Finding the next Solomon Lew: Why Australia needs to tap into refugee entrepreneurship

Frank Lowy

Westfield boss Frank Lowy was a refugee from war-torn Europe

The University of Technology, Sydney business school has secured a $200,000 grant to conduct the first comprehensive study of the country’s refugee entrepreneurs.

UTS Professor Jock Collins, who will be one of the authors of the study, told SmartCompany the research is important given Australia’s strong refugee entrepreneurial spirit.

“People like Frank Lowy and people like Solomon Lew, who have come from refugee and fairly impoverished backgrounds to become massively successful,” says Collins.

“We really have had no systematic study of the experiences these entrepreneurs have had of of setting up their businesses here.”

Collins says such a study is also important to change the dominant discourse of refugees in Australia, which can tend to focus on issues of “criminality” or terrorism”, “whereas we know that many of them do establish successful businesses.”

“If you think about the barriers to entrepreneurs, refugees have them in spades,” says Collins.

He says refugees and immigrants often have very little financial capital, very little human capital, as often their education and qualifications often are not relevant to an Australian context, and they have no social capital, as they have limited networks and connections in the Australian business world.

Collins says the study will largely focus on refugee entrepreneurs in the SME space, as a majority of the businesses set up by refugees fall into that category.

The study will be undertaken by interviewing refugee entrepreneurs from across the country to ascertain the barriers they faced and the strategies they used for success.

“The stories and the narratives of these refugee entrepreneurs will be very interesting for the broader Australia and for other small and medium-size businesses,” Collins says.

Collins says the study will also look to create a number of programs, such as the current Ignite program, which aim to assist refugees in learning their entrepreneurial ventures.

“If we can better understand the experiences and barriers, then we can assist new refugees to become entrepreneurs,” he says.

“We can make the pathway for the next Solomon Lew a little more easier than it has been in the past.”

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