In Lesvos, Greece, an island with a population of 90.000 people, to-date up to 400.000 refugees have arrived. The determination of refugees is awe-inspiring and the support of countless volunteers and the locals inspirational.

With the refugee crisis citizens are blaming governments, governments blame other governments, and a vicious cycle continues. While millions of people are displaced from the crisis, the economic climate of the European Union is under constant stress and an influx of people in search of peace and security seems to make things worse, there has to be a willingness to look at things differently and act quickly to find solutions.

One of the defining traits of entrepreneurship is the ability to spot an opportunity and imagine something where others have not. So, what if the solution to Europe’s refugee crisis lied in entrepreneurship? That is why etrepreneurs from around the world have started working on the issue, looking at how to adapt and integrate new ideas into older systems that may not be working correctly.

Paula Schwarz is just one of those entrepreneurs. Paula’s initial vision was to specifically develop ways in which to make it easier for refugees landing on the Greek islands of Lesvos and Samos to access information, settle in their new home country, or set about travelling to another. One of the first projects she launched, as a quick response to seeing the amount of people arriving daily was startupboat. In August 2015, Paula and a team of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, executives from Facebook, Lufthansa Innovation Hub, McKinsey and refugees, came together and assessed the parameters in Samos. The startupboat crew kickstarted and grew solutions that span out into self-sustainable social ventures.

What they found was that local port authorities, volunteers and activists all wanted to help, but lacked finance, apart from private contributions. They also found that the refugees arriving were well educated and mostly middle class, which also impacted how they would access and interact with available solutions. Both refugees and those trying to help had one major thing in common: no one really knew what to do. From these findings, the first startup was created: First Contact. First Contact is an online resource that provides refugees with immediate access to crucial information. So far, this crowdsourced information platform has seen up to 17,000 users per week use the service.

On the Lesvos trip, Paula met future co-founder Joanna Theodorou. Following the trip, and deeply affected by the seriousness of the situation on the island, they believed that migration should not be thought of as a problem to be shut out, but as an opportunity to create positive change from crisis to action. Their combined background in the startup environment, social innovation and NGOs gave them the right tools to come up with a new approach. Their goal was to find a more impactful way to go beyond idea generation and into the creation of multiple solutions that are technological, lean, adaptable and scalable. Together they set up StartupAid to catalyse a more impactful response to the crisis.

StartupAid is an organization that will bridge the lean and pro-tech culture of the entrepreneurial environment with the humanitarian field in order to increase its impact. An accelerator that brings humanitarian aid from offline to online with the startup community, StartupAid tackles the toughest humanitarian crises with lean, efficient and impactful tools and solutions that focus on coordination, information dissemination, logistics and infrastructure.

In the words of Paula Schwarz, «Startups look at a problem as an opportunity. They see a gap and fill it. They do that with imagination. They do it with creativity. A system is applied, usually with technology, to develop a scalable solution for the challenge. Entrepreneurs look at problems in a completely different way. Fewer resources are needed because it is about creativity and the imagination of one person or a small group of people».

StartupAid also raises awareness for the significant social impact entrepreneurs around the world can have through the development of scalable, tech-based tools for NGOs and volunteer groups. StartupAid maps challenges and needs of stakeholders on the frontline, and then mobilises a community of entrepreneurs, tech experts and advisors in growing innovative solutions. Together with inspired people from around the world, Paula and Joanna found they could create lean digital solutions that significantly improve the way challenges resulting from mass migration are dealt with throughout Europe. So far the team has established a community of 200+ engaged volunteers, humanitarian entrepreneurs and advisors all eager to find solutions to help.

StartupAid is building an ecosystem of support. 60+ NGOs have been mapped, the team has facilitated a research trip to the Idomeni border and are actively working with key NGOs. Since the first startupboat in August, the StartupAid team has shared its solution concepts in two more hackathons to engage talented individuals. The team is also now mapping out the needs in volunteer housing, logistics, transport etc. to kickstart new projects and mobilise the community around them.

Here are some of the projects currently in implementation or development.

MarhaCar – the first community logistics service carrying aid from warehouses to camps through the power of volunteer drivers and coordinators. To date the organization has provided 200+ deliveries on Lesvos. The team has become a logistics partners of 15+ frontline teams in Lesvos, including major NGOs Medecins Sans Frontieres, Caritas Greece and the Swiss Red Cross. The team that joined the operations is now in the process of spinning it out into an independent NGO.

MigrationHub –a community think tank that brings communities together to focus on migration solutions. The team has set up space in Athens, Berlin & Lesvos and will soon be expanding to 10 locations throughout Europe.

StartupBoat – mobile hackathons to bring awareness and mobilise the startup community around the migration issue. Two trips made in August 2015 (Samos, 20 participants) and October (Lesvos, 40 participants) participants came face to face with the severity of the crisis and brainstormed new ideas and tools that could improve the situation. First Contact, Migration Hub and Kiron Ventures an incubator were launched from them Samos trip and Refugees on Flights, and an incubator in Lesvos, from the Lesvos trip. Other ideas from the startupboat hackathons that will merit further research include: playgrounds, a donation/volunteering platform displaying the needs of the island, a large awareness conference in Lesvos and the creation of a cemetery.

T.App – A communication app from Arabic to English that allows officials and volunteers to communicate with refugees. MVP has been developed and is now being customised for various processes such as registration with authorities, accommodation, arrival information etc.

X Fund – A peer-to-peer micro-donation tool for emergency regions. (Launching Spring 2016)

Donatio – A mass storage management platform for in-kind humanitarian donations.

RefugeeHost – A network of hotels/B&Bs for refugee & volunteer accommodation to refugees & volunteers.

Recently, StartupAid has participated at the World Economic Forum 2016 in Davos. There it lead a visit to a local refugee camp to raise awareness about the range of challenges faced on the ground by stakeholders and the type of solutions that can be developed.

In January and February 2016 Paula, Joanna and their team will be joining forces with Hack Cambridge hackathon and the Design Museum of London to bring the first hackathons to shore. They have been invited to speak at universities and events around Europe, not only to discuss and shed light on the current crisis, but also to prove that local citizens and communities can harness their skills to provide immediate entrepreneurial solutions to a crisis.

Initiatives like StartupAid demonstrate that real social change through entrepreneurship is possible. What social and tech entrepreneurs have demonstrated during the refugee crisis is that together communities of people can foster a culture of open collaboration and co-creation, where systems are either connected, improved upon or reinvented. Entrepreneurs are inventing new innovative and more efficient ways to find solutions to society’s social problems. Through partnerships with entrepreneurs, citizens and institutions we can share and shape a new economy.

Let us help people and communities awaken to their potential so that they can affect massive positive global impact. Collaboration is the key to positive global change; StartupAid truly believes that we have the power to completely transform our world, to making the world a kinder, more inclusive, equitable and peaceful place.

This article was originally published on The New European print magazine, #7. Find it here. 


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