Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background can drive meaningful change and help tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
Asma Naimi, PhD Candidate at Esade’s Entrepreneurship Institute and Institute for Social Innovation, and Kenny Clewett, executive director of Ashoka Hello Europe, discuss how social entrepreneurs with a migrant background can improve the world.
Asma Naimi: Hamdi Ulukaya is the CEO of Chobani and he hires people with a migrant and refugee background. He started a foundation to help ease the refugee crisis around the world and is doing a great job. He is a social entrepreneur with a migrant background.
My name is Asma Naimi, I'm a PhD candidate at Esade and the topic of my thesis that I am working on with Lisa Hehenberger is social entrepreneurs with a migrant background. This is an important topic because we are talking about experienced professionals who have been influenced by an event – migration – that has happened in their lives or in the lives of their parents or grandparents. This experience has made them put people at the centre of what they do.
Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background have found very effective solutions and that's what we want to talk about today. I'm here with Kenny Clewett. He's the director of the Hello Europe initiative at Ashoka. Thanks for coming here, Kenny.
Kenny Clewett: I'm so glad to be here. At Ashoka we select and support social entrepreneurs from around the world and connect them in networks. Hello Europe is our migration initiative in which we focus on the issues underlying migration and find solutions to connect people from the citizen sector and migrants to help scale these solutions across borders. Just as migration goes from border to border, so we need solutions that do the same.
Ashoka and Esade are both looking for solutions in the migration space – and one of the things that brought us together was the realisation that we didn't have contact with many social entrepreneurs from a migrant background. So we reached out to Lisa and Asma at the Esade Entrepreneurship Institute and asked them: "What's different about social entrepreneurs from a migrant background and how can we find them?" Asma, what did you find in your research about social entrepreneurs from a migrant background – what makes them unique?
Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background put people at the centre of what they do
Asma Naimi: As I mentioned before, these are people who have experienced migration and who aim to solve issues related to migration – and that in itself makes them very valuable. In our research, we find that because of their experience, they are very empathetic to the cause and to the people who they're trying to help. In this way, their solutions include the voice of migrants. They are bridging the gap between policies and solutions developed at a high level (that often do not have this voice) and the people on the ground who are doing amazing things.
These social entrepreneurs with a migrant background have existed for a long time, but people handling policy at a high level hadn’t managed to find them.
Kenny Clewett: You're right. I think we're already benefiting from this study, which we haven't even published yet. The research you’ve done has opened our eyes to networks that are marginalised from the mainstream social entrepreneurship world. But these networks are doing work that is often very effective because they're close to the communities.
You helped us open our eyes and understand the unique characteristics of these social entrepreneurs – and who are very important to the sector. And secondly, it's helping us shape some processes at Ashoka and ask questions differently in order to reach those social entrepreneurs who aren’t in the mainstream networks.
That’s one of the things that was really helpful about your research. Why is there so little research on this topic? When we first started looking, I believe there were no academic papers about social entrepreneurs from a migrant background. Why is that?
Asma Naimi: It’s really good to hear that our research has such an effect. To answer your question, I think the reason that there isn't much research on social entrepreneurs with a migrant background is because social entrepreneurship itself is a relatively new field in academia.
Social entrepreneurs with a migrant background aim to solve issues related to migration – and that in itself makes them very valuable
The beneficiaries are not really seen as problem solvers, and are not seen as people who find solutions to their problems. That's the case in practice, as well as in research. Societal challenges are often addressed from a top down perspective – that's probably why migrants haven't been viewed as changemakers. Migrants carry this stigma and are seen as people who need help – instead of people who can help themselves. Ashoka and the Hello Europe initiative are fighting this stigma.
Kenny Clewett: I think we're running into the same issues because in Ashoka we find something similar. As we started getting into this space of migration, we realised there are three big challenges.
The first is scaling initiatives: this is always a challenge in social entrepreneurship, not just with migration. The second challenge is public policy – and maybe we can talk about that later. The third challenge was that the narrative around migration itself was a major barrier for change.
We identified three main narratives around migration. There's the negative narrative that says migrants are a threat. Anyone who is in business, or who has open eyes, knows that migration is not a threat to society.
But the other two narratives are also strange – although they're often seen as positive. One is that migrants are only here for economic opportunities; and other is that they are victims and passive agents of compassion. Some of this is true, but it's dangerously incomplete because we keep finding migrants who have invested everything to be changemakers and contributors to society.
One of the social entrepreneurs from a migrant background who we interviewed, Abdoulaye Fall, said: "We invest our lives and so our investment in our future businesses is pretty big."
We realised that if we start seeing migrants as changemakers, then this will reshape our organisations and how we support them. Ashoka is changing its way of looking for social entrepreneurs and we understand that these changemakers are hidden under the surface or are found in certain places.
What can businesses and policymakers do to change these narratives? What can they do to make this better?
Asma Naimi: First of all, it's important that social entrepreneurs get a seat at the table at policy level, so that their voice is included and everyone can learn from what they're doing at the grassroots. And that can only happen if they are viewed as experienced professionals – instead of being seen as token migrants. Changing perceptions is very important.
If we start seeing migrants as changemakers, then this will reshape our organisations and how we support them
The business sector is already doing much to push the economic argument and talking about the added value of migrants: this transnational view bridges different cultures and systems. Businesses are aware of this added value and are trying to influence policy. The example of the foundation that I gave earlier is useful – here is someone who is proactively talking to big companies such as Starbucks and Airbnb, and telling them that migration is an added value and they just need to look beyond their initial profits, invest in the development of language skills, and give migrants time to adjust to a new work culture.
These businesses will then have very valuable employees. At the policy level – at least in Europe – it's important to remember that people have skills, people had careers in their previous countries and you have to give them access to the labour market.
If somebody is forced to wait for years for a work permit, and not allowed to do anything while waiting, then psychological problems will arise. This has a negative effect on the people themselves, as well as being a cost to society. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when you say "they will be burdens on society" because the process makes them burdens.
We must put people's wellbeing at the centre and say, you can learn a language while you do an internship, you can work while you are trying to adjust. This will help migrants create a network and thrive.
Kenny Clewett: From our perspective in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem – which touches on many different pieces from university to public policy to companies – our main recommendation, which is very similar to what you're saying, is to include migrants in the ecosystem. Let them be part of the ecosystem, rather than excluding people because of paperwork or because of where they're from. Excluding migrants from the system until they're completely ready never works.
It's like telling someone "I want you to learn responsibility, but I won't give you any responsibility until you learn it. It doesn't work."
Asma Naimi: Exactly.
Kenny Clewett: Including people in the system and then giving them time to adjust seems to be the key.
Asma Naimi: Talking about policy, how can Ashoka contribute?
Kenny Clewett: That’s a good question. That was one of the first things we discovered when we began in 2015. We realised there was a large influx of migrants coming to Europe and a lot of structures needed quick innovation. So we looked at the best solutions from the social entrepreneurship sector around the world and built scaling mechanisms for migrants to come to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and other places.
One of the first things we did was bring together social entrepreneurs and policymakers in Brussels for the first EU summit on migration policy.
We realised there was a huge disconnect between these two sectors and that they spoke completely different languages. We had to build a bridge between the languages of policymakers, the social entrepreneurship sector, businesses and other stakeholders. We started doing that with the policy unit we built in Brussels.
We also realised – to our shame – that there were no migrants in the room. We had a conference of 200 people and there were about five social entrepreneurs from a migrant background. We needed to include other kinds of people.
These are huge issues in Brussels and in many other policy places: you don't have migrants with these capacities in the room. Sometimes somebody from a migrant background will get up and tell a story, but they're not really contributing to the conversation. So that led us back to Esade and we said: "help us open our eyes to see migrants – as well as social entrepreneurs, leaders and policymakers from a migrant background. Help us identify them, bring them into these conversations, and learn from them."
One of the things policymakers, businesses and others can do is build spaces where we can include people who are qualified to be in these conversations making decisions – and not just telling stories.
Again, that's one of the reasons it's been such a wonderful experience to work with you. You're someone from a migrant background, who's very highly qualified to do this research, not because you're from a migrant background, but that perspective adds to your academic work experience. I believe these kinds of conversations are really helpful. And that's one of the things we can do with these spaces: open them and bring other people into the conversation – not to be nice or compassionate – but because we need their voices.
Asma, I had another question for you. How important is it for research to be carried out by people who come from a migrant background?
Asma Naimi: It’s important because academia can be elitist and it takes a lot of time to get there, but once you include people from different perspectives, you will get different research questions.
This is something I've been considering for a long time. I was seeing negative narrative in the media, and I was seeing a lot of really good initiatives in my community. My parents are from Afghanistan, they fled to the Netherlands a long time ago, and I was born there. But through my parents’ journey, I experienced a lot of the things that migrants talk about.
I think research is important. But finding these social entrepreneurs, as you said, was easy. People kept saying it's very difficult, but it wasn't. You just have to look in the right places. And if you include people from the community, then you will find these places and realise these social entrepreneurs exist.
Migrant entrepreneurs are changemakers who are eager to contribute
Kenny Clewett: When I went out to look for social entrepreneurs with a migrant background, I didn’t know where to begin. However, you had a list of 30 people after just one week. As you said, it’s about knowing where to look and how to adjust your vision.
Asma Naimi: Kenny, what would be your final recommendation to our listeners?
Kenny Clewett: I would recommend that rather than seeing migrants as victims, or as people in need of compassion, we start understanding that they are changemakers who are eager to contribute. Not because if we repeat it to ourselves it'll happen, but because that's the reality. Look for that in your company, among your neighbours and the people around you. Look for people bringing ideas to the table. They are changemakers.
What about for you Asma, what is your final recommendation?
Asma Naimi: Migration is being managed as a crisis, when it can be seen as an opportunity. And when we do that, we can provide marginalised communities access to our societies and make them stronger. We can really learn from these changemakers.
Thanks Kenny for coming here to speak to us and thanks to our listeners.
Kenny Clewett: Thank you.
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