Social Impact Entrepreneurship as an entry into the Swiss labour market

Valeriana: Dear Tina, what drives and motivates you to help people integrate into the labour market? 

Tina: For me, it’s a very intrinsic drive. On the one hand, because I am aware of how privileged I am and therefore feel obliged to assist people who may not have had it as easy. And on the other hand, it’s just great to work with people from so many different cultural backgrounds. Despite some cultural differences, I realise every time just how similar we actually are. It’s also a really inspiring line of work, where I really believe in what I’m doing. I think that you guys probably feel the same way about Valeriana.

Valeriana: What’s special about your approach of integrating people with a migration and refugee background into the labour market through entrepreneurial projects?

Tina: Lots of studies have shown that well-educated people have a difficult time finding work in Switzerland that corresponds to their qualifications. Many people who have had to flee a country, for example because of war, find themselves in a country where they don’t understand anything, are completely dependent on other people, and can only find a job that pays poorly and doesn’t correspond to their actual qualifications. Most have to start from scratch. I find that absurd, because our programmes reveal what these people are really capable of. Taking in a refugee costs the state 100,000 CHF per year and we put a lot of obstacles in people’s way that make it difficult for them to find a job. For me, this is a system that isn’t working. Entrepreneurship offers them a way to create their own job in this system. And we support them in doing so.

Valeriana: What are some of the opportunities and obstacles that people with a migration or refugee background face when they want to establish themselves as entrepreneurs in Switzerland?

Tina: One opportunity is the fact that you can do what you enjoy. It’s difficult to quantify, but one thing we’ve definitely noticed in our programmes is an increase in people’s self-esteem. It’s enormous! People come in hunched over, speak quietly and by the end, they stand proudly on a stage and present their business idea while saying “Hey, it’s me!” The transformation we see in just half a year is absolutely amazing. And they can thank themselves for it, because they took a leap of faith and tried something new.

From the side of the state, there are lots of hurdles. Many refugees are, of course, registered with the social welfare office. You can only start a business once you’ve obtained F-status. As soon as you’ve set up a company, you can no longer receive aid from the government — from day one. Not even the most successful start-up is so successful from day one day you can live off it. It’s just impossible. 

We have launched pilot projects in Zurich and Geneva, for example one with a Syrian couple who started their own catering business. They really wanted to earn their own income and move on from welfare. Together with the AOZ, we submitted an application to the social affairs department asking that they be allowed to start their own business while still remaining with the social welfare office. This means that they would state how much they make per month and then receive the difference from the welfare office. So far, it’s looking pretty good. It would be great if this approach could become the norm because it would clear at least one hurdle out of the way.

Valeriana: How would you describe the social impact for your target group?

Tina: Our biggest impact is definitely on people’s self-worth and self-confidence. I also think that the contacts they make over the course of our programmes are very important. On average, participants make 35 valuable new contacts.

Valeriana: What do you think is most important for integration work to be successful?

Tina: Just getting to know one another and approaching one another is already a big step. It really doesn’t take much. It’s no surprise that most people who are “afraid of foreigners” live in the most distant and desolate regions of Switzerland. It is only human to fear that which you don’t know. Once you encounter someone, you realise that “they’re not that different from me”. That’s what we do, we bring people together. 

Valeriana: What can each individual do to help facilitate successful integration? Can you give us a call to action?

Tina: Just try approaching people with an open mind and without fear and experience the richness of such an exchange. I think that people who don’t experience this at least from time to time are really missing out.

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