As we celebrate refugee week, we sat down with Charlie Fraser, co-founder at TERN (The Entrepreneurial Refugee Network) to discuss how they’re building a thriving refugee-led startup community.
Watch the whole interview:
TERN is a social enterprise and they got their start in 2016. Since then, they’ve been able to help over 350 refugee entrepreneurs.
There are around 50000 refugees in the UK right now and this community, which is often pushed towards society’s margins, has proven to be incredibly motivated and entrepreneurial.
“When you look at unemployment, poverty, underemployment, refugees are one of the most marginalised groups in the UK. And that’s very strange because we know the refugees have skill sets and experience that are equivalent to the UK labour market. So what we were looking at is how can we build bridges between the entrepreneurial ambitions of refugees and building a more sustainable livelihood for this community.“
Refugees’ unique mindset and set of skills have led to high start-up rates. On average, they start twice as many businesses as local communities, while facing discrimination and economical hardship. A lack of seed capital and familiarity with the market, combined with a lack of support in promoting and sustaining businesses, makes it infinitely harder to start and grow a venture.
“In the UK market, obviously to set up time is a lot longer to create and construct a viable business idea. It takes months, years. And so creating a space where you can test, innovate, fail […] is very difficult for refugees who are normally living in and around poverty. So you can’t normally find the time. And the money to risk failure. Business failure. And that’s a crucial part of business success in the U.K. ecosystem. […] And then the second big barrier that we see is actually when they go into market. So when refugees start trading, they often are quite isolated. So they don’t have the friends and the family that you or I would have with starting a business. […] So building traction in their ideas is also a big barrier.”
TERN’s first focus is providing stability through access to part-time employment. One way they’ve achieved that in the past is through a very successful early partnership with Ben and Jerry’s. The initiative has since scaled to include France, Germany and the Netherlands and has seen 170 graduates.
Another way is through incubator and accelerator services. TERN provides a co-working space, business mentoring and access to finance and partnerships. They deal with each business individually, assess their needs and help them grow.
“Our earliest stage business support programme is a combination of part-time employment with early-stage business support focussed on testing and validating an idea. And that takes place over three months. It’s about 50 hours of workshops and support business mentoring throughout the programme, access to specific partnership work, partner workshops, access to employment, and of course, the follow-up stage from that is a business incubator programme focussed on taking those ideas and taking them into market.
So that’s over six months. That gives them access to a coworking space, to […] financial partners, both investors and debt finance partners and to our customers, to consumers to help them both launch and then sustain themselves in the market.
And our last stage programme is an on-demand growth consultancy programme. So it’s for businesses that are trading […] to solve a specific business problem and who don’t need a whole programme to solve that problem. So it’s bespoke, is tailored to the individual, and it normally runs over two or three months.”
Lockdown has hit this community particularly hard, with many of its members struggling with unemployment and the inability to provide for themselves and their families. TERN was able to help in raising funds to support them in navigating this difficult environment, but many will still struggle to relaunch their businesses in a post COVID-19 world.
“We saw that our community was facing a cash flow crisis […] and they couldn’t even afford their own basic costs. So to pay for food, to pay for any medicine that they might require. And so we set out to raise emergency funds. We were looking to raise 10,000 pounds by the end of May to distribute microgrants. We managed to raise 15,000 pounds in three weeks. And now over a third of our community has received some form of financial support through the crisis, which has been amazing because it allows them to keep their head above water. […]
The health impact is magnified here. And alongside that, we’ve seen an unemployment spike of about 45 percent. […] So this is what it means when people say that the coronavirus is not equal. The biggest concern that we have is what happens through this recession and through this health crisis is that we accentuate inequality. It doesn’t level the playing field. It makes it less equal. And that’s a big concern when you’re working with a community like ours.“
Through all that, many of their startups have thrived and their businesses have provided invaluable community support.
“We had three food businesses delivering food to NHS workers and doctors. We had another food business deliver nearly 700 meals to vulnerable communities in East London. We’ve had two fashion entrepreneurs making masks for different communities. We’ve got one entrepreneur […] who’s making masks […]. He’s donating some to asylum seekers who don’t have recourse to public financing. So we’ve seen this incredible response […] in trying to support the community through this crisis.”
They’re now launching a marketplace for refugee businesses. They will promote nine brands in the food, fashion, photography and social sectors, and hope to get to 20 by the end of the year.
The marketplace aims to help grow these businesses, as well as spread a message of inclusion and support through these tough times:
“What we’re really hopeful for is that if we can ensure that the recovery from this crisis involves consumers changing their habits and buying from small businesses, from ethical businesses, from environmentally sustainable businesses, then we can ensure that the recovery isn’t as unequal as it might be.[…]
Donate what you can, but more importantly, spend where you can and choose where you spend. You can make a big impact. Don’t worry, if you don’t have a lot of money to donate to charitable causes at the moment. You can still have a big impact on how we recover from this crisis by choosing where you spend your money as a consumer. Never underestimate that power. And if you want to spend our money with us and through our entrepreneurs, then of course, that would be fantastic.”