New company! New book!

We are becoming a think tank and starting a tech company! Norwegian startup magazine Shifter has written about is. Here is the English version, but you can also find the original in Norwegian here.

“When the main focus is on the skills you lack and not what you can contribute with in your new society, then you start to see yourself in the same way” says co-founder of Startup Migrants Maria Amelie.

It all started with a book about migrants and refugees and entrepreneurship backed by the famous foundation Fritt Ord and NFFO and several other partners. However it has grown rapidly into something bigger for the founders Nicolai Strøm-Olsen and Maria Amelie. Now they have Esther Grossman, UNDP, on board the project as the Chief Operation Officer.

They are looking into how they can create an online community where refugees and migrants can publish their start-up ideas and get in contact with companies that can help build these ideas, and also find mentors.

Maria Amelie says that during the years when she was a refugee she didn’t manage to appreciate the experiences that it had given her.

— The narrative in Europe today is that as a migrant you are considered “underdog” in the society. There is immense focus on the skills you lack, and not on what you can contribute with. Eventually as a migrant you adapt this point of view and forget that you have a lot to contribute with in a new country, says Amelie.

Entrepreneur identity

She and Nicolai Strøm-Olsen got in touch with Esther Grossman when they were participating in an event in Jordan, where she works for UNDP. Grossman quickly got a sense of the project and joined the team. She says that the refugees and migrants lack great role models, someone they can relate to when it comes to success in ventures and integration.

We have talked a lot about ’the role model effect’, both internally and with contributors, about what it means to see someone with your background, or a background that is different from the country you live in. People that succeed and build something of their own, both nationally and international, in a culture they are not born into or don’t have long family ties to often serves as role models for other people in similar situations; says Grossman.

Grossman thinks that refugees and migrants who wish to challenge the established view of them can experience challenges. Even though they have role models society can nevertheless have a view of them that doesn’t match their own self-perception.

— Many refugees and migrants, who have their own start-up, highlights that they primarily wants to be seen as entrepreneurs and then as migrants and refugees. But they can also be in a conflict: How can you claim power over your own fight and the resilience you’ve build etc. if there is a stigma linked to the experiences you’ve had? says Grossman.

Known for the fight to succeed

Amelie brings forward that ’the struggle/fight to succeed’ is an important part of the entrepreneurial life and that some refugees already have a lot of experience with this.

One of the accomplishments that I have been very inspired by is Lebara. From conversations with one of the founders, I understood that he, like a lot of other migrant entrepreneurs, has another drive to succeed. For the founders of Lebara it’s not just about money. It is more about creating something for the family, both in the new and old homeland, it’s about making a difference in the world and creating a future. They didn’t have safe jobs to fall back on if this didn’t succeed. They had to succeed. They had fled from the war and really didn’t have anything to lose because of this, says Amelie.

Especially stories from the role model’s life become really important for other migrants and refugees who are trying to create a business. The community between migrants and refugees is therefore opportunity for more people to succeed in creating their own business’.

Nicolai Strøm-Olsen and Esther Grossman. Photo by Benedicte Tandsæther-Andersen for Shifter.no

Bureaucratic fight

During the 200 interviews that Startup Migrants have done so far they’ve gained insight into more aspects concerning the bureaucracy both in countries inside and outside of Europe, and the handling of cases, laws and regulations that is not always facilitated in a way that integrate migrants and refugees into society in the fastest way. On contrary, refugees experience that it is often volunteer-driven organizations, where there is a big rotation of employees that are helping them.

— It’s very bad institutional memory. The organizations keep on making the same mistakes again and again. The organization can try to help some refugees building a business – and it works – but when they are done 40 or 50 percent of the help is disappears; says Nicolai Strøm-Olsen.

He also points out that the people who grew up in Norway very early on learn about the bureaucracy and similar social structures. A migrant, or someone who moves a lot around, will not necessarily learn these things, and draws on their own experience, according to the entrepreneur,

When I recently moved to Germany I thought it would be easy, but all the documents are in German and you have to hand in all the documentation on paper, and you have to figure out on your own that you have to hand everything in paper form; says Strøm-Olsen.

The risk

Also having to deal with a new language can pose a challenge for refugees and migrants. Often the public information for newly arrived is only in English and Arabic. The language barrier can lead to isolation and poorer integration. Strøm-Olsen tells that a lot of refugees and migrants get depressed by the fact that they often don’t know the cultural codes and the systems, and the waiting period the bureaucracy brings to the process they need to go through.

— We almost only talk to the people who succeed but we hear a lot from many incubators, entrepreneurs and people we have interviewed that their fathers are depressed. It is challenging to change your life when you are 25, imagine doing that when you are 45 and have already established your life in your homeland. The loss is smaller when you are 25 says Strøm-Olsen.

Additionally, the entrepreneur life entails some risks, something that is easier for a 25-year-old to have a positive attitude towards than a 45-year-old. At the same time, it is possible to find resources to help both a 25-year-old and a 45-year-old start their own business but the various initiatives will often work independently and not collaborate. Grossman thinks that society limits the learning possibilities by making people sit in ‘silos’.

— It is interesting to hear people talking about how important collaboration is. There is a tendency where it becomes a buzz word but maybe not without reasons. When everybody is working in their own silos, you miss the opportunity of learning from each other. We want to break the silos and contribute with areas where organizations and projects can function so entrepreneurs dare to go outside of their silo and work together.