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IMRC ran a Phoenix Fund project in Wembley North West London targeting refugees and recent migrant communities.

The original version of this article was prepared by Daniel Start and edited by Peter Ramsden

Key learning

  • Refugees are, in general, determined and enterprising individuals, often with professional and commercial skills. Though many come from business backgrounds they need help adapting to the culture of British business and finding their feet in a new world.
  • Refugees and new settlers also need confidence building and emotional support. At the very least advisors should show sensitivity. Ideally they should also use counselling and listening techniques. Refugees are often dealing with other major life challenges - such as personal and family life disruption - related to their immigration.
  • The key to successful mentor and advisory work with black and minority ethnic micro-entrepreneurs, particularly from other cultures, is to invest significant time in building a listening and learning relationship, and understanding their unique set of difficulties and dilemmas. Standard support packages may well be inappropriate.
  • If advisors and mentors are to build trust with BME entrepreneurs, they need to be culturally appropriate and sensitive - particularly to norms of politeness, respect and hospitality. This applies particularly when working with Muslem refugees groups (e.g. Somalis, Iraqis etc).
  • For the reasons above, advisory support to small-scale businesses needs to use experienced, well motivated and culturally sensitive staff. It can be intensive and expensive.
  • Because many refugee ethnic group have only recently settled and set-up businesses there are relativity few successful entrepreneurs already established who can act as role-models or mentors in the business community. Those that do exist prefer to lead private and low-profile lives for fear they will lose some of their wealth or success if they become to prominent or attract too much attention.
  • Enterprise training courses should also aim to provide experience and, ideally, qualifications in core skills such as accountancy or IT. These provide the basis for successful business, but also give transferable, employable skills should a business idea of start-up fail.
  • Training provided to new business people should be targeted and tailored. A more appropriate compromise needs to be found between one-to-one mentoring and large classroom content, much of which may be irrelevant to some.
  • Training design for BEMs needs to concentrate on encouraging participation in the classroom. Such vocal engagement in the group learning process is often foreign to other cultures. Interaction not only increases the learning content, but also to helps to build bonds between students which can later form the basis of a mutual-support networks.
  • There should be a thorough process of selection at the beginning of the training to ensure only serious, committed and capable people enrol. This leads to much higher rates of successful business start-ups.
  • Understanding British business culture (laws, finances, contracts, management, tax etc.) is almost as important as understanding the English language. Language courses for entrepreneurs should include elements of both.
  • While finance, language and IT skills are important, access to appropriate small scale funding streams is equally critical to raising the number of business start-ups. This project has been particularly frustrated by lack of an accessible capital fund in the area.
  • IMRC has been very successful in building bridges with local businesses and the refugee community in Wembley, perhaps because of its Muslem roots and staffing. However it has also been frustrated by the poor links with mainstream business support agencies and other, particularly Christian, initiatives in North London. This illustrates the continued cultural barriers to partnership working and the need for all organisations, particularly IMRC, to invest more in public relations and networking.

Origins and description

IMRC is very much the organisation of Dr Matin Khan, a passionate and learned man with a deep commitment to helping ethnic minorities, and a kind and sensitive personality that has won him much trust and respect from the Muslem ethnic minorities in the areas, particularly the Somalis. He was an excellent and genial host, providing good food and hospitality. that the organisation was busy, . Everyone interviewed was positive about IMRC

The buildings are a little old and run down, being based in an office block in Wembley Square, but the organisation is well placed for drop in visitors and the atmosphere is welcoming. This is not a super slick operation, for instance there is only one computer with internet for a staff of about six, but there is plenty of space for training and workshops and a feeling that anyone can drop by and use the facilities.

There is a second IMRC in Haringey where much of the project was also based with its co-partner HBDA. It is difficult to get a sense of HBDA except that it seems, like IMRC, to be passionate and committed to its aims, particularly in its use of ethnic minority staff. The organisations are clearly dynamic, though both perhaps have made less in-roads than they would have liked to mainstream agencies and have found it difficult to form strategic partnerships and alliances in their localities. They are more comfortable with on the ground support and services, than with higher level policy networking or innovation. That said there are many practical lessons from their work.

Policy context

‘Refugees’ have particular business support needs compared to other ethnic minorities. In Wembley and Haringey (north and north-west London) the dominant ethnic group are Somalis, followed by Iraqis, Afghans, Ethiopians and Sudanese. Barriers to business, and employment more generally, include lack of basic English, unfamiliarity with business culture in the UK, poor IT and finance skills, low self-esteem, erratic personal and domestic lives and, particularly for Muslims who do not believe in interest charges, difficulties in accessing finance.

These refugee and BEM groups need courses tailored to their situation, and require personal advice and counselling that takes account of their often difficult personal situations. Traditional business support, including that developed for other ethnic minority groups, fails to address these needs; particularly British business culture and language, and the importance of cultural sensitivity. For all groups, access to even small business loans is a long standing issue which the project also sought to tackle.

History of IMRC

IMRC was established in 1987 as a private limited company in Tottenham (Haringey Borough). Soon after it set up an office in Wembley too (Brent and Harrow Borough). It is a registered provider of vocational and enterprise training for the various LSCs (formerly North London TEC, North West London TEC, West London TEC). It is particularly strong in accountancy training, being next-door to, and partial owners of, the North London Accountancy College. It provides training to NVQ accounting levels 2, 3 and 4 and is also strong in IT training. IMRC gained quality standard EN ISO 9001 for educational training and emphasises this fact, being proud to be one of the few training and consultancy companies in the country with such certification. It has four fulltime members of staff and draws on a poll of about six regular consultants who provide training and consultancy input. The PDF project is IMRC’s main income source and focus, alongside which it runs its vocational courses.

HBDA was established in 1994 and was one of the first Enterprise Agencies in the UK to receive Customer First accreditation from Business Link London. It holds ISO 9001-94 for training and all advisors are qualified as ‘Up & Running Mentors’ by Business Links. The borough of Haringey is the largest host of refugees and BEM in London and so HBDA’s activities have always been heavily focused on work for disadvantaged groups, and it has developed strong counselling and mentoring capability. Daniel Meguille became deputy chief executive after working closely with HBDA through his firm DC Accountancy Services. Through this firm he also had links with IMRC accountancy wing and with Dr Khan who was, at that time, based in IMRC Haringey office.

Both organisations have worked with ethnic minorities, particularly those from a Muslem background and particularly Somalis. Both recognised that ethnic minorities and refugees have special needs. However, IMRC had never had a project specifically designed and funded to help these disadvantaged groups. The Phoenix Fund gave them the chance to specifically target the most disadvantaged group in the area. Building on the long standing working relationship between given Dr Khan from IMRC and Mr Meguille of HBDA a project was born which covered Tottenham (lead by HBDA) and Wembley (lead by IMRC).

How the project works

the aims were:

‘to work with refugee and disadvantaged ethnic minorities, and to provide help and support in capacity building so they become self employed and can stand on their own feet.’

This was achieved through the following activities:

  • Awareness days to attract potential entrepreneurs;
  • A programme of classroom courses, run by those sensitive to the cultural issues of ethnic minorities and refuges;
  • A more personalised form of life and business coaching and one-to-one, holistic business advice;

General support, such as help with funding applications, computers and use of office facilities.

The project aimed to address the English business ‘language and culture’ challenge, plus other shortages in people’s business skills. The approach has been to build strong and trusted relationships with entrepreneurs over time.

Recruitment and referral to the scheme was mainly through the local press, and via a flyer, with the following wording:

‘Opportunity of a Lifetime: Free of Charge. IMRC has joined hand with Refugees Into Jobs to help support refugees and Ethnic Minorities who are unemployed and want to set up their own business. We will provide: help in business English, training in businesss planning, marketing, financial management, import and export, legal and corporate requirements, signposting to sources of finance, help to secure funds to start a new business, help to run a successful business, training in IT/ICT to encourage e-commerce. We are looking for serious and committed persons who have had some experience in business in the UK or their country or origin’.

Further awareness was raised through word-of-mouth in the Wembley and Haringey areas where IMRC and HBDA officers are based. ‘Refugees Into Jobs’ (RIJ) was a key ally in spreading the word through its own refugee community outreach. RIJ is part-funded by the Brent and Harrow SRB project and aims to provide information, advice and signposting to help refugees become economically active.

Some referrals also came through DC Accounting Services, the business venture of the Daniel Meguille, one of the project directors and deputy chief executive of HBDA.

Demand was high with about 2-3 applicants for every one place. Of these about 75% had an idea and 25% already had made the first steps to get something going.

Business awareness seminars were open to all and allowed a wide range of people to develop their enterprise idea. These seminars also gave IMRC staff a chance to assess how serious attendees were and mutually agree the full package of business courses and advisory support. This was followed by an interview and needs analysis test that assessed what course training or mentoring they should receive. The recruitment process looked like this:

  • Business awareness seminar – open to all
  • Interview interested candidate and assess needs – those interested
  • Work to create action plan for – those selected
  • Training course(s) and / or coaching advice – those selected

Training courses offered included:

Business English (based on the Financial Times course book ‘Market Leader’). 20 sessions of 3 hours, between March and July 2002, run by Usha; Marketing (six sessions of 3 hours each over 6 weeks for 15 students); run by Dr Hashmi; Business Planning (six sessions of 3 hours each over 6 weeks for 15 students); run by Dr Hashmi; Introduction to Sage seminars (1 day); Introduction to book-keeping and accounting; Introduction to import / export businesses (1 day) Other courses on Nuts and Bolts of English (legal framework, insurance, type of business), Financial Management, TAX and VAT.

These course were supported with refunds for travel and scheduled at varying times of day, particularly evenings and weekends, to try to allow for people to arrange alternative child-care arrangement if necessary.

Advisory sessions were provided by an assigned mentor. These were usually those who had provided the course training, the core of the business support package. Advice was arranged in an informal and flexible way, with no particular quota or schedule. Matin Khan emphasises that:

“There is no quota on the advice they can receive. This would put them off, make them feel uncomfortable. Even after the project funding has finished we’ll continue to help our clients for free.”

Inputs and Staffing

The Phoenix funded project ran Jan 2002 – July 2003 and cost £190K (£15 per month). A book-keeper, administrator and 2 tutors were recruited for the project by IMRC. In addition a team of ten advisors was used:

  • 2 business advisors from IMRC;
  • 4 business advisors from HBDA;
  • 4 trainers from IMRC;
  • 2 trainers from HBDA.

All but one of the staff were from ethnic minority backgrounds and had a long track record of dealing with ethnic minority businesses. The one white person was a French women who had good language skills and understood issues to do with living and working in another country.


The proportion of clients by ethnic group broke down as follows:

  • Somalis (60%),
  • Muslim Africans (10%),
  • other Africans (10%), Pakistanis (8%),
  • eastern Europeans (8%),
  • other Europeans (7%)
  • 63 awareness day seminars were held (approx. attendance 1000);
  • 383 people attended training courses and received coaching (139 men, 203 women, 86% ethnic minorities);
  • 56 business were started-up (29 men, 27 women, 80% black African, 10% white British);
  • Nearly 90% said the training had had a positive impact;

14.6% of those recruited started up a business.

This high success rate is attributed to a combination of intensive support to those who looked most serious and able plus a selection procedure that only selected those most committed to their business idea.

On completion of package businesses were supported with limited free telephone support at IMRC’s expenses.

The character of refugees: insecurity with determination

Refugees are usually very new to the country and have just come through a traumatic escape, transition and settling period. Dr Hashmit, founder of the Ethnic Connection and consultant to the project explains that:

“the challenge with refugees is not just supporting the normal aspects of small business start-up, but dealing with the thought processes associated with a lost people struggling to find a way out and a form of survival.”

Such experiences, combined with the difficulties of adjusting to a new language, culture and system, make refugees a special case when it comes to business support. Dr Matin Khan, director of IMRC argues:

“These people need to develop their soft skills, their confidence. Many have been through hell and back and have a lot knocked out of them. They are dealing with disappointment and depression. Some were once highly trained and educated civil servants and professionals. They need to develop their trust in you before the relationship can really pay off. To do that you need to see it as a long term partnership, and put a lot of time into listening, into understanding them and were there core problems lie.”

However, refugees also tend to be high in capability, initiative and determination. Many have passed several tests of initiative in getting to the country and bring many valuable skills. The IMRC programme was surprised by the extremely high level of serious, dedicated and capable entrepreneurs. Refugees have a survival instinct, a strong character and are often eager to learn. The case of Seevagan, a successful journalist in Sri Lanka who had to flee for his life and set up anew in the UK, illustrates this well.

Case 1: Seevagan and Arangam Vision Makers

Seevagan came to the UK in August 200 as a refugee from Sril Lanka. There he had been a journlist working for the BBC but had been deported after death threats from the government because of the political leaning of the BBC’s reporting. The asylum application was successful in 2001 and gave him full refugee status for his family (wife and 2 children). Both he and his wife had diplomas in journalism from Colombo university.

For 2 years they were near desperation. They couldn’t get a job, their Sri Lankan diplomas weren’t recognised and his English was poor. After a year on benefits they know this lifestyle could not continue – it was too degrading and demeaning for two professionals with qualifications. They approached some technical colleges to try and get UK qualifications, but the route they suggested took too long and didn’t seem to fit with the situation he was in. Instead he came across the IMRC scheme via RIJ.

He joined the business classes and English classes, and also began meeting regularly with Dr Khan to discuss ideas to set up his own video production company for a Tamil language market which, later he could expand into an English market as his language improved. The most useful advice was in getting access to funding to start the business rolling. Funds from the X allowed me to train 7 people from my local community in video production skills and also allowed me to buy my first equipment: a computer, a camera and several video recorders for reproduction of tapes. During this time IMRC let him use their meeting room as a classroom for the course, to save on expenses. He also got a job as a part-time Tamil presenter for BBC World Service.

Now he continues to run his business from home, is doing further freelance production work in Tamil for the Sri Lankan market and is producing a Tamil video magazine bi-monthly. He has signed up for an MA in Video Production from Thames Valley university and his confidence, stability and happiness is much better than a year ago. He hopes to land a bigger video production contract, though that would mean moving out of his home office. He also hopes to produce some English language work though that would mean bringing in an English-speaking presenter.

His wife and sons help with the editing so it is a family concern. His wife also tried to join an accountancy course at a college but it was long and inflexible to fit with her other commitments and existing skills so she signed up for an AAT course at IMRC which has given her intermediate level qualifications.

The IMRC emphasised again and again the need to invest in close, personal bonds with entrepreneurs. Matin Khan explained:

“They need to feel they can ask for the home telephone number of the trainer. I always give mine out if asked. Sometimes I do receive calls at home. One has to be prepared to support these people and believe in them. That in itself goes a long way to give them the confidence and support they need.”

Participants agree:

“They have not only provided me with technical support, they have provided me with emotional support as well. When you’re starting up a business you do not know how hard it will be.”

IMRC argue that this style and approach - combining flexibility and patience with rapport and relationship building - can only be provided by small support agencies and will be difficult to replicate in mainstream business support agencies where advice and procedures are much more pre-packaged and formal.

Cultural differences are not insurmountable

Cultural barriers can make refugees feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in a new environment, but IMRC project staff are not over-pitying. Yes, it is difficult being in a new country, but Dr Hashmi does not allow too much more complaining:

“I tell the refugees I work with not to complain about discrimination. They would find just as much discrimination at home as they would here, but in different ways, perhaps to do with class or who you know or what family you are from… The key is to try to be pro-active and positive and work to accept the new cultural and attitude rather than be put off by them. It is a two way thing. I tell them not to dream of being home but to go out there and socialise and make new contacts.…Muslem leader have over-emphasised the differences between whites and muslems; it is not a helpful attitude.”

Danielle Meguille, HBDA business advisor from Cameroon, re-emphasises:

“BEMs should not force their culture on the UK! They too need to learn to adapt instead of expecting other people to adapt to them. They also need to learn to expand their markets and buy and sell across their ethnic divisions instead of remaining insular.”

All ethnic groups have shown there can be business success. While refuges have often lost a lot, there do have assets. It is a matter of building on the strengths that they bring (see Box).

Business advantages of different ethnic minorities in N London

  • Turkish are the most successful because they often bring family financing;
  • Jamaican have few savings but do have many creative ideas, particularly in music and media, though these can be risky areas to invest in;
  • Black Africans, can tend to have very high levels of education and can put together good business plans; however they have no finance and a poor financial track record;
  • Somalis are good business people and have set up a good local business in travel agencies and internet cafes. They generally are able to raise some finance from their own savings and form their families in the UK and back in Somalia. However, they face problems with bank finance, of they can get it, because of the interest charged. Further, they tend to be an insular group with poor English who only want to sell to other Somalis;
  • New groups include those from Kosovo and Eastern Europe. They tend to have good skills and are mainly professionals.

These generalisations are drawn from conversations with IMRC employees and advisors

Learning business English

For many refugees English language is one of there biggest hurdles to forming a business, or finding employment. The IMRC English Business course was designed to provide technical content, but also to improve confidence in business meetings and transactions and help with cultural protocol – doing and saying the right things at the right time.

The language course aimed to increase the range of vocabulary, grammar and formal expressions used in business situations, particularly how to greet and relate to people, how to construct emails and correspondence, as well as more technical issues such as how to put a business plan together, to operate and talk about accounts, draw up contracts, speak to clients and deal with tax enquiries. The legal responsibilities of directors were detailed (such as company returns etc) and the different types of business structure (e.g. sole trader etc). As the course instructor explained:

“Business English helps people break through into the jargon of legal, financial and social systems seem impregnable to many refugees and foreigners.”

The participants also learn to be more culturally sensitive. They are taught, for instance, not to judge people because they drink or smoke, not to write with the caps lock on, to use appropriate body language and avoid language that appears rude or blunt. This all leads to better protocol and improved cultural acceptance when working within the UK system. As one participant said:

“I was a successful business in my own country. All I needed to do the same here was to know the rules.”

The classroom as the setting for learning

The project also provided training in other skills, beyond language, and it provided the training using a traditional classroom approach. Most adults in the UK feel some hesitation about attending adult education courses and classes – going ‘back to school’. Those from other countries can tend to find the experience especially strange. They can bring back a sense of schooldays with the associated feelings of low confidence and status, and the requirement to keep silent, keep out of trouble, wait patiently for the time to pass and not to ask questions or answer back. Because of this a lot of work needs to be done to encourage good quality participation and interaction in the classroom. Usha, the teacher for Business English, explains:

“For many, a long time has passed since they were in the classroom. To make the classes effective there needs to be an attitudinal shift about how to behave as an adult in a classroom, how to ask, challenge and interact so as to question and learn. Part of the success of the courses depends on bringing them out of their shells.”

Generally, though, the skills were appreciated. 90% gave positive feedback on course provided. One participant ‘s response was fairly typical:

“I had had a business idea for three years but it was only after I went to the training that it took off. It was fantastic for me. I learnt a lot about setting up accounts and setting up a business”

IMRC were also pleased with the classroom courses, though felt that they should have been more geared towards a qualification which could provide back-up in case of the business failing. Danielle Meguille said:

“The BEMs should walk out of our business training with both a skill and qualification, something they can use to get a job and to prove their value.”

They also felt that courses could be better tailored to the group present, targeted by language ability, business experience and sector interest.

Ideally, interaction within the classroom also helps create social bonds between participants that become the basis of a small mutual-support networks that build and continue after the classes have finished. However, IMRC feels participants did not make much use of this possibility, partly due to cultural barriers. In future they have suggested encouraging more small team working and more interaction in general.

Formal networking doesn’t come naturally

Some of the blocks found to networking in the classroom also exist in the wider refugee society. Business networks can provide mutual support, create an open atmosphere for people to share business ideas and problems, connect people to new contacts and markets. But one of the blocks to mutual-support, in the classroom and in society in general, is that people are shy and secretive about business. In part, they don’t like to publicise their success as there is a culture of hiding from the Tax or VAT man. In part they are protective of their business ideas. But there is a wider culture of keeping business to oneself.

In the Somali culture, for instance, there is very little tradition of business networking (compared to the British tradition of guilds, rotary clubs and chambers etc). Business is seen, in general, to be a very private, family affair. While the Somali Business Association runs social events, none of these focus on business and very little business is discussed. It is mainly a social forum. And where business networking events have been attempted (Dr Hasmi himself tried setting up ‘enterprise clubs’ for Muslims) is was particularly difficult to provide incentives for people to come, especially in a non-drinking society. Eating and drinking is always complicated, with people not keen to eat or drink outside of the household or trusted venues.

That said, some informal business clubs already exist. The local travel agent has formed a Somalian business association to encourage them to trade with each other. Others feel that 9:11 has begun to bring Muslems together, and create a stronger sense of community within the faith, where before there was little trust. Further, as the group become more successful they’ll become less competitive and more willing to help each other, and be more secure in their own business positions.

Finance remains as major hurdle

Access to finance is probably one of the most pressing problems facing ethnic minority businesses, particularly refugees. For many newcomers family finance is unlikely to be available. And, without a financial track record or credit score in the UK, formal high street bank finance is unlikely either. Refugees Into Jobs agree:

“Many put a lot of work into their enterprises but watch them fail because they cannot get access to even small amounts of cash which could make them sustainable”

But refugees can make a difference by developing their relationships with their banks carefully. Daniel Meguille suggests:

“They need to keep in regular contact, manage the relationship with the bank staff, make a phone call one day per month so that the bank itself feels in touch and feels like there is a trusted relationship building.”

In this project access to finance was partially resolved by signposting beneficiaries to various agencies including: ESF Small Grants, Lottery Funding and ERDF Funding and, in some cases, loans from High Street banks. In addition beneficiaries were supported in preparing business plans and cash flow statements to secure finance. Case Two, below, illustrates how this help made the difference between success and failure for LCCL.

Caselet 2: London College of Computing and Languages (LCCL)

Mr Ahmed Bared came to the UK from Somalia in 1999 and set up LCCL in June 2002 as a internet café on Wembley Square and as a IT training centre for Somalis in the rooms to the back. The former is funded by paying customers and is breaking even while the latter is mainly funded through education grants. He has known Dr Khan from IMRC for over 2 years as his premises is close to the IMRC office Dr Khan is well known. When they met he had just acquired the shop and a ltd company status, but had not raised the finance to get the business going. Dr Khan introduced them to the scheme and has helped them fill in several different funding forms to help get their courses financed. The single most useful help was getting ESF funding which helped launch the business, plus further London LSC contracts. IMRC also ran a one-day course for his company staff, and the staff of one other company, on writing business plan and funding applications. 1-2-1 advice and counselling has been ongoing for a year now, particularly on issues of employment and accountancy which he has found difficult, particularly because of his poor knowledge of the British systems. There has also been help to get the 30 computers networked. X feels he can drop by whenever he has the need.

“[Dr Khan at IMRC] is the only source of help I can think of for such matters. The Job Centre and Citizens Advice Bureau are the only others but they don’t have answers to most of my questions. Dr Khan knows most things straight away, and he is just around the corner. He is very experienced, sharp and accurate. He has plenty of time for me and he treats the elder Somalis with great respect, offering them tea. We appreciate this in Dr Khan and we know we can trust him.”

According to Dr Khan, this affinity has evolved through a process of listening and showing respect to their customs, including symbolic things such as doing good for the elders. Although Dr Khan is from Pakistan there is at least a shared culture, though he says anyone could develop rapport no matter the country they are from.

Bared raised his finances for the business by saving for 5 years. He also worked on his English by doing an ESOL course. He says there are general problems for Somalis to get jobs. This is highlighted by the fact that although qualified Somalis exist and apply for the jobs, there are none working with the police or welfare offices which means expensive interpreters have to be brought in to help those without good English and there is no point of contact for them inside. The same issue applies to other mainstream agencies that could provide business support services.

In general IMRC felt they had been good at developing links with high street banks, but weak at finding routes into soft funds or grants. They were very disappointed that they were unable to access capital funding from the Phoenix challenge fund.

Who was supported and how were they reached?

So who exactly benefited from IMRC course and mentoring? Unfortunately detailed data is not available on the client list – those who attended courses or received advice for start-ups. However, IMRC have a clear idea of who they let on to the courses and why. They were looking for seriousness and dedication to the idea of starting a business. This was independent of the wealth of the refugee of their social status, though in many cases they felt that it was those who had struggled and lost most that had the most dedication. The project achieved a very high success rate for the businesses it supported – 15% of attendees went on to start a business. IMRC attribute that to the careful screening of potential clients at awareness days and through interview and needs assessment. They were only able to accept 1 in every 2-3.

IMRC worked through adverts, flyers, word-of-mouth and through Refugees Into Jobs who have over 2800 clients and referred over 30 clients who they thought might benefit from a self-employment root to work. According to RIJ most refugees are happy with straight employment. Those who want to move into self-employment fall into three categories:

Those are have been long term jobless, despite qualifications Those who come from a business background back home Younger generation who want to try something new and challenging

In general they feel that more needs to be done to spread the word about the possibilities of self-employment and enterprise. Many haven’t even begun to think it’s possible and haven’t begun to explore alternatives to wage employment.

RIJ’s main mode of outreach is through established welfare community organisations, such as the Somalis Community Association and the Iraqi Welfare association. Outreach is difficult, especially if an interpreter is needed. There is limited funding and it is difficult and time consuming to build trust.

Physical barriers to access also existed. For many, the IMRC courses were the only possibility to learn business skills. Few other centres exist in the vicinity and the next nearest was Brent Business Development over 3 miles away in Harlseden. Attendance on courses was generally good, but refugees are often in unstable period of their lives. A significant proportion moved during the course and were therefore unable to keep on attendance. For many, the small costs of travel, lunch or the cost of childcare stop them attending. Language is another limiting factors, and often training courses need to be extended because the language ability is just not there.

Organisational learning and organisational links=

IMRC feel the project gave them an unparalleled experience and knowledge about dealing with refugees. They have learnt a lot from many different clients, about needs and approaches. They thought they knew a lot before, but it has been a learning curve and has increased their knowledge base.

HBDA already had a strong track record of responding to the needs of ethnic minorities with a good number of motivated, passionate staff, many from ethnic minority backgrounds. It has a lot of experience of working with ethnic minorities but, like IMRC, the refugee focus is new for it. The project has provided a lot of organisational learning.

The project has strengthened relations between IMRC and HBDA, and between partners, particularly RIJ. They are now also going to involve their recent clients, such as Community Training, LCCL and AIB Solutions, in delivering future training. This will increase their circle of ethnically sensitive consultants and advisors, as well as providing local role models while keeping monies circulating locally within the refugee community.

Working with and influencing partners

IMRC admit they could have done more to network with agencies in the region and that this is one weakness of the project. The key enterprise agencies are Harrow Business Brokers, Brent One, Brent into Work. The West London Core Centre Group is a grouping of these agencies from Harrow, Harlesden, Hammersmith and Heathrow enterprise agencies. It is noticeable that IMRC were missing from this group. In part this could be due to a general dismissal of smaller, private sector service providers who are seen to be more of a threat than an opportunity. But this would not explain why organisations such as ABI have managed to join this group and influence it strategy setting.

Matin Khan points to personal history as a likely cause. Links with Harlsden were complicated because the CEO was an ex-HBDA staff and had been dismissed in complicated circumstances which had soured the relationship with IMRC and HBDA. This then had spin-off effects on the ability of IMRC to engage with other enterprise agencies, either to further reach and recruitment of clients, or to influence the wider ideas and strategy with respect to refugee business support.

Little time and effort went into public relations with larger agencies, such as Business Links London, local authorities, LDA and Go London. Matin Khan admits it is not something he is very good at, or tends to put time into. He is a patient and sensitive man, as seen in his approach to business support, but he is perhaps less confident when it comes to presenting IMRC to other players.

Relations with contemporaries, particularly ABI in Harrow, were also soured. IMRC alluded to some disappointment that they were not able to access ABI’s Faith in Business fund. It seems that ABI saw this as their fund for their mainly Christian clients.

Possibilities for Mainstreaming

Matin Khan is doubtful as to whether mainstream agencies could easily adapt to provide the kind of support that IMRC and smaller outfits provide.

“Ethnic minorities, but particularly refuges, need special help. They can’t be treated alongside the rest of the small businesses. They may have come from highly educated backgrounds or held senior positions but they have lots of troubles on their mind and have often gone through hell. There’s likely to be a lot of depression and disappointment. The support needs to be tailored to their requirements. You also need to be very sensitive to their religious and cultural background. They need soft skills like confidence and belief in themselves. That means we have to learn to listen, to be there for them and understand their real problems. Then they’ll learn to trust you. It’s about developing a partnership with them over time.”

The style of support required needs to be sensitive, flexible and personal. It’s possible that larger agencies will never be able to deliver this as their approach, ironically, is too ‘business-like’ with no time built into to listen, build trust or rapport and little knowledge of how to be culturally sensitive. He added that:

“Ethnic minorities don’t trust these formal government types anyway”

Daniel Meguille agreed, though emphasised the need to change the incentive system in the agencies:

“Business Links is too output driven; it needs to be outcome driven, and given its bonus based on the successes it achieves over a 3 year time frame… Business Links advisors don’t understand small and micro businesses anyway.”

Mainstreaming is possible but it needs to be a gradual process of organisational learning with more awareness of culture, environment, people and a move away from the standard packaged approaches. Training, secondments and exchanges would all help staff understand the issues better. Above all, the agencies must have the right kind of advisors, who have experience and sensitivity to do the job well. Refugees are intelligent, capable people, but supporting them does present a special set of problems and challenges.

Daniel Meguille believes that one of the best ways to do that would be to develop ethnic minority contact points in mainstream agencies. This would be the quickest, cheapest and easiest way of developing the culture of the agency.

How could the programme be improved next time?

To improve the programme for next time IMRC suggested:

Group the participants more carefully with respect to skills. Split them by their levels of Business English, and their levels of enterprise experience and skills. One might also split by sector, with those in services split from those in manufacturing. This would be more costly but also more effective and provides a compromise between large class teaching and 1-2-1 coaching;

Spend more time developing motivational skills and risk taking. These are essential to good business;

Make sure they go away from the training with at least the beginnings of a qualification. They can then use this to help them get a job if the business fails;

Expand to new geographic areas, beyond Haringey and Brent, particularly East London, Hackney and South London;

Go further and deeper when reaching out. Increase the network. Every refugee knows ten more. Advertise more widely (e.g. in the Wembley Observer). Form closer relations with other refugee associations and groups, some of which are quite strong and representative, particularly for Kurdish, Somalian, Iranian and Iraqi refugees;

Continue to be selective for the very best business candidates. Keep demand high so that only the best can be selected, currently about 2-3 for every one place available. This ensures no time wasters.

Use more mentors from Somalian community; and create a network of business people who can advise each other.

Encourage diversification beyond internet cafes!

Encourage more bridges into other ethnic minority markets, such as Asian businesses and consumers.

Secure capital funds, so that support can be allied with soft loans;

Better regional collaboration in North London, both for recruitment / reach and for lesson learning

Use community advisors. They are cheaper, more inspiring, they support the community economy and they can relate directly to refugee business problems.


How innovative was the model?

The main innovations of this project were its soft, personal, flexible and informal approach to business mentoring. It was able to make a bridge to a notoriously hard to reach group by developing excellent rapport-building skills. In doing so it discovered that good advice can only be given if the advisors spends as much time listening first. Further, the client will only talk about their real needs if there is a real bond of trust. This bond of trust had further spin-off effects on confidence and self-esteem for the client.

The classroom courses were less innovative, though the choice of subjects, and the ethnically sensitive way they were developed, were all appropriate. More could have been done, though, to graduate classes by ability, and to encourage networking.

How cost-effectiveness was the model?

With a conversion rate of 15% this project has done very well. Part of this success is the high demand for the course, and the ability to select only the most dedicated entrants. This seems like a fair approach. 63 business were started, as well many other clients trained and partnerships developed. For a cheap and short project (£190k, 18 months) this is an excellent outcome.

This is encouraging because the approach sounds very labour intensive – listening, being flexible, providing moral support – but it could be that a little of these softer inputs go a very long way, and reap dividends in the long run.

How far and wide did it reach to the right target group?

This project clearly reached down to the very poorest and most needy of groups. The stories of struggle and strife are plain. There cannot be much more daunting that having to settle in very foreign country under duress. It is fair to say that the project targeted some of the most desperate, but also most gutsy, of this group and was able to provide moral, as well as economic, support that is difficult to value.

Annex 1 Resources used for the case study

Itinerary of visit Monday 27th October 2003 10.00 – 11.00 Introduction to Team

Introduction to the project, its formation and each person’s role: Dr Matin Khan, Director IMRC Daniel Meguille, Dep Chief Executive, Haringey Business Development Agency Dr M Hashmi, Training and Development Consultant; Usha Nagasami, Business English Course Consultant; Mohammad Ali, Administrator IMRC; M Masod, Accountant IMRC

10.00 – 11.00 Dr M Hashmi, Training and Development Consultant;

Dr Hasmi is a freelance consultant who created, and ran, several of the business development courses for IMRC’s PDF project – particularly ‘Business Planning’ and ‘Marketing’. He also founded Ethnic Connection to support business services for ethnic minorities having identified a gap in the market for ethnically sensitive business support.

11.00 – 12.00 Usha Nagasami, Business English Course Consultant;

Mrs Nagasami runs courses in Business English at the local technical college and devised the business English course that was central to the project.

12.00 – 1.00 Daniel Meguille, Dep Chief Executive, HBDA

Haringey Business Development Agency (HBDA) is an equal partner with IMRC in the development and implementation of the project. Daniel Meguille, from Cameroon, trained at Wood Green to become an accountant and now works as a business advisor on behalf of HBDA businesses and New Deal for Communities projects. He is deputy chief executive of HBDA and on the board of IMRC. He’s been working with them since 1996 and is one of the key providers of training and mentoring in the project.

2.00 – 3.00 Mr Belayee, Refugees Into Jobs

‘Refugees Into Jobs’ provides the largest proportion of referrals for the IMRC project and understands the constraints and needs of refugees well. Mr Belayee, the main link person, was a refugee once. There is also a new member of staff working with RIJ who completed the training at IMRC.

3.00 – 4.00 Dr Matin Khan, Director IMRC

Dr Khan’s own academic and vocational qualifications are in accountancy but he also has a strong business track record. Dr Khan is the main driver behind the project and IMRC. General discussion on background to the project, the main problems it was designed to overcome and its successes and failures.

Tuesday 28th October 2003

10.00 - 11.00 Stephan, Francophony

Stephan from France attended the IMRC courses, received business mentoring and has set-up a magazine for French speakers with a person he met from the HBDA.

11.00 – 12.00 London College of Computing and Languages (LCCL)

LCCL is a Somali business that, with support from IMRC, has set up an internet café and runs computer training courses.

12.00 – 1.00 Time with project scrapbook

2.00 – 3.00 Seevagan Video Production

Seevagan, a journalist refugee from Sri Lanka, has set up a video production business with his own savings, and support from IMRC.

3.00 – 4.00 Dr Matin Khan

Final meeting with Dr Matin Khan on the future of the project, and other issues.