The State of Refugee Entrepreneurship Summit: Focusing on the Entrepreneurs

by Yanki Tshering

The fourth annual summit of the Centre for Entrepreneurs Refugee Entrepreneurship Network – a global community focused on increasing the scale and impact of refugee entrepreneurship programs – was held in October, with over 60 participants attending the virtual sessions.

It’s a summit I look forward to each year as fellow practitioners, philanthropic foundations, researchers, academics, corporations, investors, and – importantly – a growing number of refugee entrepreneurs gather for dynamic conversations in an exciting, collegial forum.

Host and moderator Oli Barrett challenged participants to share ideas about how we could better work across sectors and share best practices to support and scale refugee entrepreneurship globally, signaling a growing focus on direct support for the entrepreneurs.

A highlight of this year’s summit for me was serving on the panel of judges for the summit’s very first business pitch competition for refugee entrepreneurs, along with my fellow judges Daniele Fontanili of Generali Investments, and Ruth Armalé of House of Insurtech Switzerland.

Six outstanding finalists made 5-minute presentations then took questions, competing for $8000 in cash prizes made possible by generous donations by the Dunn Family Charitable Foundation as well as an anonymous donor. The finalists’ personal stories – starting their businesses as refugees in brand-new countries – made their entrepreneurial journeys even more impressive and inspiring. It was a tough choice for the judges: winners Hedayat Osyan, founder of Community Construction, and Basil Mohammed, founder of GreenShaov, tied for first place, but runner up Ibrahim Toure, founder of Kalikan; and finalists Albina Savcuic, founder of Smaragdas Art; Laila Majeed, founder of Meer; and Jamil Makhoul, founder of Zazal Media, all made impressive presentations as well.

I was also pleased to serve as the Chair of the Early Stage Financing Committee as well as a participant on a panel about this important topic with a terrific group of fellow panelists that included  Kate Hao, founder of Happy Mango, a platform that enables small-dollar lending in an efficient and cost-effective manner and a member of Accompany Capital’s Board; Impact Investing analyst Betsy Alley, who provided insightful comments on opportunities for attracting investors; Diederick Van Der Wijk of Forward Incubator, whose quarter-annual business pitch competitions have funded 97 refugees who have successfully started businesses; and Kati Lappitelainen, head of the Business Program at Startup Refugees, who spoke passionately about the need to make more capital available to refugee entrepreneurs.

It was great to see growing participation from foundations and corporations as well this year discussing best practices for supporting refugee entrepreneurship. Panelists for the important session on Corporate and Philanthropic Innovation in Refugee Entrepreneurship included Petra Vujakovic of Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart; Eli Ulun Asci of Ben & Jerry’s; Alan Barbieri, Head of Programs for The Human Safety Net; and Amal Gomersall, Vice President of Community Development, Citi.

A special thank you to the CFE REN members who took a leadership role this year in increasing focus on the entrepreneurs themselves including Christian Richmond Nzi, founder of the Mygrants App; Laura Di Santolo, co-founder of Forward Incubator; Charlie Fraser, co-founder of TERN; Dina Petrakis of Settlement Services International; Vasili Sofiadellis, founder of Changemakers Lab; Usman Iftikhar, founder and CEO of Catalysr – Accelerator for Migrants & Refugees; and Kristina Vayda, Executive Director of FAIRE, an organization which, in the three years since its inception, has already successfully incubated 300 refugee-owned startups from idea to soft launch.

And, finally, a very special thank you to Matt Smith, Senior Fellow at CFE, who in spite of the many challenges presented by this difficult time, succeeded in organizing a terrific summit, and to Maxx Turing, founder of The Tribe, who managed the business pitch competition.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing how we can take the learnings from this year and work together internationally to not only increase focus on supporting refugee entrepreneurs but also increase awareness of the important contributions refugee-owned businesses make to their founders’ new communities.

Until next year!