Wealth Management

Big Money: Refugees and the entrepreneurial spirit

Myriam Robin /

Kevin Rudd hadn’t been in the PM’s seat long before he announced a new refugee policy.

In the days since, the issue hasn’t really gone away. Through the front pages, it’s still live, being played out in the tit-for-tat between government and opposition.

It’s weeks like this that I’m glad I write about business and not politics.

But the refugee issue does impact business, more than most people might think.

Refugees, you see, are prodigious business creators. ABS statistics show they’re more likely to be self-employed than other migrants, and far more likely to be self-employed than those born in Australia.

It’s not surprising. The motivation to leave your country and your home to try for something better in a more stable one is not too dissimilar from what drives people to leave corporate jobs to start their own business. Both require courage, some resources, and a certain amount of pluck.

Many of our most respected businesspeople are refugees.

Frank Lowy, one of Australia’s richest men and most respected job creators, spent time in a detention camp in Cyprus during World War II before moving to Israel. He moved from there to Australia in 1952, and started Westfield with another Holocaust survivor, John Saunders, who reached Australia in 1950.

Another Jewish refugee was the late Richard Pratt, who built cardboard and packaging empire Visy.

Huy Truong, now at Yarra Capital Partners, arrived in Australia as a Vietnamese refugee aged just seven. He went on to build dot.com boomer Wishlist.com.au, which he then sold. He now manages a private equity fund that invests in SMEs.

We recently profiled another Vietnamese refugee, Nahji Chu, who used her refugee stamp in her business logo. Miss Chu’s Tuckshop turned over $20 million last year, from five stores in Sydney.

More recent arrivals have also gone on to build successful businesses. Despite often not speaking the language fluently, knowing few people and having little access to working capital, these refugees took little more than a decade to build thriving businesses.

Sam Eisho arrived in Australia from Iraq in 1999, and since then he’s built a successful construction company.

Habib Afghan-Bai arrived from Afghanistan 13 years ago, and now runs an Afghan bakery whose breads are stocked in Coles and Woolworths.

These stories are not exhaustive. They’re just the ones that are easy to find.

Minds greater than mine have been stumped over what to make of the refugee issue. Losing lives at sea is a terrible thing. I can understand why Australian governments say they’re trying to minimise this.

But in our push to secure our borders, let’s not forget the entrepreneurial spirit of the individuals we’re keeping out.

 

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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