Learning through Migrant Entrepreneurship. Interview with Carolyn Downs, Lancaster University

The collective belief that immigrants are only poor and low-skilled people taking jobs and lowering wages are mostly misconceptions. Not only do they fill gaps in the European labour market, but they also create their own businesses, thus contributing to job creation, economic gain, neighborhood revitalization and cultural enrichment. But while they are often held up as role models for their own communities, why not see their experiences as valuable knowledge for European students and SMEs willing to exploit opportunities oversees?

This is precisely the objective set by the EU funded projects ELIE (www.elie-project.eu) and ELIEMENTAL (www.eliemental.org) which aim at encouraging and helping EU citizens, including those with a migrant background, start up their own business.

UNITEE had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Carolyn Downs, Academic Director of the Eliemental Project at Lancaster University Management School.

How did you get started with the ELIE project?

The ELIE project came about simply because we wanted to encourage our students to consider entrepreneurship as a career choice, especially in the middle of the economic downturn. Even amongst our business studies students entrepreneurship was not considered as much of an option. At the same time, we were also working with a group of immigrant entrepreneurs who were very successful. What could be learned from their experience? How could they help us encourage our students to become more entrepreneurial?

We explored the life experience of almost 200 immigrant entrepreneurs across Europe in order to identify the key features critical to their success or failure. This allowed us to then develop the learning materials needed by graduates and European SMEs in the global marketplace.

What are the challenges faced by immigrant entrepreneurs when starting a business?

ELIEMENTAL’s target group are ethnic minority groups, more specifically individuals (older women, long-term unemployed, people with chronic illness, or a disability…) interested in starting their own business but who are faced with social-cultural barriers.

They often lack soft skills such as communication, organisation and education, as well as access to social and communal networks within the country they reside.

They also lack confidence; the idea that they can learn from themselves is quite alien to them, and have a range of misconceptions about entrepreneurship. For example, for many of our participants entrepreneurs are people who are not like them, and they see as requiring skills, knowledge and attributes that our participants do not envisage themselves as ever possessing.

How does the ELIE project intend to reach out to these individuals and help them overcome these challenges?

For this target group, the breaking down of structural barriers will not be enough if sociocultural barriers are not also addressed. These are invisible barriers that you can’t see but that really prevent people from making the most of their potential.

This is why the project aims at providing our target groups with supportive spaces to learn soft skills and share knowledge, important in allowing entrepreneurial ideas to develop.

ELIEMENTAL is all about finding out how the wider community can get engaged in assisting people on how to create their own business.

Why is it so important to provide these people with supportive spaces in their communities?

We learned that the best way to reach out to these individuals is not the internet, because they do not always have access to the internet and if they do, it is usually with their mobile phone, not via a laptop.

We have also found out that informal places are often as important as formal settings. This is why we asked volunteers from our target group to go and speak to their family or friends about the places where people go to ask for help and advice. We learned that these places tend to be cafes, playgrounds where mothers meet, laundry, local markets or local shops. College, school, libraries are actually not good places to access this target group.

Once we have identified a community access point, we offer trainings by getting somebody within this community and who knows about the project and the learning material to talk informally about it. The training remains the same, but not the access point. Even if people are living in the same geographic area, you need different access points for older women than you need for young people, for instance.


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