help them muddle through some of the challenges.”

Students’ passion pays dividends

“So many students want to play around in the entrepreneurship space after doing their bachelor’s and before doing their master’s, or while doing their master’s,” observes Ormiston. Many of them, he adds, “have a lot of passion for responding to the refugee crisis in some way, to find a way to be involved”.

Ormiston recently attended the kick-off event of Refugees Forward, an Amsterdam-based organisation that aims to “empower refugees by helping them launch, fund and grow entrepreneurial projects”.

For the event, 20 Dutch students were paired with 20 refugee entrepreneurs. Following a weekend of workshops, teams of students and refugees participated in a business pitch competition, with a prize of €500 in seed funding for the winning team. Ormiston, who was among the judges, was impressed by the ideas presented.

“Many of the ideas really focused on celebrating diversity,” he observes. “They were very much socially focused in terms of not just wanting to make money but on creating employment opportunities for the refugee and migrant community.”

Involving students, he adds, is a great approach. “It helps students see how to not view this as a process of individual entrepreneurs but how entrepreneurial teams can be formed between refugees and locals.”

Maastricht’s collaborative strengths

After earning his bachelor’s degree at the University of Sydney, Australian-born Ormiston moved to Colombia, where he set up a non-profit organisation in communities of people displaced by the long-running civil war between government forces and the guerilla movement FARC. “The organisation was around sport and development,” he explains. “That was my first work in this space.”

Ormiston later returned to Sydney to do his PhD, where he did “a lot of lecturing on social entrepreneurship and worked with social enterprises that were focused on creating work for refugees”.

He began working with Catalysr, a startup programme that supports refugee and migrant entrepreneurs in Australia, and which was set up by a refugee entrepreneur.

“When I moved to the Netherlands,” Ormiston says, “it was one of the things that made sense to keep doing here. A lot of the other work I do is with remote communities in Indigenous Australia. The idea of remoteness doesn’t really exist here in the Netherlands. It made sense to continue the refugee work in Europe, where there’s a big movement around refugee entrepreneurship, and in Maastricht in particular, where there’s quite a nice level of collaboration between organisations doing work on refugees that link to refugee and work.”

Jarrod Ormiston is assistant professor of social entrepreneurship at the Maastricht Centre for Entrepreneurship (MC4E) in the School of Business and Economics at Maastricht University. His research areas include social entrepreneurship, impact investment, Indigenous entrepreneurship, refugee entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship in the informal economy.

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