How Welcome Merchant is building a network to support entrepreneurial refugees

welcome merchant

Marjorie Tenchavez (centre) with Sara Taddesse (left) from Ethiopian Cuisine Wollongong and Amro Zoabe (right) from Levant 2 Aus.

After seeing the sensational success of social enterprise accounts like Buy from The Bush and Blak Business on Instagram, Sydney-based community program facilitator Marjorie Tenchavez thought it was about time someone created a similar platform for businesses owned by refugees and people seeking asylum.

So she launched Welcome Merchant, providing businesses with social media marketing support, as well as listing them on its online directory.

Now, over 107 businesses are on the list, ranging from fashion, food, and art services.

And just this past weekend, Tenchavez celebrated Welcome’s two year anniversary by hosting a pop-up market where 12 refugee-powered businesses congregated in the Tortuga Studios to sell their products.

Tenchavez spent years volunteering as a page administrator for the Facebook page of the now defunct volunteer run community group — NSW Refugee Network. During her stint, she came across offensive comments posted on the organisation’s page.

This was something she didn’t want to see when she started Welcome Merchant.

“I was afraid for the refugee merchants, I didn’t want them to be trolled,” she said, adding that people seeking asylum who want to start a business are often left with no choice but to borrow from family and friends.

According to the ABS, 14.1% of the 1.9 million recent migrant arrivals were permanent visa holders, with almost two thirds being women. One report from 2020 showed that 65% of migrant women reported difficulties in finding their first job due to a lack of local contacts or networks, and language difficulties.

“They struggle to get bank loans because of their visa status and/or lack of financial history in Australia,” Tenchavez said.

“I’ve been in this sector for a long time and there were times when I thought about changing industries but hearing their stories and successes keeps me inspired.”

Last year, Welcome partnered with chefs and people seeking asylum to launch a new program called Curated Dining Experiences, where members of the public can take cooking classes and attend pop-up dinners centred on a unique cuisine.

During the last lockdown, Tenchavez’s company also launched Goody Boxes, partnering with four refugee entrepreneurs by offering them extra sales and exposure.

“Our biggest order to date came from Canva, they found out about us from an online ethical shopping list and ordered 90 boxes from us for an employee event,” Tenchavez said.

“This order came just before Christmas, it was a great way to end the year and it was really timely as I had some yearly admin fees to pay off.”

Welcome also runs free capacity-building workshops, covering topics such as social media marketing and business accounting.

“I hope to do a business legal one soon,” Tenchavez said. “It’s really important for me to see them succeed without our help.”

This article was first published on Women’s Agenda.

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