Starting an enterprise is always a bold decision but launching your business as a newcomer to a country, being a person with a refugee background, takes extra courage. Fortunately, the Netherlands is one of the top-ten countries world-wide where a social enterprise has its best chance to flourish. Forward Incubator, a Dutch non-profit and one of the newest members of Euclid Network has found its mission early on in nurturing talents and empowering entrepreneurs with a refugee background.
Finding a niche
Forward Incubator was established in 2017 with an objective to help enterprise-savvy refugees become economically independent and integrated into local societies. Its co-founders, Diederick van der Wijk and Laura Di Santolo, spotted right from the beginning the tremendous potential among newcomers. Diederick and Laura quickly realised that they can facilitate the actualization of newcomer’s talents by connecting them with potential investors. In time, by exploring the already existing ecosystem, a brighter idea came in: to develop a much wider network to help newcomers kick-start their business.
Initially oriented towards organising events to coach entrepreneurs with refugee background, Forward Incubator gradually switched gears and began facilitating tailored incubator programmes and curricula, connecting refugees with like-minded professionals and university students. The fruits of their work did not take long to make themselves visible: newcomers started developing own businesses, finding employment or continuing their education. This wide range of activities not only enhanced the skills and confidence of the refugee newcomers, but also transformed into a gathering spot for future business partners. For example, a business partnership took shape between an entrepreneur from Sudan, passionate about solar powered irrigation systems, and his coach specializing in high tech: together they founded Greenwheel Technology, focused on sustainable irrigation solutions for farmers in Africa. None of them expected this to happen at the beginning of the programme, however it reinforced the mission and values of Forward Incubator and inspired many more partnerships to follow suit.
“Our mission is still the same as we had in the beginning: to empower newcomers to restart their lives and take charge of their future by starting their own business”
— Laura Di Santolo
Working with more than 60 entrepreneurs annually, Forward Incubator not only helps newcomers to settle in the new scene, but also to self-actualise. As Laura notes, «Municipalities are doing really good job at providing food and shelter, but the people are not pushed to reach the top of the pyramid, and realise their full potential in a new country. That is where Forward’s biggest strength lies».
Walking the talk: Diversity in action
One of the most powerful elements of the programmes implemented by Forward Incubator is changing the perspectives of people involved and disseminating these changes to other environments. While we have often witnessed the manners in which politically-influenced media outlets can portray a damaging image of refugees, there are organisations out there actively pursuing to counterbalance the perspective. Forward Incubator is one of them! They bring together the best features of diversity, placing the latter at the core of their work and setting it in motion through everyday activities. Working with talented, multicultural refugees, corporations, consultancies, professionals and students get to challenge their former mindsets and act beyond prejudices.
“That’s a really important experience to see that people from all these different backgrounds bring valuable perspectives, and that you think that you can teach someone something, but you can always learn twice as more from a person in return”
— Diederick van der Wijk
As a part of its impact measurement, Forward Incubator is also actively keeping track of ways in which biases are being challenged and changed. The participants’ perceptions about their place in the new community, their belonging and social network can be dramatically improved with the right support. The same is true about the perceptions of professional coaches and students involved in the programme: they get to reassess former images and stereotypes on refugees that they held onto before entering the programme.
“A lot of entrepreneurs are focused on the empowering their own community, being role models in there,” says Laura, stressing that the positive social impact expands the pool of the programme’s participants. The experience of Incubator’s entrepreneurs tells a motivational story to their peers. That is why Forward Incubator is a prime example of the power of diversity.
What is next for Forward Incubator?
While at its inception, the organization was looking for promising business ideas and working with industries with a potential for quick growth, now their goal is to attract participants with the right mindset. They believe that entrepreneurship does not have barriers: if you are committed to something, you can make it work whoever you are.
Currently, Forward Incubator is preparing the launch of online programmes, so that participants who cannot attend the in-person courses may conveniently access online trainings. In the future the aim is scale up and increase impact, therefore engaging more entrepreneurs with a refugee background who choose Netherlands as their new home.
Expanding the horizon and fostering partnerships
So far, 97 people have graduated from their programme and more than 40 of them have started a business. Together the companies raised more than 1.1 million euros in investment capital.
One of the reasons they have joined Euclid Network? – to reach out to more countries in Europe!
Forward Incubator are about to open a new chapter in their story of growth. By learning from our members who represent social enterprise support organisations and generally impact practitioners, together we can continue to disseminate knowledge and experience, shaping policies and getting more access to international projects and funding.
“If you are always in this fire-fighting mode, just running around, trying to build an organization, you don’t look beyond your own little pot in which you’re cooking. Now we are seeking new collaborations with experienced partners in similar or adjacent feels, to grow our impact in- and outside of the Netherlands and to learn from peer organisations, for example within the Euclid Network.”
– Laura Di Santolo
Having embarked Forward Incubator in our impact-driven journey, Euclid Network is looking forward to new exciting projects that can drive positive change and help achieve all UN Sustainable Development Goals.