Better for everyone: Meet the migrant entrepreneurs strengthening Australia’s startup ecosystem
Tuesday, November 27, 2018/
In an off-street corner of Melbourne’s Docklands sits an understated startup hub. It’s not a large space, but it almost feels like it is, with light flooding into a communal workspace through floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the length of two walls.
A honeycomb office marks the centrepiece, separating the office space from a communal kitchen and comfy area. It’s early, but people are already popping in and out, carrying coffees and chatting quietly, gathered around workstations.
This is Hatch Quarter, a space that wears many hats. Grown out of the creative agency Aiman Hamdouna founded with his brother Mo, it now also serves as a co-working space, and the centre point of a startup pre-accelerator program.
Through running their agency, the Hamdouna brothers realised “a segment of those entrepreneurs needed more than just service providers”, Aiman says.
As a migrant himself — Aiman was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, and lived in Jordan before moving to Australia when he was 19 — and with a background in business management and startups, Hamdouna felt well-placed to help other entrepreneurs.
The co-working space launched in 2015, while a meetup allowed students, migrants and refugees to come together to collaborate, connect and meet potential business partners, clients and employees.
This soon led to Hatch Quarter’s pre-accelerator program, conceived as “an educational program to fast-forward the testing and validation of an idea,” Hamdouna says.
“The idea is to allow someone who hasn’t had any experience in the startup industry to know about the resources, where to go, what to do, and how to actually test their idea from the startup perspective,” he adds.
He stresses neither the space nor the pre-accelerator program are limited to international entrepreneurs. Rather, it’s an inclusive environment.
“Without locals, internationals would not be able to integrate,” he says.
“We have tried to create a bridge for international entrepreneurs to connect with the local community.”
In August last year, Hatch Quarter was one of five projects granted a share of $1.4 million in funding from LaunchVic, to support migrant and refugee startup founders.
With that funding, Hamdouna says, it has launched its playbook — a guide of sorts, available online in Hindi, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and English — to help migrants navigate the Australian startup ecosystem, and engage with the industry if they choose to.
Scott Ko is one of the founders based at Hatch Quarter, and has been running his startup ColourSpace from the co-working space for about a year.
ColourSpace is a platform designed to connect companies trying to jazz up their workspaces with local artists. Office managers can choose the palate they prefer — from the bold and super-modern ‘pop space’, to the portraiture from ‘people space’, or the soft purple and turquoise of ‘relax space’.
Office exhibits change with each season, keeping workspaces fresh, while Ko tries to gradually introduce more interesting or unusual pieces to keep clients on their toes.
“Businesses are focused on ensuring the workplace is one that supports wellbeing, mindfulness and engagement … however, when it comes to things like art, that can be forgotten about,” Ko says.
At the same time, there are emerging artists who want to have their work displayed, but budget cuts mean local galleries are closing down and there are limited opportunities for displaying artwork, he adds.
Ko started working at Hatch Quarter just as the team were working on their internal values and strategy. With a background in corporate consulting, Ko soon found himself on board in a strategic advisory role.
Being a founder “can just be a very isolating experience”, Ko says.
“You’re trying to grow your business, you’re living and breathing it all the time, so being part of any community is really valuable,” he says.
“You can do it yourself if you’re very enterprising, and hitting up all the networking events out there, but that’s a pretty hard way of doing it,” he adds.
Born in China, and having lived in Australia since he was six years old, Ko is “on the borderline”, he says.
“In many regards, I’m basically Australian,” he adds.
For him, working alongside people from all over the world helps “facilitate a global mindset”.
“Different perspectives add on top of each other, and it helps you create something that’s more than what you originally thought was possible,” he says.
If an idea is working in Australia, in other countries, with higher population density, you could achieve that same success in just one city alone, he says.
Equally, if something is working abroad, it could be applicable to the Australian market, too.
Having access to people with experience in those markets provides “that cross-pollination of experience”, Ko says.
This sense of inclusion is something pre-accelerator participant Lorna Deng is striving to address with her startup Divtal.
Founded by Deng and co-founder Bedi Othow, Divtal is an online platform designed to connect organisations with culturally diverse talent.
“A lot of migrants are experiencing challenges getting jobs in Australia, there’s a much much higher unemployment and underemployment rate,” Deng says.
“On the flip side, a lot of organisations have diversity and inclusion strategies. They really want diverse talent, but there are challenges in getting that,” she adds.
There is still conscious and unconscious bias in recruiting. Whether it’s because of candidates’ names, or because their qualifications not being recognised, talent is not getting through the hiring process.
Divtal was born out of Deng’s own experience. A migrant born in Kenya, with South Sudanese parents, she has lived in Australia for 18 years, and has “pretty much grown up here”.
However, after graduating with a degree in psychology, she struggled to find employment.
“That was something my parents had experienced, and something a lot of people in my community had experienced,” she says.
After 18 months of casual roles, she secured a paid internship in a bank, through an African-Australian inclusion programme.
There is a lot of work going into tackling unconscious bias, but “we’re not seeing the results yet,” Deng says.
And while there are programs helping organisations to hire people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, there’s still a stigma attached to that, Lorna says.
“Why can’t I come through the normal channel?” she asks.
Deng has no technical experience, and while she and her co-founder are full of ideas, they have needed a little help getting off the ground. This is where Hatch Quarters’ technical advisor comes in.
Husam Wafai is a Syrian skilled migrant, who lived in Saudi Arabia and Germany before arriving in Australia just 10 months ago.
An engineer, academic and founder himself, Husan joined Hatch Quarter to help out one team working on a hydrogen engine. Now, he’s involved in almost every project, he says.
Through a chance meeting with Hamdouna, Wafai learnt “there’s another way — a more fun way — to implement my technical background as well as my entrepreneurial passion,” he says.
“Engineers are trained to understand how the system works — the system can be a machine, or it can be economics, it can be society … Once you are able to see how the parts work together then you’re able to give advice and to improve it,” he says.
Speaking as a relatively new migrant, Husan stresses Hatch Quarter has helped him make the contacts and connections he needed in Australia. On arrival, it’s difficult to know how to access the ecosystem, how to approach people, and even how to present yourself in an approachable way.
“It’s really difficult, even for the people who have been here a long time,” he adds.
“The access the Hatch Quarter community can provide for a new migrant is something that on my own would take me two years to reach.”
The ecosystem and the network can mean more than the support for the startup itself, Husan says.
“Then, even if that particular startup doesn’t work, they can do it on their own later. They know how to do it,” he adds.
From Deng’s perspective, Wafai has been “very good at challenging us and asking a lot of questions,” helping the founders in both creating the technology platform and in solidifying their business plan.
“In terms of being able to dig deep and truly understanding the ins and outs of what it will actually look like — we probably lack that at this point,” Deng says.
An Aussie advantage
Helping international entrepreneurs access the Australian startup space isn’t only good for the founders themselves, it’s beneficial to the industry as a whole, Hamdouna says.
Earlier this month, speaking in a Founder Institute webinar on how to grow the startup ecosystem in Australia, Right Click Capital partner Benjamin Chong suggested founders in Australia should be thinking globally right from the offset.
Having international connections — whether fellow founders or startup team members — will only facilitate global growth, Aiman says.
Rather than considering migrant and refugee entrepreneurs as ‘international’, Hamdouna prefers to refer to them as “Australian with an international background”.
“We can capitalise on that specific strength that they have,” he says.
Rather than viewing migrants and entrepreneurs as victims, or people hoping to take from the economy, the Australian community should recognise their strengths, Hamdouna says.
“We try to work with them to highlight those strengths in order to work with the community and to integrate. At the end of the day, we are all Australians, with international connections,” he adds.
The international community has skills to offer, Ko agrees, as well as alternative perspectives on both life and business. Embracing those differences is “the best part of this community”, he says.
“Migrants and refugees are often already taking massive risks, just to go to another country and start afresh,” he says.
“For people to not see that as a disadvantage, but actually as an advantage, I think that’s really powerful,” he adds.