Entrepreneurial spirit

Isha Kamara. Photographer: Karl Schwerdtfeger

Isha Kamara. Photographer: Karl Schwerdtfeger

In summary: 
  • Research shows refugees display strong entrepreneurial qualities, but they face significant barriers to employment
  • UTS Business School and Shopfront are collaborating with Settlement Services International on a world-first program to help people from refugee backgrounds achieve their business potential

Isha Kamara plans to conquer the world. Originally from Sierra Leone, the 26-year-old videographer and businesswoman wants to grow her 10-month-old start-up Canary Films into one of the biggest global suppliers of online video content.

“I’m ready to go hard for my clients,” she says. “When they’re happy, that makes me really happy.”

It’s this sense of drive and purpose that distinguished Kamara as an ideal candidate for Ignite, a pilot program assisting refugee entrepreneurs get started in business.

“We only work with passionate entrepreneurs,” says Ignite Facilitator Dina Petrakis.

“Once we know the refugees are really determined to have their business, we network them with people who can help with things like finance, IT and marketing. Because, when they come here as refugees, they don’t have any networks at all.”

Kamara says, “When I was starting out, I could call Dina and talk to her if there was something going on. It’s about the connections – not just with Ignite – but the people they work with.”

For Kamara, this has included support in creating a business card and developing a website to market Canary Films, which produces corporate and real estate videos.

Ignite has been running for just over a year and has already launched 12 new businesses. The team has received over 80 referrals and is currently working closely with 25 clients.

Jock Collins. Photographer: Joanne Saad Jock Collins. Photographer: Joanne Saad

UTS Professor of Social Economics Jock Collins acts as an advisor and mentor with Ignite, and has been commissioned to conduct a three-year evaluation of the program. He is excited – but unsurprised – by its success.

“There is a strong tradition of immigrant minorities moving into entrepreneurship in Australia,” says Collins.

“A lot of refugees – particularly the first wave who came as displaced people from Eastern Europe after the Second World War – have become very famous business people.”

Although multi-billionaires such as Frank Lowy and Richard Pratt are “exceptions to the rule” in terms of the magnitude of their success, Collins says the entrepreneurial spirit is equally strong among contemporary refugees.

Many have a history of entrepreneurship, with 68 per cent of Ignite participants having run their own business prior to coming to Australia.

Another motivator is ‘blocked mobility’; the difficulties refugees face in gaining recognition for their qualifications in Australia and securing a job commensurate with their skills.

“They look to entrepreneurship as a way of maximising the standard of living for themselves and their families,” says Collins. “Running an enterprise is also a little bit of an oasis from the racial discrimination of the workplace. Often that is an attraction as well.”

However, says Collins, up until now, no country in the world had established a program to facilitate humanitarian immigrants to set up an enterprise in the first instance.

“So the Ignite program is really path breaking in global terms.”

“Some of our clients have only been in the country a matter of days or a matter of weeks,” says Senior Project Officer Honey Muir, highlighting the complex network they’ve built around the project, including business and cultural groups, and language programs.

Run by Settlement Services International (SSI) – a federally funded settlement agency that assists newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers with requirements such as accommodation, language, schools and employment – Ignite is modelled on Dr Ernesto Sirolli’s Trinity of Management.  

“Dr Sirolli believes no one can do everything – product or service, marketing and financial management – so you build the team around the person,” says Muir, who oversees Ignite. “This means no entrepreneur is alone in their journey to business start-up.”

While the facilitators provide advice and link entrepreneurs to various experts, it’s a key part of the model that the incentive and initiative come from the entrepreneurs themselves.

Ignite does not provide funding to the entrepreneurs, instead connecting them with organisations that provide small, interest-free or low interest loans and business advice to assist refugees and migrants to launch start-ups.

As well as several formal and informal partnerships, Ignite has developed strong relationships with community, industry and expert volunteers, who lend support to clients as their business evolves.

UTS Senior Lecturer Anthony Fee teaches the subject International Management. Eight of his master’s students volunteer with Ignite.

Fee says the connection is a “terrific opportunity” for students to gain insights into working with people from other cultures and with interpreters, as well as to reflect on their own attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes.

For the entrepreneurs it’s an opportunity to discuss challenges and receive business advice one-on-one.

This semester, UTS’s Shopfront community partnership program is also involved with the Ignite program, using it as a case study for a team of four students who will provide advice to SSI on ways to attract and roll over funding with the aim of keeping Ignite sustainable.

Collins says, “It’s a way to support the program, but also broaden the experience of UTS students and their knowledge about entrepreneurship on the one hand, and social issues like refugees and humanitarian settlers on the other.”

As facilitator, Petrakis says this cooperative approach has been especially successful with female entrepreneurs.

“It’s collaborative, team-building and supportive, and women find that very appealing and very safe – particularly when they’ve come from quite traumatic backgrounds,” says Petrakis.

However, the variety of the start-ups has surprised her.

“We have yoga instructors, personal trainers, we’ve had a model, an inventor – things that I never expected. I expected food of course and clothing, but all these wonderful businesses that are starting are so unique and diverse.”

Sima Mahboobifad. Photographer: Karl SchwerdtfegerSima Mahboobifad. Photographer: Karl Schwerdtfeger

For entrepreneur Sima Mahboobifad, the encouragement from her Ignite network has been as valuable as the practical assistance and advice.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mahboobifad says, “Even though we are not from the same country, they help and encourage me, they get happy about my life and how I’m going. My business is only halfway, but they are happy for me.”

Mahboobifad started her enterprise in October last year, just two months after arriving in Australia. Selling handmade leather goods, Bags of Love & Peace is the continuation of a dream that began in her home country, Iran.

Mahboobifad says, “My friend and I got an idea, because in Iran there is lots of persecution about religion, not unity. We said, ‘We will start this business and show to the Iranian community they have to share love with each other.’”

In each bag, they placed a card with a message of harmony written on it. Now, Mahboobifad says she aims to share that message with the whole world.

With help from the professional network she has built up through Ignite, Mahboobifad is in the process of moving her distribution from local markets to online sales.

Beyond the direct help Ignite provides to refugees, Collins sees the potential for the initiative to promote constructive conversations in the wider community.

“Given all the controversy in the last decade about humanitarian immigrants, it seems to me what we’re really lacking is some sort of balanced discourse about the contribution they make to the economy and society. So hopefully this might trigger some interest.” 

Ignite is always looking to grow their volunteer base given the diversity of the entrepreneurs' ideas. To learn more, contact Honey Muir or phone 02 8799 6721.

Photographer (J Collins): Joanne Saad. Photographer (I Kamara and S Mahboobifad): Karl Schwerdtfeger
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