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Migrant entrepreneurship.

By Niall Crowley.

At best we see migrants as workers, and all too often as a source of cheap, exploitable labour. Integration policy tends to be concerned with what happens in the workplace or out in the community. We fail to see migrants as entrepreneurs. Economic policy and economic development programmes don’t do diversity and end up incapable of meeting the specific needs of migrant entrepreneurs. That is why we need to put the economic back into integration.

The Dublin Institute of Technology has been setting trends in this regard. It established an Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship in 2006. This Institute is demonstrating how to put the economic back into integration. It was set up because the relevant state agencies did not appreciate the particular difficulties facing entrepreneurs who were immigrants or from minority groups. At a recent Dublin City Council event, Professor Thomas Cooney, Academic Director of the Institute, outlined the specific difficulties for migrant entrepreneurs.

He said that about 12.6% of migrants have partial or full ownership of a business. This compares with 8.6% of the Irish population. Most of these migrant-owned businesses provide small-scale, locally-traded services. They are often targeted at the migrant entrepreneur’s own community. A high 94% employ five or less staff and a significant 65% generate €50,000 or less in annual sales revenue.

He pointed out that migrant entrepreneurs start out in sectors where there are no barriers to entry such as retail, restaurants and IT. This is because of the difficulty they have in getting access to finance. Most go to family and friends for start-up funds. Migrant entrepreneurs have limited access to the business networks needed for successful start-ups. They don’t know their way around the business support systems that are available in Ireland. Some of them face language barriers. He suggested that the biggest problem was one of trusting, and gaining the trust of, the Irish customer. Lack of trust is sometimes manifest in having to battle extremes of racism, discrimination and prejudice.

The Irish Government has set a target for Ireland to be, by 2020, the best country in the world in which to start up a business. It is big into entrepreneurship. Why we have to be the best in the world and cannot settle for ‘very good’ remains, as always, a mystery. However, this commitment should provide a favourable environment for this widespread migrant entrepreneurship to find the support it deserves.

Dublin City Council initiative is part of a Europe-wide initiative of the Council of Europe covering ten cities called ‘Diversity in the Economy and Local Integration’. The initiative aims to introduce quality-management standards into integration policy such that appropriate business supports are made available to migrant entrepreneurs and such that migrant entrepreneurs have improved access to procurement tenders from public bodies and private companies.

Declan Hayden, Director of the Office for Integration in Dublin City Council, is co-ordinating this work for Dublin. He says that one outcome of the initiative will be the inclusion of a focus on business start-ups in the new Dublin City Council Integration Strategy. This will serve to continue the work after the Council of Europe support has ended.

Migrant entrepreneurs aren’t hanging around for everyone else to deliver. Catherine Mahoro is the founder of the Down to Basics Network (DotoBa), a platform for migrant entrepreneurs to network and find support. Its networking sessions stared with groups meeting for a cup of tea in the Gresham. The group got so big they began to have duty managers hovering around wondering ‘if they needed any help’. They took the hint and decamped to a larger venue, with the group growing to over 100 members. In May Mahoro launches a networking website for migrant entrepreneurs.

She says that migrant entrepreneurs tend to shy away from state agencies. Many work extremely long hours in businesses that are barely sustainable and don’t see the returns their initiative and hard work merit. Financial institutions have shown little understanding of their needs. There is, therefore, some urgency to putting the economic back into integration if this talent and effort is not to be wasted. •