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Refugee entrepreneurs creating new jobs and helping to grow the Australian economy: Report

Dinushi Dias /

Springboard co-founders Kelsey-Lee Stay and Shahwali Kazimi

Springboard co-founders Kelsey-Lee Stay and Shahwali Kazimi

The growing number of refugees-turned-entrepreneurs in Australia is have a material impact on the Australian economy as these business owners begin to create new jobs through their ventures and pay taxes.

That’s one of the findings from research released this week from the Ignite Small Business Start-ups initiative, which was launched in 2013 to support refugees resettling in Australia with establishing new small businesses and startups.

From Refugee to Entrepreneur in Three Years, prepared by professor Jock Collins of the University of Technology Sydney Business School, is the final report of for the three-year pilot program. It was launched by assistant minister for innovation Craig Laundy at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday.

Sixty-six new businesses have been established through the program led by Settlement Services International, which had more than 200 of its clients participate.

“At first glance refugees are the most unlikely entrepreneurs,” Collins said in a statement.

“They lack capital to start up a business, they have no credit history, no assets or security. In many instances their educational qualifications are not recognised and they have no social networks.”

But despite the unique challenges refugees face, Ignite Small Business Start-ups saw nearly 70% of its graduates move off Centrelink payments, with some now paying company tax and generating new jobs.

The report states that of just 35 refugees entrepreneurs interviewed, the estimated savings in Centrelink benefits was $880,000 or a “potential $4.4 million over five years”.

“One in five Ignite clients are women and one in four of the Ignite clients who succeeded in setting up a business are women,” said Collins.

“This is an important finding because many refugee families who arrive in Australia are single-parent families headed by a woman.”

Settlement Services International chief executive Violet Roumeliotis says the program has the potential to be expanded across Australia.

“This model has led to an innovation in thinking and tailoring of support to entrepreneurs of refugee background,” she said in a statement.

“The report has demonstrated the success of Ignite and suggests it has the potential to be rolled out nationally, with modification and consultation.”

The same model will also be used to launch Ignite Ability, she says, which will support people living with a disability to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions.

“It gives you hope”

New entrepreneur Shahwali Kazimi has seen many of the challenges described in the report first hand.

After fleeing Afghanistan to start a new chapter in Australia, Kazimi says he found it quite challenging to learn about the culture, systems and way things work in his new home in Queensland.

“It took me a lot of time to figure it out, the education system and the environment,” Kazimi tells StartupSmart.

Kazimi won the Techfugees Brisbane hackathon hosted by Steve Baxter’s River City Labs earlier this month, after helping to develop Springboard, an app aimed at empowering young refugees and migrants of non-English speaking backgrounds through mentoring and guidance in a safe online space.

With $1000 cash and membership at River City Labs, Kazimi and his hackathon team will spend the coming months getting the app ready for market.

Team Hand Sanitiser with Peta Ellis RCL CEO top far left2 (1)

Kazimi says the idea for the app was born out of the challenges he and many other refugees he knows have encountered when entering a new school, learning a new language and trying to achieve high academic goals.

Kazimi says he has benefited from having mentors and he’s keen to pay it forward.

“I wanted to become a civil engineer and got a Bachelor in it from QUT [because] Afghani students in the community helped me,” he says.

“It’s now my time to help the next generation.”

After settling into Australia, Kazimi joined joined Afghan Students’ Association and the Queensland Program of Assistance to Survivors of Torture and Trauma to mentor other young people and share what he’s learnt from his journey. He hopes Springboard will help drive this effort further.

“It gives you hope,” Kazimi says.

He says the app may also be a great source of information for people stuck in refugee camps and shelters.

“A mentor can give them hope of living there and being strong and explaining things from here,” he says.

Kazimi spent a year in a refugee shelter before being approved by the UN Refugee Agency and gaining access into Australia.

“It will be a good platform to [launch] internationally,” he says.

This article was updated on March 24, 2017. 

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Dinushi Dias

Dinushi Dias is a journalist at StartupSmart and multimedia content producer. When she’s out of the office, she works on social projects with her We Love It Productions family and buddying filmmakers.

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